On a sweltering evening in Westlake, Texas, an affluent suburb just outside the Austin city limits, Wendy Davis quietly appears at the edge of a carefully manicured back patio. Just then, the crowd—”Women for Wendy”—stop fanning themselves and sipping cucumber water to collectively inhale: There she is. People discreetly nudge their neighbors, gathered on the lawn behind the home of well-to-do Democratic donors, struggling to stay politely focused on Texas Rep. Donna Howard, the fiery Austin legislator who’s just wrapping up the story of how she held on to her barely-blue house district in 2010, squeaking by her opponent with just 12 votes.
Howard grins. She knows who these folks are here for, and without further ado, introduces the Democratic gubernatorial candidate that so many Texans hope will change the face of statewide politics this November.
With hugs and handshakes, Davis takes her place in front of the crowd, grinning. She opens her arms wide and hollers: “I love y’all!”
Cue the smartphones and a chorus of muffled clapping: everyone’s trying to grab a photo with one hand and continue the applause with the other. In that moment, everyone snaps and shares the same picture of Davis, her arms outstretched, frozen in a pose that, on reflection, doesn’t so much say “I love y’all!” as it does Come at me, bro.
Wendy Davis: The Living Legend
In four months, Texans are guaranteed to elect a new governor for the first time in 14 years, and Davis’ battle stance is appropo: She’s been under attack from naysayers, pundits, and even members of her own party since before she announced her candidacy for Texas governor back in October. Today, she continues to fall well behind her Republican opponent, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, in statewide polls, though the most recent financial reports show that Davis out-raised Abbott in the last fundraising period, and she often boasts about a grassroots base that she says puts Abbott’s small but monied good-ole-boy network to shame.
But politicos on both sides of the aisle have worried that Davis, who took her Fort Worth, Texas, Senate seat in 2008 and held on to it in a hard-fought battle in 2012, has skyrocketed to fame too quickly, taking on the burden of running for statewide office before she, or the State of Texas, is ready. Following her filibuster of an omnibus anti-abortion bill that is expected to shutter all but a handful of abortion providers in Texas, even one of her fellow Democrats situated Davis as being unable to break away from accusations that she’s a one-issue candidate who peaked on a summer night in 2013.
And the national media has expressed a singular fascination with Davis’ footwear, cooing over the pink Mizuno sneakers she wore on the floor of the Texas Senate on June 25, 2013. That day, Davis stood for 13 hours, reading Texans’ abortion stories and unheard testimony from citizens who had, days earlier, been shut out of a committee hearing by a Republican lawmaker who called their concerns about reducing access to reproductive health care “repetitive.”
That bill eventually passed in a second special legislative session, with pro-choice Democrats and Republicans roundly outnumbered by their anti-choice colleagues. A Republican pundit quickly gave Davis the glib and sexist nickname “Abortion Barbie,” and conservatives have worked hard to try and make it stick.
But Davis’ policy bench goes deep, as does her bipartisan record: the Harvard-educated lawyer served on the Fort Worth City Council for nine years, overseeing remarkable economic development initiatives and voting in Republican primaries, even donating to Republican campaigns. When she ran for state senate as a conservative Democrat in 2008, she took the office from a Republican incumbent and later held on to the seat in a costly and combative race against Tea Partier Mark Shelton in 2012. In 2011, Davis filibustered in the state senate for the first time, opposing a $4-billion cut to education funding and forcing Gov. Rick Perry into a special legislative session. In 2013, she shepherded through a Texas version of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act with nigh-unprecedented bipartisan support, only to see it vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry.
If, despite this record, Davis is considered a one-trick pony in pink sneakers, what must we make of her opponent, Greg Abbott? Abbott frequently describes, only half-jokingly, most of his 12 years on the job as attorney general thusly: “I go into the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home.”
Well, just as Wendy Davis was announcing her candidacy for governor in the auditorium of her former high school in Haltom City, Texas, the October 2013 issue of Texas Monthly hit newsstands, featuring a grinning Greg Abbott on the cover with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, a glaring sans-serif font looming over his head: “The Gov*.”
The cheeky asterisk qualified the prediction—”barring an unlikely occurrence”—but the message, from Texas’ glossy magazine of record, was clear: when Rick Perry moves out of the governor’s mansion after a 14-year tenure, he’ll be high-fiving his buddy Greg on the way in.
