Democratic Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis drew both U.S. senators and several hundred rapturous young professionals on a fundraising swing through D.C. on Thursday, a rare sight for state legislators, who tend to lead lives of public near-anonymity. But Davis, whose recent filibuster against new abortion restrictions made her a rock star among Democrats both inside and out of the Lone Star State -- and who is mulling a statewide race -- is no ordinary state senator.
Davis met the senators and a host of other capital bigwigs in a morning event at Johnny's Half Shell, a famed money-raising venue near the Capitol. Then Thursday night, she delighted a congregation of 300 to 400 mostly young, mostly female attendees in an evening event at Local 16, the trendy U Street NW bar.
The fundraisers were ostensibly for Davis's 2014 reelection campaign; a slideshow playing in Local 16's packed second floor featured a campaign logo for "Senate District 10." And just because state senators aren't known for attracting big crowds or getting interrupted by shouts of, "We love you!" doesn't mean Davis is automatically running for higher office. But the question was in the air Thursday, and her donors certainly seem eager.
"I told her she should run for governor," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told Politico in the morning. Though Davis has won consecutive terms in a Republican-leaning district, she would be a noted underdog running statewide. (Reelection wouldn't be a walk in the park, either.) The state is several percentage points more Republican than her district, its massive media markets require boatloads of money, and Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott is a well-funded, prohibitive favorite to be the next governor. But enthusiasm for a Davis run would be higher than for any Democrat in years.
Edil Mari De Los Reyes, an evening-event donor who works for a social justice-focused political action committee, said, "We want to see her win for Texas." Her PAC gave to Davis's last reelection campaign, and her group is hyping Davis's chances statewide, hoping to help nudge Davis to set her sights higher. For the moment, De Los Reyes says, her dollars may be earmarked to a local race. "But it could possibly be more than that," she said.
Davis didn't address the question directly in her speech -- she spoke in less specific terms about the importance of "look(ing) for new leaders in Texas" -- but Davis has said she's considering a run for statewide office after becoming a national Democratic star. One of Davis's strategists, Lone Star Project director Matt Angle, said at her Thursday night event that Davis may decide her 2014 plans soon. "My guess is she'll make her decision in a few weeks," Angle said, though he noted that she won't have to publicize it immediately.
As Davis rattled off her personal story Thursday night, she also addressed, again in somewhat indirect terms, the reason why so many of her new donors had heard of her. "Texans own the right to make personal decisions for themselves," Davis said, referencing her widely covered June filibuster against new Texas abortion restrictions. That, and her mention of her "ability to receive health care at a women's health care clinic" when she was a young single mother, were two of Davis's biggest applause lines.
Before Davis began speaking, another Fort Worth Democrat had stood to introduce her. Freshman Rep. Marc Veasey represented part of Davis's turf during four terms in the Texas state House, and he and Davis and their advisers are all part of the same North Texas Democratic family tree, linked by former Rep. Martin Frost. Even with that D.C. connection, Veasey never exactly drew interest like this in his state legislative campaigns. Angle, who advises both Democrats, confirmed the comparison with a chuckle. "He didn't have the benefit of (state) Republicans conducting a fiasco in front of the entire country," Angle said. Asked what Davis will do in 2014, Veasey said, "Who knows what will happen?"
Davis spoke for a little over 10 minutes at the Thursday night event; her exit from the bar took nearly as long, with the crowd pressing in for handshakes, pictures and quick conversations on all sides as staff steered Davis toward the door, blocking the press. Later stops on the fundraising circuit will take her to the Northeast and San Francisco, among other far-flung locales. Davis still has to pull the trigger to make it something more, but this doesn't have the look or feel of a state legislative operation.