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November 28, 2020
News Politics

The Woman With the Pink Tennis Shoes Is Walking a Fine Line

Back in the halcyon days of February, when healing America seemed like a figure of speech and indoor gatherings of more than two maskless people weren’t considered a biohazard, Wendy Davis addressed a 75-person crowd in the clubhouse of a gated community outside San Antonio. It was the third event in as many days for Davis, who was two weeks away from winning the Democratic primary to represent Texas’s Twenty-First Congressional District, a curiously drawn slice of the state that includes downtown Austin, the suburban sprawl of San Antonio, and a rural stretch of Hill Country. Davis delivered her standard stump speech—a tight, policy-driven monologue that features the story of how she, a teen mom living in a trailer park, managed to make it to Harvard Law School, thanks to hard work, Pell Grants, and a Planned Parenthood around the corner—before fanning out to a case for stitching up the holes in today’s social safety net. (Davis’s granddaughters don’t have the same opportunities she did, she said; we owe it to them to change that.) Afterward, a woman in her late 50s with a sensible brown bob and a faint twang pulled the candidate aside. “I got an abortion, and I tell my Sunday-school class about it,” the woman began, her voice cracking. “I just don’t believe in backing down. You just don’t back down.”

Davis nodded sympathetically—she gets this a lot. In 2013, Davis went from Texas state senator to feminist folk hero when she filibustered a bill to effectively close all but five abortion clinics in the state. Lean In feminism was sweeping the nation, and Sheryl Sandberg couldn’t have asked for a better standard-bearer for her gospel of sharp-elbowed female empowerment. To avoid giving her (male) Republican opponents even the flimsiest reason to disqualify her, Davis followed Senate rules to the point of absurdity—refraining from sitting, eating, drinking, or using the bathroom (there was a catheter …) for 11 straight hours. The gladiatorial aspect of it all, plus the fact that Davis had done it in a pair of Mizuno sneakers that were an unapologetically girly shade of pink, captured the attention of tens of thousands on a livestream, among them President Barack Obama. When details of her biography surfaced the next day, Davis’s cult status grew. Women sent macramé uteruses to her office to express their gratitude. She was featured in the September issue of Vogue. Though her effort to kill the bill ultimately failed, she traveled throughout Texas on a Planned Parenthood bus, disembarking to choruses of young women chanting: “Wendy! Wendy! Wendy!”

A few months later, when she announced that she was running for governor, Davis wasn’t expected to win, but that someone with her buzz was even seeking the office gave Democrats new hope for loosening the decades-long red chokehold on the state. Her campaign raised $40 million. Then what started as an exciting underdog effort became something like a disaster, paved with muddled messaging, accusations that she’d embellished her origin story (she didn’t live in the trailer for that long), and her campaign’s release of a tasteless attack ad suggesting that her opponent, Greg Abbott, who uses a wheelchair, was a hypocrite for blocking disability-discrimination lawsuits as state attorney general. Davis suffered an embarrassing 20-point loss—the widest margin for a governor’s race the state had seen in almost two decades—and by the end of her campaign, her net favorability rating had cratered to negative 4. Apparently, most Texas voters didn’t like her.

Wendy Davis’s books, gavel, Senate name plate, and a painting of her famous shoes

The arc of any good political story, of course, includes a comeback. When Davis announced that she was running for U.S. Congress in July 2019, Texas 21 wasn’t especially high on anyone’s list of seats expected to flip—the district has been represented by a Republican since the 1970s. But she had a path to victory, albeit a narrow one. In recent years, the Twenty-First has experienced an explosion in population growth, with recent transplants skewing young, educated, and suburban—a demographic that famously continues to drift to the left. It was an advantage compounded by the fact that the incumbent, Chip Roy, the former chief of staff to Senator Ted Cruz, is such a staunch far-right ideologue that he once blocked the passage of a disaster-relief bill that would have benefited Texas because it didn’t contain sufficient funds for building President Donald Trump’s border wall. In 2018, Roy topped the Democratic businessman running against him by only 2.6 percentage points.

Then came a national crisis that upended assumptions about likely winners and losers. In March 2020, almost every aspect of life became a campaign issue, even campaigning itself. In the ensuing five months, Davis held just a single in-person campaign event (outdoors, in a mask), while Roy—who likened stay-at-home orders to laws in Nazi Germany—spoke with constituents in crowded restaurants and attended a large, lavish outdoor GOP fundraising gala that was investigated by the Travis County fire marshal for violating the governor’s COVID-19 protocols. The more daylight that shined between the candidates’ approach to the pandemic, the more the odds seemed to tilt in Davis’s favor. (That the same dynamic was playing out on the national stage didn’t hurt.) In July, following a surge of coronavirus cases in Texas, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report bumped up Davis’s chances of winning, changing the Twenty-First’s ranking from “Lean R” to “Toss-Up.” And in early September, after Obama endorsed Davis, her campaign disclosed the results of a poll it had conducted that showed the two candidates in a virtual tie. During an Instagram Live event with the actor Connie Britton, Davis appeared downright giddy about her chances of winning, letting out a “Don’t make a liar out of me!” She was kidding, but there was also sincere trepidation in her voice. Davis, perhaps more than anyone, knows the dangers of getting swept up in the hype, and the heartbreak of assuming that this will be the year Texas turns blue.

