This afternoon, Politico reported that Texas State Senator Wendy Davis, a Democrat who attracted national attention for filibustering a bill restricting access to abortion, will run for governor in 2014. A Davis candidacy will surely thrill Democrats and reignite dreams of turning the Lone Star state “blue,” but don’t kid yourself: Davis is doomed.
Demographic changes might eventually break the Republican siege of those poor liberals in Austin. But for now, there isn’t a pathway to victory for progressive Texas Democrats. Obama lost by 16 points last November, despite favorable turnout and demographic trends. It’s even tougher for Democrats in an off-year, when non-white and young voters are unusually likely to stay home. In 2014, the white share of the electorate might increase to about 62 percent, up from 58 percent in 2012.
As a result, Davis starts behind President Obama. It’s tough to chart a road forward for there. To begin with, it’s hard to imagine Davis making huge gains over Obama’s performance with black or Hispanic voters, especially if we're considering turnout. So that means the preponderance of Davis’ gains will need to come from Texas whites.
It is difficult to overstate how hard it will be for Davis to assemble the requisite number of white voters. Last November, Obama might not have even received 20 percent of the Texas white vote. To win, Davis will probably need to approach the mid-thirties.
It's just not realistic to expect such massive gains. More than half of Texas white voters were evangelical Christians in 2010. Those voters broke for Perry by a massive 84-15 margin, and even more for Romney. It’s inconceivable that Wendy Davis, a liberal heart-throb best known for filibustering an anti-abortion bill, would make outsized inroads among southern Evangelical Christians. She could easily do worse.
Davis is also a poor fit for what has historically been the “swingiest” sect of Texas whites: The traditionally Democratic but conservative stretches of central and west Texas. Out there, Clinton won plenty of counties in 1992 and 1996, and a strong Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Bill White, ran far ahead of Obama in 2010. For instance, Clinton won Foard County by 33 points; 14 years later, White won Foard County by just 2 points margin; and last November, Obama got pummeled and lost by 42 points. But Davis probably won't win Foard County. She’ll be defined as a cultural liberal—and cultural liberals don’t take advantage of the latent Democratic advantage in deeply conservative West Texas.
So that means Davis would need to make massive gains among what’s left of the electorate: Non-evangelical whites, mainly in the burgeoning metropolitan areas of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. The problem, of course, is that non-evangelical whites in Texas are pretty conservative, too.
How well would she have to do? She might need to outright win non-evangelical whites—maybe by as much as 10 points or so. In Texas. That would be the electoral feat of the century.
Davis might have other reasons for running. Maybe she wants to build the party, or fight the good fight. Who knows? But one thing is clear: Absent a catastrophically bad Republican candidate there isn’t a pathway to victory for progressive Texas Democrats, at least not yet. In a state dominated by white evangelicals and non-white voters, there just aren’t enough swing voters to close a 20 point deficit. And even if there was a progressive Democrat who could win, it's not Wendy Davis.