Since her announcement, reporters have hammered Davis and her campaign with questions of surprisingly mundane irrelevance: Will she or won’t she wear the cute sneakers again? When did Davis really get divorced—at age 19, or 21? How long did she live in a Fort Worth trailer park? Did her second husband pay for all of her Harvard education, or just part of it? How much time did she spend with her daughters while earning her law degree in Boston? Can Wendy Davis have it all!?
None of which helps Texans answer a far more important question: What could a Gov. Wendy Davis actually do?
Attacks From All Sides
It’s not surprising that, in a state where no Democrat has held statewide office in 20 years, political wonks and capitol reporters find themselves stymied by the Davis phenomenon, struggling to parse the appeal of a bright new candidate who has managed to energize and mobilize long-frustrated Texans who are hungry to see the state released from the Koch-greased grip of the Tea Party.
Previous Democratic gubernatorial candidates have been wholly unable to stop, or even slow, the Republican train. Well-funded or not, well-liked or not, Tony Sanchez, Chris Bell, and Bill White all fell short of Rick Perry by hundreds of thousands of votes over the last 14 years. And since 2010, Tea Party Republicans have enjoyed great success ousting more moderate incumbents and pushing those conservatives who’ve so far managed to stay out of their way ever farther to the right.
But then came Wendy Davis, who rose to prominence at a politically and demographically opportune time, with Texas’ growing Hispanic population turning the state bluer by the year. Just a few months before Davis’ filibuster, national Democrats took a page from the Obama playbook and launched Battleground Texas, a sprawling statewide initiative focused on energizing Democratic voters in purple areas through face-to-face, door-to-door engagement. And then Texas’ longest-serving governor, Rick Perry, announced that he wouldn’t seek a fourth term in office, leaving the top statewide office up for grabs.
Everyone who’s covered, or been involved in, Texas state politics for the last 20 years has been listening to the same song on repeat: Republicans win, and they win big. But now someone’s turned the dial, and nobody knows what to call this new tune, or even what the lyrics might be.
Last summer, Davis’ filibuster brought thousands of Texans from around the state to the Austin capitol building—literally and virtually—in support of abortion rights, bucking the easy mainstream narrative that Texans are a seething red monolith, more’s the pity for the handful of hapless Democrats too foolish to abandon their lost cause of a state to the party of Perry. And Davis’ support for public education funding and teachers’ rights has garnered the fervent approval of middle-of-the-road Texas parents and educators, who have often convened at the capitol to cheer her on as she opposes Tea Partiers crowing about the coming charter school revolution.
And though they technically run separately, Davis shares the top of a historic two-woman Democratic ticket with lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte, the powerful San Antonio state senator who gave Davis what may be the most epic political assist of all time when she made the parliamentary inquiry heard ‘round the world just before midnight on June 25, 2013, minutes before Davis’ filibuster was to end: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?”
Van de Putte’s question sent hundreds of Texans in the senate gallery into a righteous, fifteen-minute froth, and made it impossible for the GOP-led senate to pass the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was then known as SB 5.
Van de Putte, a Latina and a licensed pharmacist, has been a formidable presence in the Texas legislature since 1990, when she was first elected to a representative seat. She became a senator in a special election in 1999, and is perhaps most widely respected for the work she’s done to support veterans in Texas. In contrast, Van de Putte’s opponent in the lieutenant governor’s race, Houston Tea Partier Dan Patrick, was elected to the state senate in 2008. Patrick is a conservative talk radio host and former owner of a chain of sports bars.
Despite the fact that both parties are running very different, very big-personality candidates, Davis has almost exclusively borne the brunt of both legitimate and bad-faith criticism, and she has been the primary subject of an outsized share of the 2014 Texas statewide race coverage, perhaps because of her novelty as a viable Democrat—and a woman, at that.
And yet the strengths that make Davis a potential winner are, simultaneously, the very weaknesses that seem to bring her down. It all depends on who you ask.