Given that Davis staged what was essentially an 11-hour performance piece on the floor of the state Senate in 2013, you might expect her to be theatrical in person—a wild gesticulator, or a master of dramatic pacing. You would be wrong. The 57-year-old lawyer has a regal mien that recalls a not-evil Claire Underwood (incidentally, a character who, like Davis, is a native Texan who lost her accent along the way). Davis’s diction is ivory tower and her framing cerebral, even in the personal story she tells of discovering Planned Parenthood at 19, after giving birth to her first child, Amber: “They made it possible for me to take control of my reproductive destiny, and that made it possible for me to take control of my economic opportunity. So I understand very deeply why that matters so much.”

Two days before the stop in San Antonio in February, Davis attended an event at the Kerr County Democratic Party headquarters, in Kerrville. Kerrville is among the reddest parts of the district, so much so that six months later, Chip Roy would share a maskless fist bump with the town’s former mayor, later shrugging off his behavior to a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman: “When in Rome.” The mostly white Boomers who came out for Davis were the area’s committed Democratic minority—one man wore a MAGA-style hat that said Make Orwell Fiction Again. Most of their questions were about Davis’s efforts to expand the electorate—this group loved her, but they couldn’t see her convincing many more people from their demographic to vote for her. (Do you speak Spanish? one woman asked the candidate. Working on it, she replied.) Toward the end, a guy in the back about 30 years younger than nearly everyone else, with a smartwatch, a hipster haircut, and skinny jeans, raised his hand: Where did Davis stand on the Green New Deal?

“I’m for drafting the most aggressive bill”—Davis paused—“that will pass in the Senate.”

The question touched a nerve. Her then–campaign manager later told me that she thought the guy might have been a plant from a “far left” interest group. The campaign was almost certainly wary of a third-party candidate playing spoiler, as has happened in tight races elsewhere. Indeed, when a Green Party candidate threw his hat in the ring in April, Davis’s campaign sued to keep him off the ballot because he hadn’t paid the required filing fees. (She ultimately lost.)

Davis is not at all shy about being a moderate. In fact, she wants to lay claim to that designation, though she prefers the term mainstream. While health care is the centerpiece of her campaign—and she will say approximately a billion times, to me, on Twitter, on the trail, presumably in her sleep, that Texas has the highest rate of uninsured people in the country—her solution is not Medicare for All. Rather, she prefers a competitive public option and expanding Medicare and Medicaid. “Making sure every person in America has health care is a bold idea,” she told me in February.. “It doesn’t mean we’re small thinkers if we don’t think Medicare for All tomorrow is the correct path, right?”

Her record is definitely on the mainstream side. The first political office she held was as a member of the Fort Worth city council, which didn’t have party affiliations. During her time as a council member and later as a state senator, she championed a variety of causes, including commercial development in Fort Worth, protections against predatory lending, and regulation of—rather than a ban on—the nascent and booming fracking industry. (Davis even voted in several GOP primaries in the 1990s and, according to public records, donated to George W. Bush just before he announced his first presidential campaign.)

The problem is, as much as Davis and her campaign operatives believe mainstream is the way to go in a district that is purplish at best, and in a race where her opponent has given her the Trumpian nickname “Extreme Wendy,” the progressive faction of her party has more energy and influence than it has had in decades. She alienates the skinny-jeans set at her peril.

It’s a strange spot for Davis to be in. Once described by former Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards as someone who “makes people believe anything was possible,” Davis now can’t take for granted the support of her party’s left flank. She’s been lapped by the new generation of progressive stars, with their full-throated denunciations of capitalism and inequality, of structural racism and sexism. Davis’s challenge is one faced by Democrats across the country hoping to capture traditionally Republican seats: how to keep progressives happy enough to pull the lever and woo members of the opposite party to do the same.

Wendy Davis at home with her dog, Ziggy, on October 11

Davis blames her poor showing against Greg Abbott on being overly “message-managed.” If, for instance, she had attempted to talk about the importance of gun control—something she has done often in her current race—“my team would have told me I lost my freaking mind,” Davis told me, beginning to sound almost wistful.“For me, that race felt so big and so hard. I didn’t trust myself as much as I had in other races.”

Bob Stein, a political-science professor at Rice University, is less existential in his assessment. “Let’s just get honest here. She wasn’t what I’d call a great candidate,” he told me. He thinks Davis miscalculated how much identity politics would motivate female voters, especially on the abortion issue. “She felt there were white Republican women who were offended that white males wanted to tell them what to do with their reproductive rights, and there weren’t.” Davis has been much more circumspect about the issue this time around. At the start of the pandemic, when the state halted abortions on the grounds that they were a “non-essential” medical procedure, Davis tweeted about the topic only a handful of times, using relatively measured language. “This makes absolutely zero sense and makes women more vulnerable, not less so,” she said in one tweet.

