If Linda Lingle Could, Why Can’t Wendy Davis?

Stuart Rothenberg December 3, 2013 · 10:36 AM EDT

As longtime readers of this column know, voters in one-party states sometimes elect the nominee of the “wrong” party as governor. Today’s question is whether state Sen. Wendy Davis, a Democrat, has a fighting chance to win next year’s gubernatorial election in Texas, which remains a rock-solid Republican state.

Davis was elected to the Fort Worth City Council in 1999 and was re-elected four times. She defeated an incumbent Republican state senator in 2008, and four years later she squeezed out re-election, 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent, against a Republican member of the state House who challenged her in what the Star-Telegram termed a “brawl.”

In June, Davis filibustered Senate Bill 5, which would have banned abortions after 20 weeks and imposed new regulations on doctors and clinics performing abortions in Texas. The Fort Worth Democrat was successful in blocking a vote at the end of the special session, but Gov. Rick Perry called a second special session and the bill passed. It was signed into law on July 18.

Davis’ filibuster drew national attention, and she was heralded as a hero by liberals, Democrats and supporters of legal abortion. Early in October, she announced that she would run for governor.

The state senator’s admirers often note her compelling personal story. She and her siblings were raised by a single mother. She became a single mother herself, living in a trailer park. She graduated from Texas Christian University and then earned a law degree from Harvard.

But even with a good story, Davis obviously has an uphill run in difficult political terrain. Still, others have succeeded.

The list of “wrong” party winners includes Linda Lingle, a Republican who won two terms as governor of very Democratic Hawaii, which has not elected a Republican to the Senate since 1970. It also includes Republicans Lincoln Almond and Don Carcieri, who together won four straight gubernatorial elections in Rhode Island, which hasn’t gone Republican in a presidential election since 1984.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrat Dave Freudenthal was elected governor twice (in 2002 and 2006) in Wyoming, one of the reddest states in the country. In 2006, he drew almost 70 percent of the vote — 50 points better than Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry did in the state in the 2004 presidential race.

And although Kansas has voted Democratic for president only once since the end of World War II, in 1964, and the state has not sent a Democrat to the Senate since George McGill in the 1930s, Democrat Kathleen Sebelius won two gubernatorial elections (2002 and 2006), and Democratic nominees have won nine of the state’s past 14 gubernatorial races.

So merely dismissing Davis’ prospects because she is a Democrat in a Republican state is shortsighted.

Davis might be able to be the next Lingle, Freudenthal or Brad Henry (a Democrat who was elected governor in Oklahoma in 2002 and 2006) if she could convince voters that she is a moderate who is more in-step with her state than with her national party. But that seems unlikely, even though her initial campaign video sought to steer clear of ideology and her record in favor of pretty pictures and testimonials. But Wendy Davis isn’t a blank slate.

Sebelius, who served as state insurance commissioner and has a very restrained personal style, ran as a moderate Democrat to win her first term in 2002, and she benefited from a deep ideological split in the state’s Republican Party. Lingle was a moderate who ran as one, emphasizing her success as mayor of Maui and her differences with her party on abortion.

Davis apparently will try to put distance between her legislative record and her candidacy by emphasizing broadly appealing themes, but Republicans have plenty of ammunition to use against her, including enthusiastic support for the state senator from the political left.

Feminist writer Katha Pollitt, a regular contributor to The Nation, wrote about “Wendy Davis, Superhero” shortly after the Texas state senator finished her filibuster. And at Salon.com, editor-at-large Joan Walsh’s ode to Davis was titled “Wendy Davis, Feminist Superhero.”

With friends like these, and others at places such as MSNBC, Davis will find it hard to remake herself. And, as veteran Los Angeles Times political reporter Mark Z. Barabak pointed out in an Oct. 8 piece, though Davis did not include her party in her initial video, Republicans will make sure during the campaign that voters know Davis and President Barack Obama are members of the Democratic Party.

At the Rothenberg Political Report, we rate the contest as Safe Republican. The Cook Political Report has it as Solid Republican, and Nate Cohn wrote in late September in The New Republic that Davis “is doomed” in her bid for governor.

Of course, EMILY’s List has already “recommended” Davis, and the Lone Star Project, the aggressive Democratic group run by former Martin Frost operative Matt Angle, is promoting Davis heavily.

But they have reasons to do so, even though the Democratic state senator looks like a loser. Democrats and liberals believe that long-term demographic trends will turn Texas purple, and Davis’ effort could speed up that process, they hope. Moreover, she could well be a national fundraising machine for liberal groups, no matter how realistic her prospects.

Texas may turn purple, but not in 2014. And not with Wendy Davis or a nominee like her.