To the anti-choice talk-radio crowd, Davis continues to be “Abortion Barbie,” too blonde and not nearly matronly enough to garner anything but outright misogynistic derision from Erick Erickson, Rush Limbaugh, and their ilk. To the national media, Davis is the sneaker-wearing—never, never forget the pink sneakers—underdog about whom a steady stream of “Can she or can’t she?” stories must be written until election day. To Texas political wonks, she’s a charismatic leader playing a losing hand as poll after poll shows her trailing Greg Abbott by double digits. To Texas’ long-beleaguered liberal media, she’s Moses without a map.
And Davis is also under tremendous political pressure to appeal to a wide array of moderate, liberal, and progressive voters that an ever-rightward leaning Texas GOP has long left behind.
To those who would or could support her, she variously: talks too much about abortion, doesn’t talk enough about abortion, secretly wants to militarize the border, wants to give all immigrants citizenship starting tomorrow, is an out-of-touch capitol insider, needs more experience in the capitol, should focus on Medicaid expansion, should get tougher on environmental concerns, should spend more time in the Rio Grande Valley, should stop pandering to people in the Rio Grande Valley, needs to recapture that filibuster spirit, should stop relying on the filibuster to carry her through November, and so-on and so-forth, and lo, the list lengthens as November 4 grows closer.
Wendy Davis just can’t seem to do anything right, and nobody on either side of the aisle seems to mind weighing in on the nuances of why, and how, she’s setting herself—and by extension, all Texas Democrats—up to fail this November.
Meanwhile, Greg Abbott—whose Republican party just weeks ago recommended “reparative therapy” for gay people and called for easing foster parents’ ability to use corporal punishment on their wards—is taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from Koch chemical companies before handing down favorable AG rulings that lessen the corporate behemoth’s public safety obligations, and all folks seem to want to know is what he’s thinking for the window treatments in that big, pretty governor’s mansion at 11th and Lavaca in downtown Austin.
Democrats on the Defensive
If things look a little off to you, you’re not the only one who thinks so. I talked with Genevieve Van Cleve, an Austin-based Democratic political consultant and executive director of the new Texas Women Vote Project, who describes the experience of running a Democratic campaign in Texas as something just short of all-out chaos.
“You have to remember about Wendy’s campaign, or any Democratic campaign statewide, what they’re being asked to do,” said Van Cleve: “You’re trying to drive the train, corral the people on the train, fix the tracks, and build new tracks at the same time.”
“For the longest time,” she continued, there’s been “no serious Democratic infrastructure” in Texas. Not only are Democrats running the train, corralling passengers, laying and fixing tracks, but they’re doing it on a shoestring, amid a cacophony of criticism from dilettantes and campaign experts alike.
When I talk about folks’ breezy enthusiasm for criticizing the Davis campaign, I have to be clear that I’m also pointing the finger at myself. Particularly on Twitter, I have been a vocal critic of what I see as the Davis campaign’s potentially politically fatal reluctance to talk frankly and frequently about threats to legal abortion access in Texas. That criticism earned me the ire of Davis’ communications director, Zac Petkanas, who dismissed me from the Davis press email list after I asked him if he, or Davis herself, would be available for comment for this piece.
Needless to say, I didn’t get the interview.
Van Cleve, on the other hand, sees things differently than I do, illustrating just how differently those who might support Democrats in Texas can view the very same campaigns.
“The thing that’s happening to [Van de Putte and Davis] is the only thing that is being talked about is reproductive rights,” said Van Cleve. She said she rarely sees the conversation go deeper than that, and wonders why abortion has taken center stage when the differences in policy making—and in readiness for office—between Davis and Abbott and Van de Putte and Patrick are, in her view, so very drastic.
“Talking about [Davis and Van de Putte], leaving out the rest of their records, is ghettoizing what their interests might be,” said Van Cleve. She said that focusing on abortion rights and background stories—trying to pin down exactly when Davis got divorced, or fawning over Van de Putte as a lovable abuela—”is not telling the whole story,” for either candidate.
“In 2008, when Annie’s List approached [Davis] to run for office,” Van Cleve remembered, “She was a Fort Worth city councilperson who worked on both sides of the aisle, a conservative Democrat. That’s who I met.”
“The shoes are wonderful,” continued Van Cleve. They’re great. “But,” she added, “we have substantive issues that face everyday people in this state. And the shrill rhetoric, and the inability to lead or govern by the other side, should give everyone—regardless of party affiliation—pause.”
