Politics & Government

Top 10 stories of 2014: It was a tough year for Wendy Davis

Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis cried as she talked about her supporters during an Election Night watch party at Times Ten Cellars in Fort Worth.  The Democrat unsuccessfully ran against Republican Greg Abbott.
Gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis cried as she talked about her supporters during an Election Night watch party at Times Ten Cellars in Fort Worth. The Democrat unsuccessfully ran against Republican Greg Abbott. MCT

Fifth in a series of the top stories of the past year.

It was just one night.

But for a few hours on a sweltering June evening in 2013, state Sen. Wendy Davis thought she saw a glimpse of a new Texas.

The throngs of Texans who showed up at the Texas Capitol not only encouraged Davis in her more than 11-hour filibuster of a strict, comprehensive abortion law.

They also helped change her life for more than a year.

She and others believed the energy, support and enthusiasm that night could help send her to the Governor’s Mansion and make her the first Democrat elected to a statewide post in decades.

That didn’t happen.

2014 was a tough year for Davis, 51, who lost to Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott by more than 20 percentage points — nearly 1 million votes — after months of media scrutiny on issues ranging from errors in her biography to campaign mismanagement.

“The circumstances of that night [in 2013] gave her hope and a dream that was special and it compelled her to run,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Austin-based political consultant. “Had that one night not occurred, she wouldn’t have been a candidate.

“That one night literally changed a year in the Democratic Party and in her life.”

No one is certain what kind of political future now lies ahead of Davis, a former Fort Worth councilwoman and soon-to-be former state senator.

And Davis isn’t saying.

Her office hasn’t responded to interview requests from the Star-Telegram since Election Night.

“This is pretty normal behavior,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “Davis spent more than a year on the campaign trail, raised and spent more than $50 million, and lost her race by 20 points.

“I suspect she is both mentally and physically drained and the last thing she wants to talk about is her landslide defeat.”

In the beginning

On Oct. 3, 2013, Davis stood onstage at Wiley G. Thomas Coliseum in Haltom City — where she received her high school diploma more than three decades before — and announced that she wanted to become Texas’ 48th governor.

“This is a campaign not just for governor but for the very future of our state, " she told the crowd. “Today, we start a new journey — together.

“It's a journey that won't end on Election Day, and it won’t end in Austin,” she said. “As long as we can make our great state even greater, we will keep going.”

Republicans said Davis didn’t have a chance of winning the gubernatorial race.

Democrats acknowledged that she faced an uphill battle, but they maintained that if anyone could do it, it was Davis, who had already won two races in the Texas Senate District 10 that many said she wasn’t expected to win.

Motivational factor?

After the 2013 filibuster, Democrats saw Davis as a dynamic candidate who could invigorate voters.

Filled with more hope and optimism than perhaps found in a decade, they got behind her — and Battleground Texas worked with her — as they all hoped to shore up the Democratic base for Davis and the Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

But her campaign was beset by problems ranging from inconsistencies and errors in her biography to questions about her first and second marriages, how she paid for college and who raised her two daughters.

She released a book, Forgetting to Be Afraid, which was one of the rare times she redirected attention back to the topic that first drew her a national audience: abortion.

In that book, Davis revealed that she terminated two pregnancies, one of which was an ectopic pregnancy and one because of a severe brain abnormality that likely would have left the baby in a permanent vegetative state if she survived delivery, in the 1990s.

Both pregnancies occurred before Davis began her political career.

And closer to the election, as money ran short and voters began paying attention, she aired a controversial TV ad featuring an empty wheelchair that was designed to criticize Abbott’s perceived hypocrisy. Some questioned whether it was appropriate in light of the fact that Abbott has used a wheelchair since he was paralyzed in 1984, after being hit by a falling tree while jogging, and later received a multimillion dollar settlement.

In the end, Davis even won Texas Monthly’s not-so-coveted Bum Steer of the Year.

“For Davis, her campaign started poorly … and things seemed to only go downhill from there,” the magazine wrote. “Infighting! Staff shake-ups! Tension with the press! Missteps over her own biography! And to add insult to injury, after the dust had settled, the state Senate seat she gave up to run against Abbott was claimed by a Republican.

“Davis may be out of politics for now, but she didn’t walk away empty-handed: she is our Bum Steer of the Year.”

What’s next?

Local Republicans say they haven’t spent much time thinking about what political future Davis might have.

“Wendy Davis has not been a top conversation since the election,” said Jen Hall, who heads the Tarrant County Republican Party.

Tarrant County Democratic Chairwoman Deborah Peoples said she is glad Davis ran for the governor’s office and believes she still has a long political future.

“I don’t think this loss means she can’t run for anything again,” she said. “I think her future is bright. It just depends on what she wants to do.

“It’s her decision to make.”

Some speculate whether Davis will run for Fort Worth mayor.

“I do not believe she will run again for some time,” said Allan Saxe, an associate political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

He said she might return to her legal work or pick up a political assignment or private job.

Jones said Davis could work for a national progressive nonprofit group or perhaps be appointed to a post by President Barack Obama.

“With her talents and credentials it would … not be surprising to see her pass into the far more lucrative private sector for at least a time until conditions improve for Democrats in the Lone Star State,” he said.

Political observers say they hope to see Davis back in action — whatever that might be — soon.

“At some point, she’s got to brush herself off and get back into public,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Getting beaten doesn’t close all the doors,” he said. “There are still lots of doors. She just has to decide which one to go through.”

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

Coming Saturday

The Curry-Shannon era comes to an end in Tarrant County.

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