Texas governor’s race: Sure thing? Or stunning upset?

08/30/2014 4:30 PM

08/31/2014 9:04 AM

More than a year after it began, the Texas governor’s race is entering a frenzied two-month windup toward the Nov. 4 election, with Republicans exuding confidence that they will easily keep the office that Gov. Rick Perry has held for 14 years while Democrats insist that they are within striking distance of a stunning upset.

After vaulting into the race on a torrent of fanfare from her Senate filibuster last summer, Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis has consistently trailed Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott in the polls, leading some analysts to declare that the race is all but over as candidates mark the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the final nine weeks of campaigning.

But the 51-year-old former Fort Worth councilwoman and the legions of Democratic activists arrayed behind her dismiss forecasts of another Republican triumph. They assert that Democrats are within reach of the political comeback they envisioned when Davis entered the race last fall.

“I believe that I’m going to win this race,” Davis said in an interview last week after a campaign appearance in San Antonio. “I know I have the strength to get through it and to be a good governor when I do.”

Republicans are equally insistent that they will get a return trip to the Governor’s Mansion, which they have occupied in a winning streak that dates to 1994.

“It’s been 20 years since a Democrat won a statewide election in Texas,” Abbott, Texas’ longest-serving attorney general, declared at the Republican State Convention in Fort Worth. “We’re not going to let it happen this year.”

The Abbott team provoked an uproar Friday by canceling one of only two scheduled debates, then saying it would agree to a second debate with different sponsors and a different format. The fate of the second debate remained unsettled Saturday.

Hoping to catch a break, Davis and her allies have seized on last week’s bombshell court ruling declaring the school finance system unconstitutional. They called on the attorney general to drop his appeal, saying Abbott was on the wrong side by defending more than $5 billion in public school cuts by the 2011 Legislature.

But Abbott, in a telephone interview with the Star-Telegram, defended his position.

“[Davis’] approach on issues like this is to draw from the Barack Obama-Eric Holder playbook, and that is to ignore the law and abandon legal responsibility,” he said. “My job as attorney general, the job I was elected to do, is defend the laws in the state.”

Texas Democratic Party leaders also predict that another headline-grabbing development — an abuse-of-power indictment against Perry — will give them additional ammunition to decry the “corrupt” Republican power structure in place for two decades.

The indictment says Perry overstepped his constitutional authority by trying to force the resignation of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg after a drunken-driving arrest. Davis has called the indictment “very, very serious” but has taken a restrained position, declining to join state party leaders in demanding Perry’s resignation.

Perry, in office since December 2000, opened the door to Abbott’s candidacy last summer when he announced that he would not seek an unprecedented fourth term.

Abbott, 56, a former state Supreme Court justice who has been attorney general since 2002, has long been considered Perry’s heir apparent. He had amassed more than $27 million in contributions when he announced his candidacy at a sweltering rally in San Antonio on July 14, 2013.

Davis entered the race Oct. 3 in a much-anticipated rally in the Haltom City coliseum where she received her high school diploma.

Her first plunge into statewide politics followed a stratospheric rise to national celebrity after she donned rouge-red Mizuno running shoes and staged an 11-hour filibuster against a Republican bill restricting abortions.

The political drama drew thousands of spectators to the Capitol and played out for hundreds of thousands more on social media.

Compelling stories

Both candidates, while separated by ideology and conflicting visions for the state, have brought compelling personal stories to the campaign.

Abbott, who uses a wheelchair, has been paralyzed from the waist down since 1984 when he was struck by a tree while running. He announced his candidacy on the 29th anniversary of the accident, promising to wield his “spine of steel” to fight for Texans.

Davis has laced her campaign message with an up-by-the-bootstraps narrative that began after her parents divorced and she found herself living in a trailer park as a 19-year-old single mother. She went on to graduate from TCU and Harvard Law School.

The race, which will become even more acerbic after Labor Day, has already produced a litany of exchanges over issues ranging from ethics to education.

Davis has portrayed herself as the candidate of “hardworking Texans” and depicted Abbott as the “ultimate insider” who’s part of “the good-old-boy network” that she says dominates the Austin political establishment. Her first ad accused Abbott of siding with a corporation over a rape victim when he was a Supreme Courtjustice.

Abbott has cast Davis as an Obama liberal with a record “that’s toxic to Texas” and out of step with the conservative mainstream because of her positions on abortion and other issues.

