For years, I’ve watched as a vintage bumper sticker on a lamppost near my house has faded toward invisibility. “Clements,” it still says, barely. I checked on it the other day in preparation for heading to Haltom City for Fort Worth state Sen. Wendy Davis’ big announcement Thursday.
Republican Clements stands as a Davis role model, at least to the extent that he once was a gubernatorial candidate given very little to no chance of winning because of party affiliation. Ditto for Democrat Davis.
When Clements ran in 1978, no Republican had been Texas governor since Edmund J. Davis left office Jan. 15, 1874. We’ve had a Democratic governor as recently as Jan. 17, 1995, when Ann Richards left office. Compared to the GOP’s 104-year Texas gubernatorial drought, the current Democratic dry spell isn’t much.
Four years after Clements’ 1978 upset win over then-Attorney General John Hill, Mark White beat Clements as the Democrats won all the statewide executive races. The Dems’ 1982 sweep was the last time they accomplished that. Republicans have made it a habit dating back to 1996.
Other than the fact that they are of the “wrong” party, the Davis-Clements analogy pretty much ends there. There’s not much else in Clements’ 1978 playbook she can count on, perhaps especially the two most important things in his victory: He was a rich man spending big bucks on his campaign, and the Dems were divided by a bruising primary battle between Hill and then-Gov. Dolph Briscoe.
I guess there’s some chance that the GOP’s potentially bitter four-man race for lieutenant governor could leave some intraparty division, but I doubt that would hurt probable GOP gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott.
Adding to Davis’ challenge is the stat that no Texas Democrat has scored a majority of the vote in a gubernatorial race since White beat Clements in 1982. (Clements came back to oust White in 1986.) In 1990, Richards got only 49.5 percent in beating Clayton Williams, an amateur-hour candidate who spent a bunch of his own money to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
That’s the challenging background Davis faces as the nation’s political eyes turn to Haltom City, the Fort Worth suburb where she is expected to announce her gubernatorial candidacy. It’s an uphill effort, way uphill. Would a Davis win in 2014 be a bigger upset than Clements’ 1978 victory? Probably not, but close. (And remember, Republican John Tower, who squeaked to re-election in 1978, had been in the U.S. Senate since 1961. No Texas Democrat has won a statewide race since 1994.)
Would a Davis win be, as Clements’ was, a landmark step toward major partisan shift in Texas? Doubtful, but then again nobody in 1978 could have foreseen Clements’ win as an early harbinger of a major partisan shift to come.
Davis can win next year. Will she? I don’t think so and don’t know many people who do. But Democrats harbor hope based on this mantra: “There is a path.” And there is.
For nothing much more than standing and talking for a long time on the Texas Senate floor during a filibuster that accomplished nothing other than making her famous, Davis has generated enthusiasm among Texas Democrats the likes of which I haven’t seen since Richards was center stage.
Assuming she cruises to the nomination, we’ll find out in November 2014 whether she’s destined to become a major, pivotal figure in Texas, and perhaps national, political history or whether her candidacy becomes a losing litmus test that Democrats might wish had not been run.
Her victory path is as simple to define as it is difficult to achieve. Part of it involves something at which Texas Democrats have failed for years — getting more Hispanics to the polls. Another key part is getting more women to the polls.
And the Dems may have a secret weapon at work. It’s called Texas Republicans, many of whom are doing their darndest to help Davis by venturing so far to the right that they’re in danger of being too far from the more moderate middle where most Texans (if not Texas voters in recent elections) live.
Buckle up, folks, this could be fun as we find out what a vintage Davis bumper sticker will mean in years to come.