In late September, when Senator Bernie Sanders hosted a virtual town hall, cheekily titled “As Goes Texas, So Goes America,” with various Texas Democrats—including Julie Oliver, running a tight race in the neighboring Twenty-Fifth, and José Garza, vying for district attorney in Travis County, which overlaps with the Twenty-First—Davis was conspicuously absent. Less polarizing special guests like Julián Castro and Beto O’Rourke weren’t enough of a counterbalance, it seemed, for Davis to risk being perceived as even socialist-curious. (When I asked her about her decision not to participate, Davis claimed ignorance. “I certainly don’t remember making a decision not to attend it,” she said. “I may not even have known about it, and that’s probably the case.”)

On the drive back to Austin from Kerrville in the winter, along a stretch of Highway 290 dotted with peach stands and personal-injury lawyers’ billboards, Davis explained where she sees herself in the landscape of Democratic talent. “It would not be AOC. It would be Amy Klobuchar,” she said decisively. “It would be the person who goes in, puts her head down, and just works with people quietly and gets it done, you know? And that’s not to take away from AOC, because I know that she’s working hard on the things that really matter to her, but that’s just not me.”

The irony is, despite Davis’s efforts to distance herself from the younger progressives, they’ve helped provoke changes in attitude that are making her life easier, especially with regard to feminism. For one thing, there is much more recognition now that concepts such as “likability” are polluted by gender stereotypes—and Davis’s likability, recall, was underwater by the end of the governor’s race. A major cause of Texans’ disenchantment with Davis was media reports that she had fudged parts of her biography: She only lived in the trailer for a few months, which critics deemed not long enough to mention at all. Most damning, though, was the revelation that her then-husband had paid her law-school tuition and cared for their two children in Fort Worth while she was studying at Harvard—prompting Ann Coulter to call Davis a “gold-digger who found a sugar daddy.” As proof that beliefs have evolved, look no further than what happened in March 2019, when Davis’s fellow Texan, Beto O’Rourke, made a passing reference while he was running for president to his wife assuming most of the parenting duties. That he seemed to take this arrangement for granted, without so much as an I’m so lucky, incited a barrage of accusations of male privilege. (He later apologized.)

Beto-for-President seems like ancient history. So much has happened in the past year and a half, and those events are still reverberating in the contest between Davis and Roy. Even as Trump’s poll numbers have fallen in Texas, Roy has not stopped praising the president’s handling of the outbreak or trafficking in conspiracy theories, such as speculation that Democrats will experience a “magic awakening” after the election and their fears about the coronavirus will vanish. (Roy did complain, however, that his comments about Nazi Germany were taken out of context, explaining that he was referring only to a specific policy in Maine related to travel restrictions.) Meanwhile, Davis’s campaign has pronounced Roy the “nation’s top coronavirus skeptic” and a “danger to Texas families.” “I’m observing my opponent going on CNN and telling the interviewer that everything’s just fine in Texas on the day that we actually had the highest number of deaths in our state that we’d had to that point,” Davis told me when we spoke in August.

The contrast between the two candidates’ responses to police brutality against Black people isn’t quite as sharp. After George Floyd’s killing in May, Davis slammed the president’s response, tweeting, “True leaders mourn with the families who have lost loved ones,” and she held a virtual town hall on the topic of racial justice and trans rights on June 11. But the next month, after a protester was fatally shot in downtown Austin and the national call for defunding the police reached a peak, she lowered the temperature of her rhetoric, tweeting: “The incident last night in Austin at the Black Lives Matter protest was horrific. As we await more info, let us reaffirm that the right to peaceful protest is sacred in America.” No doubt, Davis, who supports reforms such as banning chokeholds but has stopped short of anything more radical, is aware of just how badly defunding the police plays with the suburban voters she’s trying to get. This is not lost on Roy, either. He took a staunch law-and-order tack amid the tear-gas standoffs between protesters and police that rocked Austin and San Antonio over the summer. And in September, after NBA players boycotted a handful of games to protest police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, he appeared on the floor of the House with a framed jersey emblazoned with a 43: the number of on-duty law-enforcement officers killed so far this year, he said. “Where is the NBA” on this issue? Roy demanded.

One of Davis’s favorite pieces of political trivia is about how Ann Richards, Cecile’s mother and the patron saint of female politicians in Texas, won her 1990 bid for governor. The prevailing lore is that Richards’s opponent, Clayton Williams, immolated a winning campaign with a single bizarre joke about rape (comparing it to bad weather, he said, “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it”).

“But it wasn’t the rape joke that did it,” Davis told me, offering a slightly more nuanced account. Williams actually blew it at a public event right before the election, when Richards extended her hand to him, and he refused to shake it. “Had that happened on any other day––two days prior, or three days later––she probably wouldn’t have won,” Davis said excitedly. “It was perfect timing.” It’s a lesson about just how swiftly circumstances can change in a campaign. It’s also about how, if you’re patient as a candidate, you just might get an opening—a once-in-a-century pandemic, say—to show voters what you’re really all about.

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