Dave Carney, Abbott’s chief campaign consultant and the mastermind of Perry’s past campaigns, used a more strident description during a recent telephone interview, saying Davis is “focused on being a celebrity.”

Two other candidates are also on the ballot: Libertarian Kathie Glass and Green Party candidate Brandon Parmer.

Battleground Tarrant

Tarrant County, the last big urban county in Texas that remains strongly Republican, has emerged as a battleground in the race. Davis’ statewide campaign and Battleground Texas, the party’s get-out-the-vote effort, are based in Fort Worth, operating out of a nearly century-old building on South Main Street.

Davis’ campaign director is state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, a communications consultant and veteran of past campaigns who took over in June after the departure of Karin Johanson, who helped build the campaign infrastructure.

Former Tarrant County Democratic Party Chairman Steve Maxwell said Davis’ popularity in the county and her presence at the top of the ticket have energized other Democratic candidates, resulting in a groundswell that could boost Democrats’ chances to carry the county in the governor’s race.

“There’s more block-walking and grassroots activity than I’ve ever seen,” Maxwell said.

Conversely, Tarrant County District Clerk Tom Wilder, one of Abbott’s leading supporters in the county, said the Republican places a high priority on Tarrant County and has visited Fort Worth repeatedly to headline fundraisers and meet with supporters.

“I guarantee you that nothing is being taken for granted,” Wilder said.

Regardless of who wins, voters will get something they haven’t had in well over a decade — a new governor who will bring a fresh personality, leadership style and slate of priorities to the office. And the change at the top will be just part of a wholesale reshuffling in other statewide offices, which will have new occupants in the top-down rotation resulting from Perry’s departure.

With the approach of the election, the odds heavily favor Republicans, but Democrats are united in what they call their most energized and well-financed campaign in two decades. They seek to help Davis become the first Democrat — and the first woman — to occupy the governor’s office since Ann Richards in the 1990s.

Volunteer army

State Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said the party is fielding an army of volunteers “the likes of which you’ve never seen before” while Davis storms the state “listening to the concerns” of voters.

“I think all of that is working,” he said, predicting that Democrats will wind up with 51 percent of the vote on Election Day. “I believe we have the momentum.”

Republicans also use superlatives to describe the Abbott team, which has the biggest pot of campaign cash in Texas political history — $35.5 million as of June 30 — and has stayed well ahead in the polls.

Texas Republican Chairman Steve Munisteri calls the Abbott offensive “the best-run statewide campaign I’ve seen in the 42 years I’ve been in Texas politics.”

Two websites give Abbott a double-digit lead based on the average of about a dozen polls. He leads 50.4 percent to 39.5 percent in HuffPost Pollster and 49.3 percent to 36.5 percent in RealClearPolitics.

“Barring an egregious misstep by Abbott, I don’t see any viable way for Wendy Davis to win this election,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “She’s in a very difficult situation. She’s running as a Democrat in a very red state against a disciplined, talented and well-funded opponent.”

Davis’ strategy includes an aggressive push for Hispanics and women, particularly conservative independent and Republican women who may have become disenchanted with GOP policies on women’s health and other issues.

She has intensified campaigning in South Texas after losses to a little-known Hispanic opponent in several counties during the primary raised questions about her ability to turn out Hispanic voters.

“I think she’s doing well,” said Ric Godinez, the Democratic chairman in Hidalgo County. “She’s spending a lot more time down here than she did” during the primary campaign.

Abbott has also proclaimed his intentions to court female and Hispanic voters, often noting that his wife, Cecilia, would be the state’s first Latina first lady. An ad featuring a testimonial from his mother-in-law, whose parents were immigrants from Mexico, is being aired in English and Spanish.

‘Takeoff’ time

In the coming weeks, both sides will unleash a barrage of television and online ads, door-knocking and block-walking, and social media outreach. The campaigns will also intensify their “ground game,” composed of thousands of volunteers working for the two parties and allied groups.

Despite all the money and shoe leather expended in the preceding months, political experts say the coming weeks constitute perhaps the most crucial phase of the race as voters begin serious scrutiny and decide which candidate will get their vote Nov. 4.

“The reality is that voters don’t start paying attention until about six weeks before the election,” said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, an online political newsletter.

“Summertime for both campaigns is about infrastructure and fundraising. Labor Day is obviously the takeoff of the real election.”

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