Van Cleve put it bluntly: “How much did Abbott take from the Koch brothers and when did he take it? Was it while West, Texas, was blowing up or when they were burying their dead?”
Whither Filibuster Wendy?
It’s an excellent question, and one that the Davis campaign has taken as a major focus this summer, with Davis going on a seven-city tour highlighting Abbott’s impotent suggestion that Texans “drive around” and ask potentially explosive chemical facilities what’s being stored on-site.
But as the Texas Observer’s Forrest Wilder noted in a recent commentary piece, the Davis campaign hasn’t proactively given the public much to work with. The campaign appears to prefer instead to take a reactionary stance to Abbott’s alleged ethical violations and campaign gaffes, which run the gamut from extremely serious (like the Koch donations in the wake of the West, Texas, chemical plant explosion) to pathetically sexist: earlier this year, a Texas Republican consulting firm’s staffer, employed by a former Abbott political consultant and current Dan Patrick strategist, started a political action committee called “Boats ‘N Hoes.”
The “issues” section of Davis’ website lists just four priorities: “education,” “strong economy,” “government accountability,” and “veterans.” And while Davis lays out a strong four-part proposal for the future of public education in Texas, the other three sections read as little more than bland political nothingspeak, with lines like “She supports measures to root out corruption and waste from government agencies.”
Nowhere does the Davis campaign site indicate that Davis supports a $9.6 billion federally funded Medicaid expansion, which has been rejected by Rick Perry, that could help one million Texans get health insurance, though Davis has spoken about the expansion briefly in public appearances. Nowhere does the site situate Davis on immigration, though she did issue a press release earlier this summer calling for more Texas DPS officers at the border.
Bold, out-of-the-gate approaches to these issues would set Davis leagues apart from Greg Abbott, but so far her campaign always seems to be waiting on the attorney general to make the first move. Davis even released her own education plan—arguably one of her very strongest issues—after Abbott’s campaign released his.
The result is a conversation that continues to be defined by Abbott, and Abbott’s supporters, and puts Davis on the defensive. At the end of July, I received a Davis fundraising mailer trotting out the year-old “Abortion Barbie” attack, with a bonus note about Abbott’s affiliation with Ted Nugent, the gun-toting aging rocker who once called President Obama a “mongrel.”
It’s certainly a sad commentary on the state of American political discourse when right-wing pundits spew sexist snark about Wendy Davis, and it’s more than a little disturbing, not to mention confusing, that an attorney general who prides himself on his tough stance against online child pornography pals around with an admitted sexual predator, but I fail to see what either of those things tell us about who Gov. Wendy Davis might be.
This reactionary approach—one that, time after time, seems to say little more than the obvious: that Wendy Davis is not Greg Abbott—is strangely timid for a lawmaker who stood on the floor of the Texas senate and talked about abortion for 13 hours. But even the filibuster that made Davis famous has been de-clawed by the new campaign narrative: On June 25, 2013, Davis “headed to the senate floor to fight against the closing of women’s health clinics all across the state.”
That’s not an untrue statement, but to my mind, it unnecessarily downplays the unprecedented bravery shown by Davis on that day, when she read real Texas abortion stories as hundreds of Texans looked on from the gallery, and hundreds of thousands more people in Texas and around the United States watched on a live-stream from the halls of the state capitol and in their living rooms and work places.
Even at the official Davis campaign event marking the anniversary of a day that radicalized, and re-radicalized, Texans who had long felt ignored by conservatives, Tea Partiers, and anti-choice Democrats, Davis used the word “abortion” just once in a 24-minute speech.
I can’t repeat this often enough: The bill that Wendy Davis filibustered on June 25, 2013—to the wonder and amazement of thousands of orange-shirted supporters spilling out onto the capitol steps and into the streets of downtown Austin—was not about “women’s health clinics,” or cancer screenings and contraceptives. It was about abortion clinics and abortion doctors, and people who get legal abortions in Texas.
