July 05, 2013

Imagine Ann Richards onstage, her smile wide as Texas, her voice just as buoyant and her sense of humor equally keen. Can you see the much-beloved former Texas governor morphing into Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis? I pose the question because following Davis’ filibuster last week in the Texas Senate, she has become a media darling and is being touted as her party’s salvation in the next governor’s race.

Richards, who slipped from Earth’s surly bonds almost seven years ago, was as singular a character as the state had seen, or elected to statewide office, since former President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Richards was the caboose on the end of a decades-long train of Democratic dominance in Texas politics.

LBJ himself foresaw the end of that dominant era when he signed hallmark civil rights legislation. Those bills, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were the wedge that pushed conservative whites, already disaffected by the party’s early attempts at diversification, over the fence and into the Republican camp.

Texas Democrats are so starved for a reification of the ghosts of LBJ and Richards they are slaphappy to see a savior where one may not exist. So, too, are their progressive colleagues outside the state. Here’s New York magazine’s description of Davis, published earlier this week: “Standing tall in her pink sneakers, leading a legislative maneuver that inspired a successful act of feminist civil disobedience, Davis streaked to fame in classic Texas style, equal parts Molly Ivins and Farrah Fawcett. Nobody had to tell the national media how to take it from there: the hardscrabble backstory, the Harvard credentials, the hotness, the blondeness, and the attagirl tweet from President (Barack) Obama.”

Much as one may wish Davis Godspeed toward a statewide run, it is difficult to share the writer’s vision of her as part Molly Ivins and part Farrah Fawcett. There’s a twinkle of Texas-sized stardom there, but not a comet. Her personality may yet crescendo to big state proportions, but she’s not there now.

Democrats are betting her surge will be propelled by another shift in state politics: the ballooning Hispanic population that leans Democratic. Hispanics are by far the largest minority in the state. If present immigration and fertility rates continue, Latinos are projected to be the largest racial group in Texas within a decade. Last year, Obama won more than seven in 10 Hispanic votes.

But there’s another obstacle Hispanic voters must overcome before they pull enough electoral weight to hand Democrats a comeback in Texas: They must register and vote in greater numbers.

According to data released last year by the Pew Hispanic Center, Texas’ population was 38 percent Hispanic, the second largest Hispanic population share nationally, after California. Some 44 percent of Texas Hispanics were eligible to vote, ranking Texas 17th nationwide in the share of the Hispanic population that is eligible to vote. By contrast, 78 percent of the state’s white population is eligible to vote. Unless Hispanics improve registration and turnout rates, their power to return Democrats to majority party status in Texas may be way more than a decade away.

Wendy Davis, meanwhile, is not sitting back and waiting for Hispanic dominance to carry her to statewide office. She has established herself as a well-funded, well-organized candidate with a relatively mainstream agenda. Her filibuster on abortion rights was not her first. She also led a 2011 filibuster against the Republican budget that slashed $4 billion for Texas public schools while protecting Gov. Rick Perry’s special interests.

Davis has precious little time to decide whether she will make a run for governor next year.

She must weigh the odds of using or losing her newfound celebrity. She must consider the impact of a possible stunning loss on her future career. She must decide whether her focus on women’s empowerment is a turn-off or a turn-on to independent white voters whose support she will need in a statewide run. Like everything else in Texas Democratic politics these days, it’s a really tough call.