The Democratic Party has mostly come up short in its relentless push to turn Texas blue, but perennial candidate Wendy Davis has a genuine chance to advance the cause in November.
Ms. Davis achieved fame as the pink-sneaker clad state senator who filibustered a restrictive abortion law but then made a spectacular flop in a gubernatorial bid.
Now she is aiming to unseat Republican Rep. Chip Roy in Texas’ 21st Congressional District, a district that includes much of the left-leaning state capital of Austin.
The race has much for political watchers: big spending, outside interests and an electorate that has been trending toward Democrats.
“We think Chip has been a true champion on all our issues and, as a freshman, he’s become a thought-leader very rapidly,” said David McIntosh of Club for Growth, a conservative group that is one of Mr. Roy’s biggest backers.
Mr. McIntosh attributed Mr. Roy’s quick grasp of congressional duties to his prior tenure as Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s chief of staff, but it was Ms. Davis’ high-profile background that also attracted conservative PAC attention, he said.
“We recognized that with Davis’ high-name recognition she would be able to raise money from radical left sources all over the country,” Mr. McIntosh said.
The race thus far has run along predictable lines, with Mr. Roy depicting Mr. Davis as a hardcore liberal who would favor higher taxes and radical moves like expanding the Supreme Court and providing statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
In turn, Ms. Davis says Mr. Roy is an extremist who threatens abortion rights and supports destructive energy exploration.
The 21st covers a large swath north of San Antonio and a branch like a flexed bicep that reaches to southwestern Austin. That extension, added in 2010 redistricting when a Republican majority in the Texas Legislature considered the seat very safe, added state government workers and the University of Texas at Austin to the district, two liberal constituencies bolstering Ms. Davis’ chances.
Indeed, employees of the University of Texas rank as the second biggest group of contributors to the Davis campaign, according to fundraising records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Longhorn employees trail only EMILY’s List among Davis contributors, which skew heavily toward abortion rights activists, liberal PACs from Washington to California and trial lawyers from Texas to Los Angeles. University of California employees like Ms. Davis, too, ranking as her 12th biggest source of campaign contributions, records show.
Ms. Davis’ star had seemed to wane since her 15-hour filibuster made her a media darling and catapulted her into the Texas gubernatorial race in 2014. But after losing by 21 points to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Ms. Davis has kept a low-key profile while moving her base from Fort Worth to the 21st District.
“She stayed largely out of sight for several years,” said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University. “She surfaced last year betting that 2020 would be a tough year for Republicans.”
Mr. Jillson said it was a smart wager.
“It has been and will be, but whether that brings Roy’s district into play remains to be seen,” he said, saying a handful of other Texas Republicans’ seats could be in more jeopardy than Mr. Roy.
President Trump remains a heavy favorite to win Texas’ 38 electoral votes, and his coattails could prove a factor in Mr. Roy’s reelection, Mr. Jillson said.
“But that does not mean he’s out of danger,” he said of Mr. Roy. “He has been aggressively conservative and pro-Trump in a year in which that might not be rewarded and Davis has raised a lot of money. If Trump carries Texas only narrowly it could be close and if Trump actually loses Texas, which I do not expect although he is still bleeding support, anything could happen.”
Neither Roy nor the Davis campaigns responded to requests for comment.
Recent history is a bit disquieting for the GOP in Texas 21. The seat has been in Republican hands for 40 years and in 2016 GOP Rep. Lamar Smith won reelection with 57% of the vote.
But running in what was a strong election for Democrats overall, Mr. Roy squeaked to victory with just 50.7% of the vote in 2018.
Mr. Roy’s campaign also is no stranger to outside money, as it has gotten boosts from Republican congressional PACs in addition to Club for Growth, which said it’s spending the most there of any House election this year — $4.5 million by November.
Mr. Roy’s list of top contributors also is studded with home-grown companies, mostly representing the energy sector, which has long been a major player in Texas politics.
The Club for Growth launched its first television ad buy for Mr. Roy back in August, and the spending from both camps has not stopped since. Ms. Davis has a slight edge in overall fundraising, with her $4.4 million topping Mr. Roy’s $4.1 million, but Ms. Davis has spent slightly more, records show.