No other issue has ever before inspired thousands—literally thousands—of left-leaning Texans and Democratic voters to jump in their cars and drive, sometimes hundreds of miles, to Austin to pack the halls of the capitol building for weeks on end. Those folks didn’t show up to fight for birth control and Pap smears. They showed up to fight for their right to get legal abortions, for doctors’ ability to provide legal abortions, and for clinics’ ability to stay open and provide a safe location at which those abortions can be performed. And those Texans, whether they made it to the capitol last summer or not, have continued to fight relentlessly, doggedly, to keep abortion clinics open and to shuttle abortion-seeking Texans to the few remaining cities that house legal abortion providers.
When Wendy Davis, and her fellow Democrats, came out as strongly for abortion rights as Texas Republicans have come out against abortion rights, they did something that the Texas Democratic Party has repeatedly failed to do over the last 20 years: They made two candidates—two women candidates—into bona-fide heroes of the politically disenfranchised Texas left. Nobody was putting Bill White quotes on t-shirts back in 2010, or photoshopping Chris Bell into the role of a badass HBO protagonist in 2006.
Texans have not given up the fight, but it does feel as though Davis wants to distance herself from that remarkable summer, a summer that, at the Texas capitol, was all about abortion rights. For Davis to hedge on her language one year later—a year in which more than 35 abortion providers will have closed their doors because they cannot comply with HB 2—is more than disappointing to her most passionate supporters. It’s heartbreaking, and it feels like a regression into the frazzled and timorous Texas Democratic Party that has struggled to stay afloat in Texas for two decades.
Davis herself seemed to speak directly to folks like me—folks who fear that she’s become reluctant to embrace the very issue that shot her to the top of the statewide ticket—at that recent “Women for Wendy” fundraiser outside of Austin. She warned that too heavily focusing on abortion—as opposed to speaking more generally about “women’s health care”—would simply galvanize the anti-choice base: “They hate it,” she said, “When we talk about it in terms of women’s health care. They’d much rather that we talk about it in terms of abortion.”
Which is, certainly, true. While I’ve had many conversations over the past several weeks with people who share my concerns, I have found that a couple of prominent Texas anti-choice activists have been excited to retweet me when I point out—rightly—that what Davis stood for on June 25, 2013, was not “women’s health care” writ large, but abortion access very specifically.
“There have been a lot folks who have said, ‘She’s running away from that issue,’” Davis continued. “Which is absurd. Anyone who knows me, and knows the 13 hours that I stood, knows what I stand for as it pertains to reproductive rights.”
And yet here I am, naysaying nevertheless, worrying that while many Texans do indeed know where Davis stands on abortion rights—13-hour filibuster aside, Davis is hardly an abortion rights radical, politically speaking—more people, moderates who know only vaguely of last summer’s filibuster, or those potential voters who’ve never heard the name “Wendy Davis,” do not know just how stark the contrast is between Davis’ thoroughly moderate take in support of abortion rights, one that aligns with the standards of mainstream medicine espoused by groups like the American Medical Association and the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and the GOP and Greg Abbott’s position against them.
However, if the Davis campaign is indeed afraid of exciting anti-choice opponents by talking about abortion, Abbott seems even more reluctant to make any strong statements on the matter. After HB 2 passed in 2013, Dallas ABC affiliate WFAA called Abbott out for plainly “dodging” the question of where he stands on abortion, and in a mystifying Houston Chronicle interview given around the same time, Abbott simply lets his wife take over, allowing her to imply that the two of them oppose abortion even in the case of rape or incest. The Texas GOP platform, however, is clear: it expressly calls for the repeal of Roe v. Wade.
In fact, Abbott seems comfortable with letting his anti-choice supporters take “Abortion Barbie” and unofficially run with it. Except, of course, for instances where the attorney general’s office must, in its official capacity, defend HB 2 in federal court, more or less forcing Abbott’s office to go on the record as fully supporting a bill that will close more than 35 existing Texas abortion facilities.
And yet the Davis campaign has failed entirely to comment publicly either on Abbott’s abortion-related equivocating in the news media or on the ongoing court battle over HB 2, even as one of Greg Abbott’s deputy attorneys-general argued in open court, with the blessing of Abbott’s office itself, that if Texas women want abortions so badly, they can drive to New Mexico. To me, that clearly gives lie to Republican claims that their foremost concern, while passing an anti-abortion law in special session with the urgency of a four-alarm fire, was with the health and safety of abortion-seeking Texans.
