Sep 26, 2013

Young Wendy Davis Supporters Are Getting Ready to Campaign for Her

Over 50 University of Texas students attend a University Democrats meeting. Photo by Martin do Nascimento

Over 50 University of Texas students attend a University Democrats meeting. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.

By Marissa Barnett
For Reporting Texas

State Sen. Wendy Davis appears to be headed toward a run for governor, with an announcement promised for Oct. 3, but Texas’ young voters are losing no time lining up behind her anticipated bid.

“We’ve started advertising on social media to try to show that college students want Wendy,” said Garry Jones, president of Texas College Democrats and a student at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.

“Our chapters across the state are organizing and registering voters. They’re having conversations with other students about the future of Texas,” Jones said in an interview. “There’s a lot of excitement and activity.”

Late Thursday, Politico and the Associated Press reported that Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat, has told top Democrats that she plans to run. Both said their information came from unnamed sources who were familiar with the conversations.

On the University of Texas at Dallas campus, college Democrats say they’re teamed with Battleground Texas — a group headed by former Obama campaign organizers that hopes to turn Texas blue by mobilizing Latino voters — to focus on voter registration. At UT-Austin and across town at St. Edward’s University, students are preparing to use old-fashioned shoe leather, phone banking and social media to build a “youth bump” for Davis like the one that help put President Barack Obama over the top in the 2008 presidential election.

Political observers say student activists could be a potent tool for Davis in what promises to be an uphill battle against Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott to succeed Republican Rick Perry, who has been governor since December 2000. According to the most recent Texas Ethics Commission reports, Abbot’s campaign had around $20 million at the end of June. Davis reported more than $1 million.


Photo by Martin do Nascimento

Campaign experts have said Davis, 50, needs to raise at least $40 million to run a credible campaign against Abbott, who is 55. The odds are long: No Democrat has won a statewide office since 1994.

Davis supporters are hoping an army of energetic, grassroots volunteers could help close the gap. “There is a youth bump,” said Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University in Houston. “The key for Davis and Democrats is to get them to register and turn out.”

Many young voters learned of Davis in June, when she grabbed national and international headlines with her 11-hour filibuster against a restrictive abortion bill. Her efforts delayed the measure and ultimately forced the Republican-dominated Legislature into a second special session to pass the bill.

Young supporters say Davis’ flair for challenging the status quo energized the campus base. “We’ve had multiple people come up to us expressing interest in getting on the ground if Davis does announce that she’s going to run,” said John Wooding, president of the College Democrats at St. Edward’s.

“What happened this summer sparked a fire,” Wooding added, referring to Davis’ filibuster and news articles about her background as a single mom who graduated from Harvard Law School before she was elected to the Texas Senate.

Enthusiasm notwithstanding, turning Texas even slightly purple will be a tall order. While 18- to 24-year-olds lean Democratic, Mark Jones says the challenge is getting them to the polls. Younger voters cast their ballots at only a third of the rate of voters older than 65.

Jones isn’t convinced Davis can win in 2014, but he sees areas where young supporters could contribute. “Young activists can make contributions … pounding the pavement, finding people who are likely Democratic voters and registering them to vote … and making sure those people you’ve identified as Democratic supporters actually turn up to vote,” he said.

In her email to supporters last week, Davis urged using Facebook and other social media sites to rally support, and that is where political observers say young supporters play a vital role.

“Social media plays a huge role in activating people and getting them out to events like canvassing door-to-door or phone banking,” said Wooding. “It’s a medium to reach voters.”

Young Democrats don’t have a monopoly on social media skills or enthusiasm. Clay Olsen, communications director of UT-Austin College Republicans and a junior in finance, says his organization’s meetings have seen a large turnout this semester, too, possibly in reaction to the Democratic Party’s “turn Texas blue” efforts.

College Republicans are using social media to mobilize supporters, and Olsen says the group plans to register voters and canvass for their candidates. “We’re really organized this year and got started pretty early,” Olsen said. “We’re trying to put the word out … and give people a pathway to stay up-to-date on politics.”

A sustained youth bump may not be enough for Davis to rival Abbott’s well-heeled campaign. To be competitive, political observers say Davis will need big donors, too.

“I don’t think grassroots alone can substitute for money,” said Dave McNeely, a longtime Austin political columnist. “But it can certainly make up some of the difference if you have an ample number of people who really believe in a campaign.”

Fundraising for on-campus activities is already underway by University Democrats. Photo by Martin do Nascimento

Fundraising for on-campus activities is already underway by University Democrats. Photo by Martin do Nascimento.