Wendy Davis Opens Up On The Burden Of Running As A Feminist Icon In Texas

She says the expectations placed on her 2014 campaign were unrealistic.
Patrick Fallon / Reuters

One Tuesday in late June 2013, Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis stood on her feet for just under 13 hours in an attempt to stop a draconian anti-abortion bill. While the bill would eventually pass, Davis’ filibuster turned her into a pro-abortion rights icon and the Democratic Party’s best hope of regaining power in a place where it hadn't held a statewide elected office in two decades.

When Davis announced she’d run for governor, she had already started to attract donors and outside resources that could make her bid competitive. Her candidacy sparked a number of stories asking if Texas could turn blue or at least a pale purple.

But being beloved in Austin is different than winning over the entire state, especially for a candidate who’d never run statewide or faced the scrutiny of local and national media. Davis would end up losing by more than 20 points to then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, in the worst defeat for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Texas since 1998.

In the latest episode of "Candidate Confessional," Davis detailed the missteps that led to that agonizing election night and argued that the expectations placed on her were both overwhelming and ultimately unrealistic.

"It is a huge burden," she said. "I mean, I think anyone looking at a race such as ours, the realistic expectation would be: Did you move the ball forward? I think we definitely moved the ball forward. But to believe that one person, after a 20-year drought, can suddenly deliver the flood, that expectation is probably unrealistic."

A contributing factor to her loss, Davis said, was the fact that decades of neglect had left the Texas Democratic Party in disrepair. The voter file, which candidates use to pinpoint prospective voters, was "absolutely a mess," she said, in part because for years, her party hadn't had a galvanizing candidate for whom to build it.

At the start, Davis had been told she would need to raise $60 million to run an effective campaign. It was a daunting figure for someone with just $800,000 in the bank. And though she ended up raising $43 million, a large portion of that went to getting the voter file up to date.

Davis did have outside help. Battleground Texas, an organization started by Obama campaign veterans, promised to develop a sophisticated get-out-the-vote operation. But the enormous hype soon turned into acrimony.

“They were meeting with some resistance from county elected officials or county Democratic, longtime worker bees and supporters of Democratic candidates who felt like their ways of doing things and their work in the past was going un-respected," explained Davis. "And so there was this tension too that existed between people who had been out there doing really good work and who felt like these new upstarts were coming in and telling them how to do things in a way that wasn’t inclusive.”

Davis made her own missteps too (you'll have to listen to the podcast to hear about those). But she argued that the hurdles she was forced to clear were far higher than most -- and not because she was a Democrat running in a conservative state, but because she was a woman trying to succeed in a field that favors men.

"My story was viewed differently than it would have been had I been a male candidate," Davis said. "The issue about my children and my capacities as a mother, those would never have arisen had I been a man. Those questions never would have been asked. The New York Times Magazine story that ran during my race about me ran under the headline, 'Can Wendy Davis Have It All?' That question would never be asked of a male candidate.”

Listen to the podcast above, or download it on iTunes. And while you're there, please subscribe to, rate and review our show. Make sure to tune in to next week's episode, when our guest will be Tim Pawlenty, a Republican candidate for president in 2012.

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