Is this not a ripe opportunity for Davis to get out in front of an issue that so many Texans support her on? Davis’ most recent campaign fundraising numbers—reflecting donations that came in during the height of filibuster nostalgia—show her out-raising Abbott in the same period. What better way could there be to gauge the readiness of Texans to have a frank conversation about abortion than to see their support for someone like Wendy Davis laid out plainly in dollars and cents?
Can Democrats Make Their Own Luck?
As Davis was gearing up to commemorate the 2013 filibuster, I called Harold Cook, the former political director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas—he worked on the ground to get pro-choice support for Ann Richards back in 1990—and a regular Democratic commentator on state politics newscasts, to get some perspective on my concerns. He told me that it’s “virtually impossible for anyone outside the campaign to know how the campaign is going.”
“It’s not time yet to start spending any money on communications, because voters aren’t paying any attention yet, and probably won’t until August,” explained Cook.
Texas has some of the priciest media markets in the nation, making statewide political advertising a costly venture. Polls—which Davis has so far struggled in—generally only include likely voters, and in Texas that means the folks picking up the phone, or clicking on the link, are most likely to be members of the GOP’s anti-choice primary base.
Cook and I spoke just after Davis replaced a D.C.-grown campaign director with North Texas local and state Rep. Chris Turner (D-Grand Prairie), a move that the Associated Press, an ostensible bastion of journalistic objectivity, declared as a sign that “a run that began with national fanfare and sky-high hopes of a major blue victory in one of America’s reddest states has floundered against a strong Republican favorite.”
Has floundered. Not because Davis has been accused of egregious ethical violations concerning campaign donations, or because she told Texans it was their responsibility to police chemical plants in their own backyards, or because she campaigned alongside a gun-obsessive former rock star with a criminal attraction to teenage girls—no, those things can only be attributed to Greg Abbott—but because Davis hired a new campaign director.
Cook just couldn’t see it, calling the Turner hire “a hell of a pick-up” while admitting that he’s “really biased,” having known Turner “on and off for 17 years.”
“I don’t think that signals any sort of disarray at all, and in fact quite the opposite,” Cook told me. “When you have somebody who’s that good, and will work that hard, and is that trusted, it can’t help but be a net gain.”
Both Cook and Genevieve Van Cleve of the Texas Women Vote Project compared Davis, perhaps inevitably, to Ann Richards and the race she won against Republican Clayton Williams in 1990.
The most recent polling numbers, from an Internet poll conducted by YouGov and the New York Times, show Davis trailing Abbott by 17 percent, though Davis’ communications director called the numbers “about as useful as a winter coat in Houston,” noting that many likely Davis voters—lower income Texans—don’t have Internet connections.
Van Cleve, who’s only ever worked for female candidates, says she’s more than used to the doomsayers that flock not only to Texas Democratic campaigns, but especially to Democrat women.
“Ann Richards was not winning this time of year,” said Van Cleve. “She was probably down a little bit more. All the races I’ve worked on for Annie’s List? Let me tell ya, we were never up in July.”
Van Cleve remained optimistic, and said she would rely on the summer financial reports from Davis and her field operations at Battleground Texas, to evaluate where Texas Democrats stand 100 days before the election in November.
“Four months is an eternity in political campaign time,” Van Cleve said. With good fundraising numbers and a strong field operation, “there’s any number of things where they’re making their own luck.”
Limited Time, Limited Money in Local Races
And indeed, things are looking pretty good on the financial front for Davis and Van de Putte—both out-raised their Republican opponents in the last fundraising period—but they’re hardly the only Democrats fighting Republican candidates for a seat at the capitol this November. In North Texas, where what little water that’s still running in a county operating under stage 3 drought restrictions seems to run red, a lawyer named Sameena Karmally found herself so fed up with what she saw last summer from her district’s eight-year Republican incumbent, Jodie “Rape Kits Clean a Woman Out” Laubenberg, that she decided to go after that HD 89 spot, even if it meant running what’s turned out to be largely a one-woman campaign office.
“I decided to run because I was there over last summer, I was watching on the live-stream like everyone else, and I thought, ‘We have just been pushed into a corner,’” Karmally told me by phone, between stints juggling the never-ending demands of managing voter outreach and fundraising while raising two kids as a stay-at-home mom.
