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Could A Democrat Become Governor In Texas?

Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democratic candidate for governor, speaks at a rally in Haltom City on Oct. 3.
LM Otero
Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democratic candidate for governor, speaks at a rally in Haltom City on Oct. 3.

In 2014, Texas voters might just see something they haven't experienced in two decades — a competitive race for governor.

Current Republican Gov. Rick Perry isn't running for re-election, so it's an open race, with new faces and new optimism for Texas Democrats.

Earlier this year, the Democrats were once again facing the prospect of scrambling to find someone to run as their candidate. Then, on June 25, state Sen. Wendy Davis came to the Capitol in Austin wearing running shoes and ready to block a restrictive abortion bill.

One 11-hour filibuster and hundreds of thousands of online views later, she had become a political star, and the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor. She officially entered the race last week in Fort Worth.

"It's time for a governor who believes that you don't have to buy a place in Texas' future," she said. "It's time for a governor who believes that the future of Texas belongs to all of us. It's time for a leader who will put Texans first."

Her speech left nearly 1,800 supporters buzzing. That's excitement her campaign needs in the race against the presumptive GOP nominee, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Abbott says as governor, he would fight for "working, middle-class Texans."

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican candidate for governor, gives an interview in Houston in July.
Pat Sullivan / AP
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican candidate for governor, gives an interview in Houston in July.

"Just as I've been a voice for liberty and the Constitution, I'll be a voice for you — for children, for parents, for homeowners and for small-business owners," Abbott says.

Wayne Slater, senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News, says Abbott is "known in this state" and "has a conservative, clear agenda."

"He also, most importantly, has a lot of money," Slater says. "He already has some $20 [million], $25 million in the bank. His people say they think he can raise $50 [million] to $70 million. If he does that, he is going to be able to blanket the airwaves in this race and dominate the conversation."

Republicans have dominated Texas elections since 1994. That was the last time any Democrat won a statewide campaign.

Jim Henson, a pollster at the University of Texas, says Democrats can make gains in Texas — from increasing Hispanic turnout to bringing disgruntled Democrats back to the voting booth. Henson says even the national agenda of the Tea Party provides a small opportunity.

"The conservative turn in the Texas Republican Party, and the tone and content that's resulted from the impact of the Tea Party, may be alienating some otherwise Republican-inclined suburban women," Henson says.

Those are the same people Davis is wooing with her support for women's health and abortion. But campaigning on abortion — the issue that brought her to national prominence — is tricky. Davis didn't mention abortion in her campaign kickoff speech.

Conservatives have already started calling Davis an "abortion zealot." An attack ad launched by Texas Right to Life last week says Davis "is wrong on life, wrong for our children and wrong for Texas."

Davis' campaign won't be easy. Texas voted 57 percent for Republican Mitt Romney in the last presidential election — and it's the same state that sent conservative Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate.

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Ben Philpott covers politics and policy for KUT 90.5 FM. He has been covering state politics and dozens of other topics for the station since 2002. He's been recognized for outstanding radio journalism by the Radio and Television News Directors Association, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated, the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters and twice by the Houston Press Club as Radio Journalist of the Year. Before moving to Texas, he worked in public radio in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and at several television stations in Alabama and Tennessee. Born in New York City and raised in Chattanooga, Tenn., Philpott graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in broadcast journalism.