Wendy Davis, the famous filibusterer, is hoping her pink sneakers can turn a slice of Texas blue.
A liberal hero who gained a national following with her 13-hour stand against a pro-life bill in the state Senate in 2013, Ms. Davis tried to channel that notoriety into a bid for governor a year later. She was crushed, losing by more than 20 percentage points.
Now she’s returning to electoral politics, announcing last week that she has set her sights on Washington and the House seat held by freshman Republican Rep. Chip Roy, in what analysts say could be a high-spending ideological slugfest.
She’s not likely to appeal to the median voter — and neither is Mr. Roy, the former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz, said Kirby Goidel, a political science professor at Texas A&M University and the director of its Public Policy Research Institute.
“Overall, the race will likely be loud, nationalized (as opposed to localized), partisan and polarizing,” Mr Goidel said. “The voters will likely get little respite from the contest once it heats up, and this one may heat up quickly.”
The district stretches from part of San Antonio to part of Austin, the whole swooping west to grab a large rectangle of suburban and rural Texas.
White voters make up about 60% of the district, with Hispanics making up about 30%.
In 2012, Mitt Romney took 60% of the vote in the district, but Mr. Trump managed just 52% there when he won Texas in 2016.
In Congress, Rep. Lamar Smith never dipped below 60% from 2004 to 2014, and on some occasions topped 70%. That changed in 2016, when he got 57% in his last election before he retired.
Mr. Roy, in his 2018 race, barely won a majority, running behind Mr. Trump’s total. He topped his Democratic opponent by less than 3 percentage points.
“This is a district that has been trending bluer and bluer for many years,” Ms. Davis told KXAS-TV this week.
She said she raised a quarter of a million dollars on the day she announced her campaign — though she’s also already notched her first stumble, according to Texas newspapers that reported she filmed a fundraising video in the state Senate chamber, apparently violating the rules.
Yet as her fundraising total indicated, she retains some star power in liberal circles. At one point, her standing was such that Hollywood appeared poised to have Sandra Bullock portray her in a movie, but the trade publications have been quiet on that project since late 2017.
The landscape has some Texas conservatives concerned.
“The historically liberal cities have gotten larger and more lopsidedly Democratic,” said Mark Pulliam, a conservative blogger and author in Texas. “More troubling is the once-Republican suburbs, which are apparently full of transplants and soccer moms who hate Trump.”
He pointed to gains Democrats made in 2018 in both houses of the Texas legislature and on the state’s intermediate courts of appeal, which are elected positions, and where Democrats now hold a majority.
“The liberal minority in Texas is approaching majority status due to demographics (a fertile Hispanic population is exploding), a vast influx of millenials to take tech jobs and enjoy the hipster lifestyle, and relocation of businesses from California,” Mr Pulliam wrote.
Whether 2018 was an aberration or bellwether, “We’ll know in 2020.”
Certainly Mr. Roy’s campaign is attuned to what Ms. Davis may attract. On Tuesday, his campaign’s Facebook page issued a fundraising blast.
“Democrat money is pouring into her campaign, so we need conservative patriots to stand with us,” the post said.
For all its national interest, however, the 2020 decision in Texas’ 21st congressional district could hinge on purely local concerns, some experts say.
Ms. Davis, a twice-divorced mother of two, left the Ft. Worth area a few years ago and established residence in Austin, said Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.
She is likely to take that urban pocket comfortably, along with the northern edge of San Antonio, but it is not clear how she will play in the Hill Country that comprises the most acreage in the district and is “more rural, small town, but not poor,” Mr. Jillson said.
“The reason her gubernatorial bid foundered is because she failed to establish Texas-credible positions on things like abortion and guns,” he said. “It’s not entirely clear what tack Davis will take. This time, she may have a chance to re-craft herself, adopting not the new progressive stances like take all the guns and abortion on demand, but credible, moderate positions, traditional Democratic positions.”
Her campaign’s long introductory video seems to indicate she understands that vulnerability, as it stresses family roots and her improbable rise to Harvard Law and then public office rather than hot-button left-wing issues.
Meanwhile, Mr. Roy will have to prove to constituents he cares as much about them as he does the Washington spotlight, according to Mr. Jillson, the author of “Lone Star Tarnished.”
“Whether he can hold the seat will depend on if he can stay sufficiently focused back home as opposed to making a profile in Washington,” he said.
• James Varney can be reached at email@example.com.
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