“No one ran against [Laubenberg] for eight years, and that’s the only reason she’s still here,” said Karmally. “She’s never had a huge presence with our community here.”
While Jodie Laubenberg sits as the Texas state chair for the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council, which composes right-wing model legislation for state lawmakers, and famously sponsored the anti-abortion legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered, Karmally says she must “focus on the persuasives” with her potential supporters, which means reproductive health takes a back seat to education and water issues. No matter how notorious Laubenberg may have become last summer among the Democratic base after she asserted that rape kits were tantamount to abortion.
“I have to strike a balance,” Karmally said. “I think people know where I stand on [abortion].” She said she’ll rely on the Democrat base to come out and vote on the straight ticket, while working on educating her potential constituents on the very basics—many have never been approached by a house candidate, she said—and hearing, from them, what they’d like her to work on in Austin.
“Frankly, I think many potential voters have disengaged because they’re tired of politicians who just want to stir up anger, fear, resentment, and divisiveness,” said Karmally, whose parents brought her to North Texas from India when she was just 3 years old. She said the folks she talks to at civic meetings and during phone banks are much more concerned with their everyday needs—like water and good local public schools—than with posturing about open carry laws or the imagined threat of immigrants carrying “exotic diseases.”
And voters in her district have now found out “that oil and gas companies can use as much water as they want,” despite the county’s drought conditions, Karmally says, “because of a failure of leadership by Laubenberg,” who’s a member of their Regional Water Planning Group.
So while it may have been Laubenberg’s performance last summer at the capitol that prompted Karmally to run, she’s discovering that her potential constituents have a variety of pressing needs that include, but don’t end at, reproductive health care. And she can’t always talk about it all.
“It’s just a matter of efficiency, having limited time and limited money and having to tip those last few thousand people,” said Karmally.
It doesn’t sound so different from what Davis and Van de Putte are attempting on a statewide scale, with thousands of volunteers prepared to go door-to-door in the late summer heat as part of a new voting rights effort that the Davis campaign, Battleground Texas, and the Texas Democratic Party are hailing as “unprecedented” in a state with the worst voter turnout—Republican or Democrat—in the country.
Battleground Takes It to the (Purple) Streets
“We’re pretty much the entire Wendy Davis field operation,” says Erica Sackin, the new Battleground Texas communications director, over the din of 25 phone-banking volunteers making call after call to their North Texas neighbors as part of what Sackin describes as “one field program built together by both organizations.” Sackin, who’s been on the job just a few weeks, met me at the Collin County Democratic Party headquarters, a narrow suite in a nondescript shopping center surrounding a Plano Whataburger.
Sackin introduced me to two of Battleground’s “fellows,” young volunteers who are spending their summer block-walking and phone-banking for Davis. They are Sarah Al-Shalash and Sam Alleman, aged 17 and 19, respectively. Al-Salash won’t even be old enough to vote come election day, with her 18th birthday coming at the end of November. And yet she attends a summer program at Southern Methodist University while also volunteering 40 hours a week with Battleground. Alleman, a student at George Washington University, works full-time as a medical billing assistant, and says he spends just as many hours at the Collin County campaign office.
When the four of us piled into a cramped back room in the strip mall, the two teens both told me that Davis’ filibuster was responsible for getting them into the Battleground game.
“I was watching the filibuster, and it was super exciting to see a woman standing up for women’s issues in Texas,” Al-Shalash said. Alleman echoed her enthusiastically: “Guts is a good word for it!”
But while the Davis filibuster may have been a gateway into political action for Al-Shalash and Alleman, neither seemed to jump at the opportunity to talk about reproductive rights, citing Davis’ position on education as their most important issues, and spoke in broad terms about Davis’ appeal to average Texans.
“I like the values she represents,” said Alleman. “She fights for all Texans, and I think Wendy represents them.” He said Plano is growing so fast, more funding for public schools is an absolute necessity.
“Teachers are going classroom to classroom,” he said, without a home base in their own schools. And Al-Shalash, who goes to school in the well-funded Dallas exurb of Frisco, says she sees her friends in less affluent districts struggle without the resources her school enjoys.
