Wendy Davis rose to national fame in pink tennis shoes, standing for 11 hours to filibuster antiabortion legislation in one of the reddest states in the nation. Then she was running for governor and vowing to capture the office Republican Rick Perry has held for the last 14 years.
But on Tuesday, Texas again sent a Republican to Austin — Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott — in a victory that may undermine future Democratic efforts to chip away at the GOP's dominance in the Lone Star State.
"In spite of a nationally recognized candidate who raised more money than any other Democrat in Texas history and had Battleground Texas behind her in a state where demographics are getting better for Democrats, not worse, if the party goes backward, that sends the wrong signal," said Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University in Houston, adding that Davis' dramatic loss "could start a vicious cycle of dampening enthusiasm, frightening investors off and make recruiting volunteers more difficult for 2016."
In an election where every major statewide office was up for grabs, Abbott's was one of several Republican victories. Dan Patrick, 64, a conservative state senator, tea party darling and former shock jock, was elected lieutenant governor, and George P. Bush, 38 — son of potential presidential hopeful Jeb Bush, nephew and grandson of the former presidents — was elected land commissioner.
"They said we couldn't beat Battleground Texas," Bush said Tuesday night. "Ladies and gentlemen, we just did."
Perry, appearing with Bush at a victory party in Austin, noted the continuing Republican dominance in the state, observing that when the officials elected Tuesday finished their terms, "it will have been a quarter of a century since there was a statewide Democrat elected in Texas."
Texas Democrats still insisted they made inroads in voter outreach and turnout, particularly with Latinos, and said the success of their effort should not be judged by the governor's race alone.
"The Democratic leadership of the state believes that it's an incremental process, that we have to start moving the needle forward. The Texas Democratic Party two or three years ago was virtually dead," said state Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. "This is the first election cycle where we've had a major, unified effort to engage the base."
Davis, 51, a state senator from Fort Worth, raised about $38 million, drawing support form wealthy donors in and out of state. But she also made some notable gaffes during the campaign.
She was forced to explain inconsistencies in her official biography and an attack ad that accused Abbott of denying others the same right to sue for damages he exercised after being left partially paralyzed in an accident in 1984. She was often on the defensive against Abbott, 56, who had "no weak flanks to exploit," deep pockets of more than $45 million, and a well-established statewide Republican campaign network, Jones said.
But the biggest problem was outsized expectations, observers said.
When Battleground Texas organizers started work a year and a half ago, they set out to rebuild their support system county by county over the course of several years. But Jones said that by combining their efforts with the Davis campaign, the group "got sucked into the vortex of a short-term focus instead of the long-term focus it was designed for."
Steve Munisteri, who chairs the Texas Republican Party, said that when Battleground Texas arrived, "we were a party on decline" and he was worried — at first.
"Then they abandoned the plan to be low-key and focus on the down ballots and instead did a Hail Mary thinking they could really elect Wendy Davis governor — $40 million and hundreds of volunteers later, they've been here a year and a half; they are going to fail spectacularly. We already know they failed," Munisteri said.
Battleground Texas actually helped his cause, he said. The mention of the out-of-state organizers energized Republican crowds and volunteers.
"We've rebounded. But we got a huge assist from Battleground Texas," Munisteri said, adding that the group would "probably be the single greatest factor in getting Republicans into office in 2016 and 2018."
The added spending and outreach by Republicans are a sign of Democrats' success, said Jeremy Bird, national field director for President Obama's last campaign and now senior advisor to Battleground Texas. "That really says it all about becoming a battleground state," he said.
He called Davis courageous and said investing in her campaign also meant investing in long-term infrastructure — a network of volunteers and a system of data-gathering and analysis that will help improve the way Texas Democrats structure future campaigns.
"We're not going anywhere," he said.