Meet the Democratic women looking to turn Texas blue in 2020

Andrew Buncombe
Wendy Davis spoke for 11 hours without taking a break. There is now talk of a movie: Getty

Texas’s imposing state capitol, with its goddess of liberty statue reaching more than 300ft into the sky – higher even, than the one in Washington DC – has seen plenty of history.

In recent years, none has been more memorable than a day in the summer of 2013 when a Democratic legislator, Wendy Davis, rose to her feet to try and block proposed restrictions on access to abortion. Her feet clad in pink running shoes, Davis spoke without pause for 11 hours. People gathered to watch as the afternoon slipped into evening, and as the cut-off deadline of midnight approached. A buzz grew in the marbled chamber, and reached across the nation.

Eventually, Republicans would pass the new restrictions, but that hot June night belonged to Davis and her filibustering on behalf of women’s rights. Barack Obama tweeted from the White House: “Something special is happening in Austin tonight. #StandwithWendy.”

Six years later, Davis, 56, is back in the fight, one of a huge number of Democratic women candidates looking to turn Texas blue in 2020. Of a minimum of 1,600 so-called “political elections” the party is contesting, more than half feature women.

“Texas is the biggest battleground state,” says Brittany Switzer, senior brand manager with the Texas Democratic Party. “The majority of Texans are women, the majority of donors and volunteers are women. We’ve seen that in the last couple of years, women are running for office.”

Texas would be a massive prize. The second largest state both in terms of geography and population, it also carries the second highest largest number of presidential electoral college votes – 38.

For a century, Texas was a Democratic stronghold. But for the past four decades it has been solidly red Republican turf. The last Democrat to hold a statewide office was in the 1990s, and the party’s last presidential candidate to win here was Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Democrats believe change is under way, and point to various clues. The 2018 midterms saw Democrats pick up a handful of seats in the House of Representatives, and Beto O’Rourke’s long-shot challenge to Ted Cruz in the Senate race stunned both parties. In the end, Cruz held on 51 – 48, but Republicans were forced to spend millions on a race they assumed they would hold with ease.

This year, at least six Republicans from the House have announced they are standing down, the so-called “Texodus”. Among them is Will Hurd, the only African American Republican congressman.

“There are two things happening,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist and founder of the Lone Star Project, a political action committee (PAC) that funds Texas candidates. “One is the demographic changes, especially in the suburbs of places like Houston. The other is what the Republican Party has done; it has pursued divisive policies to hold onto power by sidelining African Americans and Latinos, rather than trying to win some of these voters.”

The women running in Texas, with its mythologised swagger and self-confidence, are doing so up and down the ballot.

MJ Hegar, a 43-year-old Air Force veteran who served in Afghanistan and who last year narrowly failed in her bid to win a House seat, is trying to better O’Rourke and defeat Republican senator John Cornyn.

“I’m not taking any money from corporate PACs (because I answer to Texans, not the special interests), so every goal we set really matters,” she said in a recent email to supporters.

In Texas’s 26th congressional district, which includes Dallas-Fort Worth, 26-year-old immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros has received the endorsement of Justice Democrats, the progressive group that in 2018 helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman elected to Congress. Amanda Edwards, a member of Houston’s city council, is also running for the Senate and will face off in a Democratic primary involving Hegar and at least three other candidates.

“It’s time for women to have a seat at the table” she says, speaking from Houston. “We have to give women an opportunity to lead.”

Edwards says she is basing her campaign not on finger-pointing or playing the blame game, but on showing she can build coalitions. She says voters she speaks to want their representatives to “get to work”, even while their individual priorities may differ,

“They have seen politics played, and politics played out. They want people to get focused,” she says. “What is constant, is the disdain and lack of satisfaction with the status quo. I have no doubt this is a change election.”

While Texas has vast concentrations of wealth, it also has massive levels of poverty.

Up to one in six Texans have no health insurance, the highest level in the nation. Around one in five Texan children live in poverty. A black or Hispanic youngster is three times as likely to live in poverty as a white child.

Gina Ortiz Jones, 38, a military veteran who served in Iraq, is running for the vast 23rd congressional district, the one being vacated by Will Hurd, and which stretches hundreds of miles along the border with Mexico, from San Antonio to El Paso. She says it is larger than 30 US states.

