Since 1939, the unofficial title of Most Famous Filibusterer, real or fictional, has remained squarely in the hands of Mr. Smith, of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington fame. This summer, however, a state senator from Texas by the name of Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) gave Mr. Smith a run for his money with a 13-hour long filibuster that stirred hearts and emotions around the country. Sen. Davis’ filibuster was in defiance of a proposed bill that would have increased abortion regulations, making legal abortions harder to obtain. Overnight, Sen. Davis became a hero for Democrats and pro-choice supporters alike. Now, everyone, from news commentators to Sen. Davis herself, is asking the same question: What will she do next?
According to Davis’ own statements made earlier this week, she has narrowed down her options to two: run for re-election in the 10th district of Texas, or run for governor. But instead of asking “What will Sen. Davis do next?,” we ought to be asking “What should she do next?” Ideally, Sen. Davis entered politics with one simple, noble goal in mind: to improve the lives of her constituents. If we assume this to be true, then logically speaking, she should choose the option that brings her closest to this goal. Ultimately, the crux of Sen. Davis’ decision lies in determining whether the heightened possibility for enacting change that comes with the Texas governorship outweighs the significant chance she faces of losing the election for governor.
In order to examine this balancing act, we must first look at Sen. Davis’ chances of winning both a governor's election and a state Senate election.
While Sen. Davis’ popularity is perhaps at its peak nationally, her popularity in Texas, a consistently conservative state that has not seen a Democratic governor since 1990, is much more suspect. Though people around the country rallied around Sen. Davis during her filibuster, 62% of Texans were in favor of the ban on abortions after the 20-week mark, which was one of the main components of the bill. Therefore, Davis filibustered a bill that a majority of Texans actually supported. Additionally, though the Democratic-Republican voting breakdown in a state for a presidential election does not always predict what will happen in local or statewide races, the 15.8-percentage-point gap between Romney and Obama in Texas in 2012 suggests that Texas is as solidly Republican as is commonly believed.
These figures do not bode well for Sen. Davis’ chances in the gubernatorial election, especially given the strength of her probable Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott. Aside from more closely matching the general ideology of his state, Abbott also has substantial amounts of money flowing into his campaign. Furthermore, given the extensive amount of existing publicity surrounding Sen. Davis, there is ample material on which Abbott’s campaign can base attack ads. This material, combined with Abbott’s massive war chest, could have a very real, very negative impact on Sen. Davis’ chances.
On the other hand, the timing of this gubernatorial election plays strongly into Sen. Davis’ hands. Incumbents enjoy surprisingly high reelection rates, and thus represent formidable opponents in gubernatorial elections. One study showed that approximately 86% of incumbent governors running for re-election won. However, with Governor Perry stepping down from the governorship, there is no incumbent in this election. If Sen. Davis chooses not to run for governor now, she will encounter an even tougher battle for the governorship in the next election, when she will most certainly face an incumbent. In other words, while Texas’ demographics do not point in Sen. Davis’ favor, it seems as if this is a “now or never” moment for her to run for governor. Though her road to reelection may prove an uphill battle now, it will only get steeper with time.
Unlike Sen. Davis’ chances in the gubernatorial election, the likelihood of her being reelected to her current State Senate position is very high. Though Republicans attempted to gerrymander the 10th district earlier this year, their attempts ultimately failed and Davis’ prospects in the 10th district appear positive. In exchange for a less powerful position, she'd get an almost assured path to reelection.
Finally, though, it's worth asking: Would Davis actually have more influence as the governor of her state? Conventional wisdom would say yes, but the reality is more complicated than one might expect.
Unlike senators and representatives, the power of the governor varies widely from state to state. Some governors, like Chris Christie of New Jersey, are immensely more powerful than others because of the design of their state constitutions. Interestingly, the Texas governor is usually considered one of the least powerful in the nation. The backstory behind this ranking involves a governor attempting to take over the state and the Texas state legislature having none of it, leaving the current Texas governorship a watered-down version of its former self. Adding together a Democratic governor with fairly limited power and a Republican-dominated state legislature, a Governor Wendy Davis might have more trouble than one would expect in terms of actually accomplishing her goals.
Clearly, opposing forces are at play here. On one hand, Sen. Davis will likely never have a better opportunity to run for governor. On the other hand, her chances of winning are still not favorable and her influence as governor may not be as great as she expects. Indeed, if Sen. Davis truly wants to have the greatest possible impact on the lives of her constituents, she should skip the gubernatorial race and run for re-election in the 10th district. After all, as she demonstrated this past summer, one person standing up for what she believes in can make an incredible impact, whether from the governor’s office or the floor of the State Senate.