Consigned to the role of loyal opposition, Texas Democrats are poised to hand another victory to Republicans in next year’s U.S. Senate election. The lackluster potential and declared Democratic candidates are certain to be outraised, outpolled and outvoted. That’s a real shame. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, offers a compelling personal background and political acumen that resonates with moderate and conservative Texas voters. A voice in the wilderness, Davis is the only Democrat capable of capturing retiring U.S. Senator Kay Hutchison’s seat.
Statewide elections are particularly difficult for any candidate with ambitions in the Lone Star State. The state’s expansive geography, high cost of advertising in multiple metropolitan areas, diversified blocs of constituencies and difficulty in establishing name recognition all conspire against would-be elected officials. Any serious candidate for Hutchison’s seat would need “a bare minimum of $5 million and preferably closer to $10 million,” said Ross Ramsey of The Texas Tribune.
Democrats face even more daunting barriers to victory, as Republicans have cemented their effective one-party rule status for most of the past two decades under the successive governorships of George W. Bush and Rick Perry. And with it, the Republicans have reinforced a formidable political machine capable of marshaling millions of Texas voters to the ballot box each November.
Yet in a fortuitous turn of events, the prime Republican contenders for their party’s nomination have splintered over personal finances and ideology. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the presumptive front-runner, has been described by Politico as “the wealthiest politician in Texas” — a fact rivals have used to tar him too close to establishment politics. Dewhurst has also been excoriated by conservative groups for being too moderate on Perry’s university education reform agenda.
Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, an ardent social conservative, is backed by some Tea Party groups despite lacking Dewhurst’s campaign coffers. Patrick may pull off an insurgent primary victory as Tea Party-backed Senate candidates Sharron Angle and Christine O’Donnell did in other states last year. Former solicitor general Ted Cruz is also competing against Dewhurst and Patrick for Tea Party support, presaging a bitter and costly intraparty struggle for the nomination.
That’s not to say the U.S. Senate election is the Democrats to lose. It isn’t. But the party has a narrow opportunity to offer a credible (and winnable) candidate if it can studiously amend for its past mistakes.
On paper, former Houston Mayor Bill White’s distinguished public service career should have put him toe-to-toe against Perry in last year’s governor race. After all, White handily won re-election for mayor in 2005 and 2007 with more than 85 percent each time and was generally well-liked by Houstonians across the political spectrum. However, White ran an uninspiring campaign against the gregarious and energetic Perry, failed to articulate his own policies effectively and remained a relative unknown outside his native Gulf Coast region.
The current Democratic candidates are risking a repeat of the same mistakes. John Sharp, who served as comptroller in the 1990s, has low name recognition among Texas voters today and even lacks a website for his candidacy. Former U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, who was commander of the military in Iraq, also has low name recognition among voters. Moreover, lingering questions about Sanchez’s role in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (he was in command at the time) do no favors to his candidacy. Neither man seems able to generate the millions of dollars necessary to win.
Davis, on the other hand, is the ace in the hole that Democrats desperately need. Articulate, telegenic and beautiful, Davis would be able to capitalize on the national attention she received at the end of May when she filibustered a GOP proposal to cut $4 billion from public schools. The issue of school budgets has significant national implications, and Davis’ criticisms of budget shortfalls leading to unacceptably large classrooms and teacher layoffs resonate nationally.
A combination of intangibles and extrinsic factors has already laid the ground for a Texas-bred grassroots movement in Davis’ favor. Internet forums and Twitter have been abuzz with calls for her to run for higher office. The New York Times recently published a glowing review of Davis’ biography and accomplishments. And in the male-dominated world of Texas politics, Davis serves as an inspiration of strength and conviction to all of the
Most crucially, Davis has proven she can thrive in the most seemingly inhospitable of environments. Her Senate district encompasses most of Tarrant County, one of the most Republican-friendly in America. A quintessential Texan, Davis can rejuvenate the state party more than anyone else.