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“Wherever I am, the number one issue is healthcare. The issue night be a little bit different, but the overarching issue is healthcare. Whether it’s the cost of prescription drugs, or you can imagine – if you’re living in one of our rural communities – it’s the challenge of just getting to a healthcare facility and them hopefully having the ability to provide the care you need.”

She adds: “It’s a district where were we absolutely need to be invest in infrastructure like broadband to be able to realise things like telemedicine and telepsychiatry, practices and technologies that exist but for which we lack the infrastructure.”

Jennie Lou Leeder, a seventh generation Texan whose grandfather purchased the family farm in Kerr County in 1882, is running for one of the most closely-watched races, the 21st congressional district, which includes parts of Austin and is currently held by Chip Roy, an outspoken Republican. To take him on, she will first have to win the Democratic primary, which will also include Davis.

In a bookshop on the edge of Austin, Leeder says she has received much support for an agenda that stresses diplomacy over border walls, and LGBT+ rights.

“I have travelled through the ten counties that make up my district. What I am hearing from people, is what I believe too,” she says. “Everyone has the right to affordable healthcare. Everyone should be able to turn on the tap and have safe, clean drinking water. Our air should be safe to breathe. Our food should be safe to eat. Everyone should be able to drive on good, safe bridges.”

One of the most important races will be for the state legislature, which has long rested in Republican hands. It is crucial for a number of reasons, not least its role in drawing up new state and federal voting districts following the 2020 census. Democrats say these have long been gerrymandered in favour of Republicans. The party needs to flip nine seats to take the lower chamber.

Republican Chip Roy’s Texas seat is among the Democrats’ top six targets in the state (AP)

Donna Howard, a state representative from Austin, says women are stepping forward in Texas “because they are fed up with the agenda” being set for them. If there were more women elected to office, she says, more attention would be focused on issues such as heatlhcare and education.

“After the election of Donald Trump, we saw lots of people coming out and saying ‘I have to do something’. Some of these were suburban women,” she adds. “It was galvanising for the so-called soccer moms who are offended by Trump.”

Reports suggest Republican leaders in Texas have already sounded the alarm, aware of how the Democrats were in 2018 able to take back control of the House of Representatives with the votes of educated, suburban women once again being targeted by their rivals.

Earlier this year, Politico said the party had massively increased fundraising goals in an attempt to hang on to seats following O’Rourke’s run. The GOP’s fortunes are not helped, the party admits, by a scandal hanging over the statehouse, amid allegations the Republican speaker sought to have some of his own colleagues defeated. The accusations have been denied, but senior Republican Dan Patrick, Texas’s lieutenant governor, told a radio interviewer: “2020 is going to be a tough year, politically.”

Robert Solera, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), says Democrats may be overly optimistic.

“In 2018, Democrats had their best election in a generation,” he says.

“But they were still not able to win any statewide seats. They were able to pick up a few House seats, and they narrowed the margins in some statewide races, but they did not win any.”

He adds: “Texas is one of the fastest growing states in the country. People are moving there because have seen the benefits of Republican leadership.”

Roy’s office said he was unavailable for an interview and failed to respond to written questions.

Harvey Kronberg, an expert on Texas politics and founder of the bipartisan Quorum Report, says six or seven House seats currently held by Republicans are vulnerable, as is the state legislature. With the right candidate, he says, and if the party was prepared to invest big time in advertising, those 38 electoral college votes might also be up for grabs.

“This election is going to be a referendum on Trump. Trump underperforms in the polls here, except among activist folks,” he says. “I don’t think he’s helped himself very much. Agriculture is hurting. Oil and gas prices are down.”

He adds: “Depending on who they nominate, Texas is in play.”

After Davis captured the eye of Obama when she delivered that 2013 filibuster, she used the momentum to run for governor in 2014, but lost by 20 points to Greg Abbott. There has even been talk of a movie, and she reportedly met with Sandra Bullock who had expressed an interest in portraying her.

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“Women in Texas are no different than in other parts of the country. They want good, safe schools for their kids. They want clean air and water for their families,” says Davis.

“And they want to know that their kids will have an opportunity to inherit a sustainable planet and will have an opportunity to realise their dreams.”

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