By any measure, Wendy Davis is a star. The Texas state senator has more Twitter followers than any politician in California, the most famous pink running shoes in the world, and a strategist who says she is "looking very closely" at running for governor. But even for a white-hot prospect like Sen. Davis, charting a path into the governor's mansion is an exercise in hope that optimistic assumptions hold up, Republicans fumble immigration, and Gov. Rick Perry, who has yet to announce his re-election plans, gives Democrats one last chance to beat him.
Celebrity or not, any Democratic gubernatorial nominee starts out in a big hole. Democratic pollster Stefan Hankin recently cautioned Democrats against trying to turn Texas blue, predicting that shifts in the electorate will likely only earn a Democratic nominee 41.6 percent in 2014.
Texas elections don't require a majority to win, and Libertarian and Green Party candidates usually siphon off a couple percentage points, which is how Ann Richards won the governorship in 1990 with 49 percent of the vote. But as an intellectual exercise, figuring out whether Davis can win requires charting a path from the 41.6 percent baseline to 50 percent, a tall order.
Nationally, talk of turning Texas into a battleground state involves strategizing about how best to wake up the sleeping giant of Hispanic voters, but the present-day dragon to slay is the Anglo voter. Hankin predicts Anglos will make up 65 percent of the 2014 vote. On average, Texas Democrats get only 26 percent of white voters, which is why most objective analysts make a sad trombone sound when asked about Sen. Davis' chances.
But Sen. Davis has been running in a swing district in Ft. Worth where you have to win over Anglo voters. It's not apples-to-apples, but comparing her overall vote share to Pres. Barack Obama's in her district roughly approximates how she did with Anglos. In 2012, she got 51.11 percent, 5.71 percent better than Obama. Add that to the Democratic baseline, and Sen. Davis is at 47.31 percent.
Usually the national political environment hurts Texas Democrats. Four year ago, Gov. Rick Perry effectively won re-election by nationalizing the race when he played footsie with secession at a tea party rally.
Now Republicans can't seem to get out of their own way on immigration, hurting their standing with Texas Hispanics, especially after both Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz voted against immigration reform. A 2012 poll found that 58 percent of Texas Hispanics know someone living in this country illegally, and they overwhelmingly supported Obama's immigration position over Mitt Romney's self-deportation policy. Consequently, Hispanics self-deported from the GOP. Usually Texas Republicans get 37 percent of the Hispanic vote. According to a pre-election poll by Latino Decisions, only 27 percent of Texas Hispanics voted Republican in 2012.
If Sen. Davis can count on getting 73 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2014, that translates to an extra 2 percent on Election Day. That holds true even if you assume that Battleground Texas, an effort by Obama alums to wake up the aforementioned giant in Texas, does not increase turnout next year.
Add that 2 percent to Sen. Davis' hypothetical 47.31 percent and we're where Ann Richards finished in 1994. That would provide a razor-thin victory that Richards won only because her Republican opponent disqualified himself by comparing rape to bad weather. ("If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it," he said to reporters.)
Sen. Davis won't get to run against a Republican who makes rape jokes, but if she's lucky she'll get to run against a man no Democrat has ever defeated -- Gov. Rick Perry. In January -- that is, before the filibuster -- Public Policy Polling had Perry leading Davis 47 percent-41 percent, putting the then-unknown senator at the baseline.
More significant was Perry's standing among general-election voters, 54 percent of whom disapproved of the man who has been governor since before iPods existed. He's still popular with Republican primary voters (except those in Iowa, in New Hampshire, and in South Carolina, that is), but Texas has come down with a bad case of Perry Fatigue.
All these assumptions are more optimistic than pixie dust, but like another famous Wendy, Sen. Davis can only fly if she thinks happy thoughts. After losing 100 statewide races in a row, Democrats had fallen into a self-loathing depression. In trying to ramrod through abortion restrictions, Republicans not only snapped Texas Democrats out of their funk but accidentally created the hero who might lead them to victory.