State Sen. Wendy Davis has held the Texas spotlight before. But Tuesday night’s marathon abortion filibuster propelled her into the national spotlight.
By the time the Senate unsuccessfully forced the vote on some of the nation’s strictest abortion regulations, the 13 hours Davis had spent on her feet challenging the measure had gone viral, drawing praise on social media from President Obama, U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and celebrities like author Judy Blume and actors Lena Dunham and Henry Winkler.
"I have never seen a Texas senator suddenly make world news over the course of 13 hours," said longtime Democratic consultant Harold Cook. "I'm not sure it was possible before Twitter, honestly. At the start of the day, this was a local story. By the end, it was an international story."
The attention has prompted even more speculation that the Fort Worth Democrat, who was first elected to the Senate in 2008, could be a future statewide contender — even a gubernatorial candidate. At a minimum, she is poised to have a wider fundraising base if she seeks re-election in 2014.
Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak predicted that her fundraising potential was now "unlimited."
"If they were doing really smart things — some of the things Ted Cruz's campaign did in the last U.S. Senate race — she can raise millions of dollars over the next couple of months online alone," he said. "I think she may be able to do that anyway."
Hundreds of opponents of the legislation packed the Capitol, while hundreds of thousands followed the proceedings online and on Twitter. The hashtag #StandWithWendy was trending worldwide; “The Filibuster Heard Round the World” was leading The Huffington Post. After it was all over, Davis told reporters she was "pleased to know the spotlight is shining on Texas." Of the filibuster's success, she added, "the proof is in the pudding and the pudding tastes pretty good right now."
This wasn’t Davis’ first filibuster rodeo. She effectively torpedoed the 82nd legislative session in 2011 by refusing to accept a school finance plan that cut funding for public schools by $5.4 billion. Her move that year prompted Gov. Rick Perry to label her a “show horse” — and to send lawmakers back into an immediate special session, drawing the ire of many of her colleagues. (It's still unclear whether Perry will call lawmakers back a second time to revisit abortion legislation.)
But as University of Texas political scientist and pollster James Henson put it, that was mostly "inside baseball." In the most recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, which Henson helps conduct, Davis was still unknown to 58 percent of respondents. Adding those who said they had no opinion or a "neither favorable nor unfavorable opinion" of her, the total rose to 77 percent.
"I really don't think she had become a statewide figure yet," Henson said, adding that recent events were "very likely going to push her much closer to that threshold."
Tuesday’s filibuster was on a grander scale. The topic — abortion and reproductive rights — had already drawn attention from women’s groups across the country, and protesters had spent the last few days manning the Capitol. And the Senate’s debate — devolving into legislative technicalities and what was widely seen as a breakdown of decorum as Republicans sought to derail Davis’ filibuster — captured the attention of national news organizations as it exploded across social media.
As of late Tuesday night, roughly 200,000 people were watching the proceedings on The Texas Tribune’s YouTube feed. Obama tweeted, “Something special is happening in Austin tonight,” followed by the hashtag “#StandWithWendy.” Even filmmaker Michael Moore and comedian Sarah Silverman got in on the social media action.
Davis started the day with just 1,200 twitter followers; by early Wednesday morning she had more than 46,000.
"Because of the way this worked out, from a procedural and strategic standpoint," Mackowiak said, "I think the Republican leadership in both chambers of the Legislature unwittingly helped create a national Texas Democratic star."
He expressed doubts, however, about whether this newfound stardom would, in the near future, translate to electoral success statewide, which has eluded Democrats for nearly two decades. He questioned the party's infrastructure and whether Davis was the person to break the losing streak.
"Wendy Davis does not have the profile of a Democrat that's going to win statewide in this interim period where Democrats are trying to become competitive again," he said. "It's going to be a pro-business, moderate, big-city Democrat."
Others aren't ready to call it. "I don't know and neither does anybody else," Cook said. "It's too early to tell, but I will say that it is episodes like tonight that are potentially game-changers and that change the electorate fundamentally."
And that could have a ripple effect for other Democrats. Henson said: "We keep saying there aren't enough people on the bench, there are no statewide candidates, the Democrats have no energy and no mojo. But this kind of thing can be a shot in the arm."