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Wendy Davis opens Texas governor bid with slap at Republican leaders

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Wendy Davis, who soared to overnight fame after filibustering tough antiabortion legislation, announced a widely anticipated bid for Texas governor Thursday with a slap at the state’s Republican rule and a move beyond her most famous political stand.

“In Austin today, our current leadership thinks that promises are something you make to the people that write big checks,” Davis, a state senator, said at a pep-style rally outside Fort Worth, in the arena where she graduated high school. “But the ... promise I’m talking about is bigger than that. It’s the promise of a better tomorrow for everyone.”

To win an anticipated uphill race against the state’s Republican attorney general, Greg Abbott, Davis cannot run as the heroine of liberals who urged her into the race; she must reach out to more centrist voters, especially women. Davis began to attempt that positioning in Thursday’s speech.

Rather than her celebrity-making moment — which she never mentioned — Davis highlighted an earlier filibuster, waged in 2011, against proposed cuts in state education funding. Although unsuccessful, the effort stamped Davis as a rising Democrat star, and, she said, provided impetus for eventual restoration of some of the money.

“Texas deserves a leader who understands that making education a priority creates good jobs for Texans and keeps Texas on top,” she said.

Davis, 50, had been talked about as a potential statewide candidate ever since that 2011 filibuster. She has a compelling personal story, which she recounted Thursday, having struggled as a single mom living in a trailer park before climbing the education ladder from community college to a Harvard Law degree. She also has impressive political credentials; twice she has won in a competitive Fort Worth district with a formula — strong support from women and Latino voters — that mirrors what a Democrat would need to win statewide.

Her timetable was hastened by the overnight celebrity that grew out of her June filibuster over abortion, which ricocheted around the world via social media. Wearing pink sneakers and back brace, Davis managed to run out the clock on a special legislative session devoted to passing some of the strictest restrictions in the country. Although the law ultimately passed in a follow-up session and was signed into law by outgoing Republican Gov. Rick Perry, Davis’ action galvanized women and liberal activists.

She raised $1 million in the weeks that followed and launched a national tour, building a network of online and financial supporters as she considered entering the governor’s race.

Despite that enthusiasm, Davis starts the contest as a decided underdog. Abbott has already raised more than $23 million and has a compelling personal story of his own: He became a paraplegic in 1984 when a tree fell on him during a run, crushing his backbone.

“Some politicians talk about having a steel spine,” Abbott said in announcing his candidacy in July. “I actually have one.”

Abbott, 55, also benefits from the political landscape in Texas, which has not elected a Democratic governor in more than two decades. Republicans have a streak of more than 100 statewide victories and, while the demographics are changing as the Asian and Latino populations grow, the state still tilts heavily toward the GOP.

“She’s running under the banner of a party that starts off with, at a minimum, a 10-point disadvantage in statewide races,” said James Henson, who directs the Texas Politics project at the state’s flagship university in Austin.

Davis will not only have to run a near-flawless campaign to win, Henson said, she needs some luck and a less-than-stellar effort by Abbott, who has not faced a credible Democratic opponent in years. His competition in the GOP primary is Tom Pauken, a former state Republican chairman with meager funding but following within the tea party wing.

“There is no silver bullet” for Davis to succeed, Henson said. “A lot of things have to happen.”

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Twitter: @markzbarabak

 

 

 mark.barabak@latimes.com

Twitter: @markzbarabak

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