In Final Weeks, Wendy Davis' Campaign Hinges on Engaging Latinos

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The fight to become the first Democratic Texas governor in two decades is not an easy one, but the Davis campaign has already made major inroads.

Now it’s clutch time, and investments made in the final weeks will be make-or-break. Here’s a look at what needs to happen before Election Day for Wendy to succeed at flipping the script on Texas politics.

 

Polling Illusions

Early polling numbers have led many to conclude that Wendy can’t defeat the stronghold of conservative ideology in Texas – and it’s true that a number of initial polls found Davis trailing GOP opponent Greg Abbott by double digits. Yet two of the most recent polls show Wendy within single digits of her opponent, a sign her campaign may be gaining momentum when it counts.

Not to mention all of these polls generally survey only “likely voters” – while the heart of the Davis campaign strategy is to make that pool of voters a whole lot bigger. After all, the biggest challenge to Democrats in Texas actually isn’t Republican loyalty – it’s a lack of engagement altogether. Texas ranks dead last in the nation in voter turnout, and 42nd in voter registration. The numbers are bleakest in the Latino electorate – just 39% of eligible Latino voters cast ballots in 2012, and just 31% voted in the 2010 midterms. So why aren’t Tejanos showing up at the polls? Well, it’s in part because candidates need to do a better job of inviting them. A report by the American Majority Policy Institute found that just 54% of eligible Latino voters were actually contacted by a campaign in 2012. That’s inexcusable in a state where 38% of the population is Latino. Wendy’s shot at victory will depend on her ability to actively earn the trust of Latino voters.

It’s not unheard of for polls to misjudge a race by underestimating the Latino vote. Take Harry Reid’s 2010 Senate race, where every pollster, including Nate Silver, put Reid at a significant disadvantage. Reid went on to win by over five points. Why? “unlikely” Latino voters cast ballots in larger numbers than predicted, and over 90% voted for Reid. Critically, Reid didn’t tokenize the Latino vote in Nevada, but instead clearly demonstrated his commitment to issues of key concern. He worked to bring the DREAM Act to a vote in the Senate and unyieldingly defended immigration in debates against his bigoted opponent. Wendy Davis stands on a record of protecting education budgets, supporting healthcare access and fighting for the DREAM Act. Now, she needs to focus on engaging in the discussions that will show Latino voters they would have a dedicated ally after Election Day passes.

Cue Team Wendy

The Davis campaign has organized an unprecedented effort to reach the millions of voters in Texas who have been staying at home.  To date, they have made more than 2 million phone calls and recruited more than 24,000 volunteers across the state. In one block-walking weekend at the beginning of August, volunteers set out to knock on the doors of 50,000 potential voters, but ended up shattering the goal, knocking on nearly 75,000 doors - in the blistering Texas heat, no less.  It’s not surprising that one local Democratic Party chairman told the Tyler Morning Telegraph that the Wendy Davis field effort is “a world apart” from past Democratic candidates. With this kind of grassroots energy and momentum, the Davis camp has the potential to make down-to-the-wire gains before Election Day. The key is for Wendy’s campaign to focus on reaching the 3 million registered, non-voting people of color who stayed home for the 2010 election, when that year’s Democratic candidate for governor lost by 600,000 votes.

This Ain't Her First Rodeo

Often overlooked in the “can she or can’t she?” dialogue about Wendy’s prospects for winning a highly contested, high-profile race in a conservative state is the fact that she’s done it twice before. When Wendy was first elected to the Texas Senate in 2008, she defeated a longtime Republican incumbent in what was seen as one of the biggest upsets in modern Texas politics.  In 2012, she held her seat against a Tea Party challenger in another hotly contested battle.

We can use Wendy’s previous elections to understand what it will take for her to win this year. In her 2010 election for State Senate, for example, Wendy won 34% of the white vote in her district. If she can maintain this percentage statewide by reaching out to the more progressive white voters in urban centers, and if her rate of support among all other ethnic groups remained the same, she would win with 49.2% of the vote. If she can bring turnout among Latino voters closer to general election levels, she has a clear path to victory.

Money Woes?

It’s no secret that Greg Abbott comes from the wealthy “boys club” world of Texas politics, creating a real fundraising challenge for Team Wendy. While she has kept pace with Abbott in fundraising since announcing her candidacy last July, Wendy has faced an uphill battle trying to overcome the $20 million Abbott had in the bank from the beginning. To stay competitive, Wendy is forging a new model of raising funds in Texas. So far, over 100,000 small, individual donors have contributed to Wendy’s campaign, far more than any other candidate in the state’s history. Obama proved in 2008 that an army of small individual donors can overpower mega-donor clout on a national scale; if she wins, Wendy could prove the same for Texas. Still, the Abbott campaign claims to have $30 million on hand going into the final stretch, so Team Wendy will have to run an aggressive fundraising effort right up until Election Day.

Showing the Stakes

Under Republican control, Texas has slashed education budgets, shuttered women’s clinics across the state, and passed cuts to Medicaid and social services. Wendy’s challenge is to show the stark contrast between herself as a voice for the issues impacting Texas communities and Greg Abbott as defender of a political status quo that puts corporations and stubborn ideology over people.  The Davis campaign has used the two governor’s debates and a series of television ads, including Spanish language spots in the Rio Grande Valley, to try to make these distinctions clear. They have focused on Abbott’s support for school funding cuts, defense of corrupt corporate investors and lack of concern for women’s rights, while highlighting Wendy’s record of sponsoring bipartisan equal pay legislation, opposing education cuts and investing in the middle class. The question now is whether the Davis campaign’s efforts to show voters what she and Greg Abbott really stand for have reached enough New Majority voters to make a difference on November 4th.  

What are we waiting for?

National Democrats are beginning to realize that demographic change has the power to fundamentally change Texas politics, but their response has largely been to try to pinpoint the right moment for investment in Texas.  That’s like trying to start counting cards when you’re already late to the game.  We need to realize that Texas won’t turn blue until Democrats get serious about bringing overlooked communities to the table. With strategic, focused investments of money and energy in the home stretch, Wendy Davis could make that happen in 2014.


Wendy needs our support in the final month more than ever. Donate today, and support the movement for a more inclusive Texas.

 

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