Addressing the National Press Club in its wood-paneled ballroom on Monday, Texas state Senator Wendy Davis fended off the same question before she even started her speech, the moment she finished it, and (disguised in different wording) at regular intervals throughout the Q&A: Will she run for governor in 2014?
Since her celebrated filibuster of an abortion bill in June, speculation has been heating up that Davis could be the first Democrat in two decades with a ghost of a chance of winning statewide office in the Lone Star state. Monday, she confirmed that she’s thinking hard about it. “I can say with absolute certainty that I will run for one of two offices, either my state senate seat or the governor,” she said, to applause. Davis raised over $933,000 in the last two weeks of June, according to The Center for Public Integrity, and she recently held a pair of Washington, D.C. fundraisers whose high-profile guest lists included Senators Barbara Boxer, Al Franken, and Kirsten Gillibrand.
And Davis certainly acted like someone gearing up to run for higher office. Dressed in an orange blouse that matched her bright demeanor (and recalled the sea of burnt orange-clad abortion rights supporters who flooded Austin to cheer her filibuster), she crafted her speech around a deft call for bipartisanship. “Though I’ve been characterized by our governor and some in the legislature as a bit of a problem, my record is really about the effort to find solutions,” she said, adding: “In Texas, we don’t run for local office with a party affiliation next to our name. And we don’t govern with one either.” Her speech sounded stump-like enough that a journalist asked if she had come to D.C. to drum up attention (she responded that she was invited to speak).
Davis didn’t pull punches when it came to Rick Perry, the Republican governor she may run to replace, painting him as the ultimate foil to her bipartisan vision. She took him to task for forcing the passage of the abortion bill and, earlier in the summer, vetoing the “equal pay for equal work” bill that a broad coalition had shepherded through the legislature. Asked what she had to say about a possible Rick Perry run for president in 2016, she began, “Well, I have three responses to that.” As the audience erupted in laughter, she paused with a mischievous smile and a shake of her head. “I think that’s all I’m going to say.”
The senator had some fighting words for her most likely gubernatorial challenger, Attorney General Greg Abbott, too. She blamed the redistricting he engineered for “the distinction that we hold,” that Texas is the only state whose electoral maps were declared intentionally discriminatory in court, and for ensuring that “conversations only take place at the extreme party level” in Texas politics.
“When you look at the voter turnout in the state of Texas, it’s abysmally low, and I think it can be attributed to the fact that so many people feel disconnected,” she said. They “feel like it doesn’t matter, like even if they participate in that democratic process, it doesn’t make a difference.” By pointing to the vast portion of the Texas electorate untapped by the state’s far-right politics, Davis suggested a cautious optimism about her own (hypothetical) chances.
Though Davis is best known for one of the most impassioned defenses of reproductive rights delivered by a politician in recent memory, she chose to focus on less polarizing issues, chiefly education and the economy. Her personal story makes her a powerful advocate for both. The daughter of a single mother with a sixth grade education, Davis was divorced with a child herself by nineteen. As press club members munched on frosted cookies, she recalled living on “99 cent Totino’s frozen pizzas that I would cut into quarters to make last for four meals.”
“I’ve seen firsthand that education is a pathway out of poverty,” she said, drawing a few tears from the audience when she recounted “standing in front of a bookshelf at Tarrant County Community College, holding what was about to be my first college book. … It was farther than anyone in my family had ever gotten… farther than I had ever thought possible for myself.” Davis went on to Harvard Law School. In her speech, she lambasted the cuts Perry has made to her state’s safety net, which have made it exponentially harder for people like her to propel themselves out of poverty.
Davis didn’t commit to running for statewide office, though one of her senior strategists suggested she’d make a choice by Labor Day. Asked why Democrats have struggled so much in Texas, though, she had a simple answer. “First of all, people have to run.”
Nora Caplan-Bricker is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Follow her on Twitter @ncaplanbricker.