Democrats' leading ladies historic, but can they win?


by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and Photojournalist SCOTT MCKENNEY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

Posted on November 25, 2013 at 7:59 PM

Updated Monday, Nov 25 at 8:35 PM

AUSTIN -- While it was state Sen. Wendy Davis' (D-Fort Worth) filibuster in June that launched Texas Democrats to national notoriety and led to the course of events resulting in Davis' entry into the 2014 contest for governor, it was her colleague from San Antonio who delivered the night's knockout line. 
"At what point must a female senator raise her hand or her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?" an exasperated state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte asked 15 minutes before the stroke of midnight and the end of the First Called Session of the 83rd Texas Legislature. 
The persistent roar that resulted from the Senate gallery drowned out Republican lawmakers' attempts to vote on a controversial abortion bill as time expired, effectively killing the legislation. The state's Republican majority would ultimately succeed in passing House Bill 2 into law in a second special session.
Announcing her candidacy for lieutenant governor on Saturday, Van de Putte joins Davis at the top of the Democratic ticket. Both are expected to cruise easily to the party nomination next spring, marking the first time in Texas history the state's top two positions on a major party ticket are filled by women.
"She and I will be talking for the next 11 months about the values of Texas families," Davis told media at a joint campaign stop Saturday afternoon in Austin. 
"It's the education system. It's our transportation system. It's the highway system. It's valuing things like affordable health care and respecting our veterans," Van de Putte told reporters. "It's a number of issues, not just what we would call women's issues." 
Davis is expected to face Attorney General Greg Abbott in November. Van de Putte would face the winner of a hard-fought primary between Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston. Against a male Republican field, Democratic strategist Jason Stanford says Davis and Van de Putte stand in sharp contrast. 
"It's really going to demonstrate how much the Republican Party of Texas has alienated women," said Stanford. "And having two women at the top of the ticket for the Democrats is going to be a visual reminder of that to all the voters." 
"They're not going to vote for us just because we've got two women at the top of the ticket," Stanford added. "They're going to vote for us because those two women at the top of the ticket are really qualified, they're talking about real concerns, and they're running really good campaigns."
Speaking to KVUE before the weekend's announcement, Republican political consultant Matt Mackowiak pointed out Van de Putte, whose seat in the Texas Senate doesn't expire until 2016, is able to essentially take a free swing at higher office without risking her current position.
"I believe she wants to serve the state and wants to run on her own platform, her own ideas, but at the end of the day, this is about doing something that costs her nothing and allows her to risk nothing," said Mackowiak. "That's why she's running. If you had people step forward who are really risking something, I think the Democratic statewide ticket would be people that no one knows."
"I think that their sum is greater than their individual parts," said Bill Miller, a longtime consultant who has advised both Democratic and Republican campaigns. 
While organizations such as Battleground Texas have begun aggressively working to increase turnout and mobilization among Hispanic voters, Van de Putte -- who is Hispanic -- would further augment efforts to tap into a demographic many see as critical to giving Democrats a fighting chance next November.
"That certainly helps," said Miller. "But more important than either of those is she's a state senator and she can talk about Wendy in ways that Wendy can't talk about herself: As a person who is a colleague of hers, who's watched her operate, and can talk about what kind of governor she'll be. And she's a credible voice and she'll be persuasive in that role."
Yet overcoming 20 years of Republican hegemony in deeply red Texas is still a tall order. 
"If I were a Republican, I'd see it as a play for the Hispanic market, which it is," said Miller. "I'd see it as a play for the female market, which it is. What they can't determine is how good a candidate Van de Putte is, and on that front I would say don't underestimate her. She's found her real voice. She's nice. She's non-threatening and if you go after her and attack her, you'll do harm to yourself."
Along with increased turnout from Democratic-leaning Hispanic voters, Stanford says Democrats will also need to win over Republican-leaning women in the suburbs who are disenfranchised with GOP policies on women's issues. Stanford says Democrats will also need a "Todd Aiken" moment from Texas Republicans, a reference to the former Missouri congressman whose comments regarding "legitimate rape" and pregnancy were roundly criticized and faulted by many political analysts for eroding the Republican party's image among women.
Stanford suggests the four-way primary for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor may offer the best fodder for controversial statements. Described by capitol observers as a conservative "race to the right," the primary has thus far been the most heated political battleground of the current election cycle. Shortly after Van de Putte's Saturday announcement, GOP contender Todd Staples released a statement criticizing his GOP rival and the incumbent lieutenant governor.
"Senator Van De Putte's announcement is another reminder that conservatives are in desperate need of new leadership," Staples said. "Energized Texas Democrats are the result of the failed leadership of David Dewhurst. By allowing Democrats to take over the Senate, Dewhurst made a national hero out of Wendy Davis and inspired Obama's Battleground Texas. For the majority of Texans who support a record of lower taxes, secure borders and job creation, I ask for your support in the Republican Primary so that I can stand up and fight for our shared conservative values next November."
In a state without running mates, the Davis and Van de Putte ticket seems about as close as it gets. The question for politics watchers is how much the two campaigns will coordinate, and how the trickle-down effect may impact candidates further down the ballot. 
"This is the first time in a long time we're going to have some real coordination on the Democratic ballot," said Stanford, who believes the party as a whole will benefit with Davis and Van de Putte at the top. "We need all the help we can get." 
Yet even together, can the Democrats' two leading ladies ultimately move the votes among housewives and Hispanic voters needed to strike a blow to the state's powerful Republican establishment?
"Together Wendy and Leticia can deliver that punch. Is it a knockout punch? Maybe, maybe not," said Miller. "They're Democrats. It's been a long time since Democrats won statewide, but they're attractive. They're smart. They come off well and they're positioned to deliver on that message, and maybe if they have some other good things to say, they can win the race."


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