State Sen. Wendy Davis’ campaign for governor abruptly switched gears Wednesday as it struggles to meet the high expectations that supporters have for the Fort Worth Democrat.
As nationally known strategist Karin Johanson revealed that she is leaving the campaign, Davis announced that state Rep. Chris Turner — the No. 2 member of the House Democratic leadership — will lead her campaign in the final five months until Election Day.
“Chris has spent nearly 20 years in Texas politics and has fought, and won, tough races in this state,” Davis said in a statement. “His commitment to the people of Texas is unparalleled and demonstrated in his service in the state Legislature.”
In a multimillion-dollar race to become Texas’ 48th governor, Davis is the underdog against Greg Abbott, the well-known and well-funded Republican attorney general.
“The conventional wisdom was the campaign wasn’t going anywhere and Wendy couldn’t win,” said Gary Mauro, a former Democratic land commissioner who lost to George W. Bush in the 1998 governor’s race. “She had to shake up the campaign and change the narrative.”
Republicans criticized the shift, saying the Democratic candidate has yet to find her footing in the challenging campaign.
“The steady stream of campaign shake-ups and reboot attempts we’ve seen from Sen. Davis’ operation indicates one thing — a candidate who is out of touch with Texans and is looking for external fixes to an internal problem,” said Matt Hirsch, a spokesman for Abbott’s campaign.
Some say Davis is switching back to a more Texas-style campaign from one that had the tenor of a national race.
“Putting Chris Turner in charge of this campaign means there will be a more localized, Texas feel for the campaign, which is in her best interest,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant. “She’s behind and she knows it.
“Chris Turner understands campaigns. He understands tough campaigns. And that’s what [Davis] has got.”
Turner, a well-known Grand Prairie Democrat, is a longtime aide to former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco.
He first claimed public office for himself in 2008, ousting Republican Rep. Bill Zedler of Arlington. He lost a re-election bid in 2010, then successfully ran for the newly drawn District 101 in 2012. He faces no Republican challenger in his re-election bid this November.
Supporters in Texas and nationwide fear their hopes that Davis can become the first Democrat in 20 years elected to a statewide office are waning.
The party did gain a statewide officeholder last year when longtime Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Lawrence “Larry” Meyers announced that he was leaving the GOP to run as a Democrat for the Texas Supreme Court.
This latest shift comes just months after Davis changed communications directors, bringing aboard Zac Petkanas, a former spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to replace Bo Delp.
Johanson drew kudos when she arrived at the campaign last year after managing Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s successful 2012 campaign in Wisconsin and serving as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when Democrats gained a majority in the House in 2006.
Johanson said she suggested “a few weeks ago” that Davis reach out to Turner to lead the campaign.
“Chris has managed tough Texas races and as a member of the Texas House is respected across the state for his smarts and common sense,” Johanson wrote in a letter to campaign staff and friends. “It is great for the Wendy Davis for Governor Campaign and for Texas that he has accepted the position of Campaign Director.”
Johanson has held many political positions, including directing the 2004 America Coming Together campaign turnout effort, acting as a consultant at the Dewey Square Group and serving as chief of staff for House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
“I am proud of what we have all built in this campaign,” she wrote. “In Wendy Davis, Texas has a candidate for Governor who is inspiring activists and voters like no one has in decades.”
She said that “at this point in the campaign, Wendy Davis is as well-known as Greg Abbott and gaining on him every day in the polls.”
Turner, a public relations consultant, successfully ran four tough campaigns for Edwards, a moderate Democrat targeted by Republicans year after year.
His own first campaign — taking on a well-established Republican incumbent — was tough as well.
“Chris will energize the troops,” Miller said.
Johanson wrote that she will go home and spend time with her 90-year-old father.
But she will continue to root for Davis.
“I’m not sure Texas Republicans knew what to expect when Wendy Davis announced for Governor last October. They know now. They’ve got a real race on their hands,” Johanson wrote. “If you are a betting person, put your money on Wendy.”