Alleman and Al-Shalash told me that the folks they talk to on block walks and during phone banks agree, anxious to hear about Davis’ educational platform even if they only know her, vaguely, from news reports about last summer’s filibuster.
But the best moments come, Al-Shalash said, when she gets to talk to an undecided voter.
“If I happen to have a conversation and someone was undecided before, and at the end of the conversation they seem really excited, that’s so awesome.”
Al-Shalash may have many more of those kinds of “awesome” conversations if the Battleground/Davis campaign/Texas Democratic Party’s new “voter protection program,” which focuses on voter registration, voter education, early voting, and poll-watching on election day, goes to plan.
And while the voting initiative’s rollout is underway, Planned Parenthood announced in late July that it would embark on the “most aggressive campaign it has ever waged in Texas,” spending $3 million educating the public on women’s issues in state and local races, especially reaching out to the women voters—Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans—who Wendy Davis told her “Women for Wendy” crowd she will “tremendously depend upon” for a win in November.
In contrast, the San Antonio Express-News reported that Texas’ two largest anti-choice groups have spent just $450,000 in 2014 on bolstering Republican candidates. The executive director of the anti-choice group Texas Alliance for Life has called Planned Parenthood Texas Vote’s plan a “wake-up call.”
“Grand Old Problem”?
Things appear to be heating up on the ground for Texas Democrats while a series of embarrassing gaffes—and even criminal activity—seems to have somewhat dulled the shine of the Texas GOP. Yet still members of the media continue to have trouble situating even the most questionable Republican candidates as anything but sure bets.
Nine months after Texas Monthly anointed Abbott as “The Gov*”, the magazine is running a commentary piece by right-leaning writer Erica Grieder in its August 2014 issue entitled “Grand Old Problem.” In it, Grieder lays out the many foibles and failures of this year’s Texas Republican Party—including its bizarre interest in abolishing the census—and its candidates, some of whom she outright calls “bozos.”
And yet, Grieder still cannot conceive of a Texas in which Republicans screw up so badly that voters turn to candidates like Davis and Van de Putte. She writes:
The question of whether Texas Democrats will ever have what it takes to win statewide is an open one. No one’s lost money lately betting against their surprising torpor and talent for self-sabotage. Recently, though, a different question seems equally worthwhile. Can Texas Republicans lose? They are certainly giving it a good try.
Indeed they are. The GOP candidate for attorney general, Ken Paxton, who is vying for Abbott’s soon-to-be-vacant position against a Democrat named Sam Houston (yes, really), is currently the subject of an actual criminal investigation into allegations that he violated state securities law. Paxton has already been reprimanded by the Texas State Securities Board, which in May fined him $1,000 for selling securities without a license.
And yet, all the Houston Chronicle can come up with is that Paxton’s “ethics record can at least keep the attorney general’s race interesting” for Democrats. Interesting.
In the lieutenant governor’s race, state Sen. Dan Patrick has virtually disappeared from the public eye since his appearance at the Texas GOP convention on June 7, surfacing only to report that he’s raised $1 million since defeating incumbent David Dewhurst in the May primary.
In the meantime, Leticia Van de Putte has been a constant presence in the media over the last several weeks as concerns over unaccompanied minors at the Texas border have made national headlines—this despite the fact that Dan Patrick relied on “illegal invasion” rhetoric to successfully shore up his profile with a thoroughly xenophobic GOP primary voter base. Van de Putte also reported out-raising Patrick by a half-million dollars in the last fundraising report period.
And yet, few hand-wringing reporters have surfaced, wondering: Where is Dan Patrick?
More broadly, the Texas GOP simply struggles to connect with groups of key voters. The party denied the gay and lesbian conservative group Log Cabin Republicans the opportunity to table at the 2014 party convention. There are no women at all on the 15-candidate statewide GOP ticket this year. And as unaccompanied minors cross the Texas-Mexico border in search of refuge from drug cartel violence in Latin and Central America, Rick Perry has been seen pretending to patrol the border in near-riot gear, calling for the National Guard’s assistance in rounding up school-aged kids trying to survive thousands of miles from their families.
One can’t help but wonder: while we’re asking whether Texas Democrats have a prayer, might we have time to ask Texas Republicans whether they have a soul?