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October 2, 2013

Wendy Davis takes national stage with gubernatorial bid

AUSTIN — When Wendy Davis walks into the coliseum where she received her high school diploma on Thursday to announce a bid to become Texas governor, she will also walk onto a national stage from which she'll call on Democrats from across the country to help finance her long-shot bid.

Davis staged a nearly 13-hour filibuster in June to stop a law imposing strict new restrictions on how, where and when a woman can obtain an abortion. The live stream of her standing next to her desk and speaking — and the roaring crowd that disrupted the Senate debate for the last 15 minutes of the special legislative session — made her a political celebrity. In the following weeks, Democratic fundraisers feted her at parties in Washington, New York and San Francisco.

But the question remains: In a year where Democrats risk losing control of the Senate — and with Davis' opponent already banking $25 million — will national donors commit the resources she needs to win?

“That's the biggest hurdle she's going to face,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Houston's Rice University. “The investment to be successful in Texas would be the same as the investment to be successful in a half-dozen of the most competitive Senate races.”

Campaign consultants agree the Democratic candidate and supporting political action committees will need to spend $40 million to mount a serious challenge to the leading Republican, Attorney General Greg Abbott. That's about 40 times more than what Davis had on hand at the end of June, the latest information available.

No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994, but supporters say the single teenage mother turned successful Harvard-trained lawyer has the charisma and progressive politics to break the party's political drought in Texas — and possibly put the state in play in time for the 2016 presidential election.

Davis will need to go outside of Texas to raise a portion of the money she needs. She has strong national fundraising ability, which will be necessary to help establish her still largely ill-defined credentials through television advertisements, Democratic strategist Tad Devine said. Democratic activists argue she will have the money, but it's up to her campaign to make the case that she can govern.

“She has a pretty compelling profile to raise a lot of money from very wealthy people,” Devine said. “If she can muster that kind of campaign funding, she can project herself as she chooses, but that will be mostly through television.”

Danny Kanner, communications director for the Democratic Governors' Association, said there is sustained interest in Davis.

“Everything that Democrats across the country have seen so far is that Davis has the path, she has the message and she will have the organization,” he said. “She will come with lots of energy and that will breed further excitement and further resources.”

Jeremy Bird, a former Obama campaign field organizer and senior adviser to Battleground Texas, said Democratic donors will make the investment.

“People can support keeping the U.S. Senate and Wendy Davis because of campaign finance laws,” said Bird, whose PAC registers and organizes Democratic voters, he said.

Under federal law, donors may give only $2,500 each to a candidate; under Texas law, there is no limit for individuals or PACs. But Jones said national Democratic donors who can write $100,000 checks will have to choose between giving that money to PACs in other states or to Davis.

“When you start looking at the actual cost of media buys in Texas, some of these super PACs are going to be taken aback by the cold, hard numbers,” he said. “It's probably not the most efficient use of scarce campaign finance dollars.”

According to the Dallas Morning News' analysis of campaign fundraising records since the filibuster, Abbott received six donations of $100,000 or more, while Davis has received one. Abbott has collected donations from 27 states, while Davis received support from all 50 states, six U.S. territories and Americans living in 40 foreign countries.

Money alone, though, doesn't make for a competitive race. In 2010 former Houston Mayor Bill White raised $18.4 million to Gov. Rick Perry's $22 million, but White lost with 42 percent of the vote to Perry's 55 percent — a 631,000 vote margin.

The critical path to a Davis victory, strategists say, is the right mix of voters. In the 2012 presidential elections, Democrats took an estimated 65 percent of the Hispanic vote in Texas, 90 percent of the African-American vote and 27 percent of the Anglo vote.

Davis must turn out more minority voters and boost her standing among Anglos to at least 34 percent. Her best chance to do that is with women who are more likely to care about her signature issues: women's rights and education.

“Even before Davis, (Democratic donors) were very open to the Texas ideal,” Bird said.

Davis could also benefit from national chatter about the importance — and the opportunity — to make Texas a swing state. If Texas turns blue, it, along with California and New York, would make it almost impossible for Republicans to win another presidential election.

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