AUSTIN, Texas (Texas Tribune) — State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte’s announcement on Saturday that she is running for lieutenant governor, adding a second woman to a ticket led by state Sen. Wendy Davis, is enhancing Texas Democrats’ hopes that they could see their first statewide victory since 1994.
The Democrats are pinning their strategy, in part, on women, particularly those in the suburbs, who early polling numbers suggest might not have their minds made up, and could be persuaded by the summer’s divisive debate over abortion legislation.
“What we know from the outcome of this summer is that women were paying attention and women were watching,” Van de Putte said. “It wasn’t just about that bill. It wasn’t just about health care. It was about not being valued.”
But Republicans say they are holding fast to this demographic, which has trended conservative in past elections.
“I think in Texas the majority of people are happy with how the state is doing,” said Steve Munisteri, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. “That’s one of the reasons why we’re winning by such a large margin.” That margin looked smaller in a fall University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, which showed Attorney General Greg Abbott, the leading Republican candidate for governor, with a single-digit lead over Davis, whose 11-hour filibuster of an omnibus abortion bill in June drew national attention. But in that poll, 25 percent of registered voters were undecided, including 34 percent of suburban women.
“When you’re looking at women’s votes, I just kind of discounted the undecided,” Munisteri said, because only “political junkies or the media” are paying attention to the candidates this early in the election. He said that average voters would not tune in to the 2014 races until next year and that most would vote Republican.
Munisteri said the Republican Party is well established among women, with more than 160 Texas Federation of Republican Women groups meeting regularly across the state. Texas Democratic Women lists 43 chapters statewide.
He added that the idea that female voters might be persuaded to vote differently based on women’s issues, like reproductive health, is a “false assumption.” Women are just as interested in economic issues, and that plays well for Republicans, he said.
The party’s outreach efforts cross all segments of the population and are not necessarily gender specific, Munisteri said. But he added that Republicans would rely on active female party members “to be ambassadors to other women.” The party will also more than double the number of so-called victory centers — volunteer hubs across the state — from four to nine by January to help get out the vote. Munisteri said staffers were working on their “movers list,” following up with nearly 100,000 past Republican voters who are new to their counties and not yet registered to vote. Other workers were identifying swing voters, Munisteri said.
“As part of our block-walking and door-to-door survey, we’re going to find out what issues are of prime concern to both genders of swing voters,” he said.
The state Democratic Party’s outreach efforts include more targeted appeals to women.
The party has been building on the list of women who protested the abortion legislation during the summer at the Capitol, said Tanene Allison, a party spokeswoman. While Davis’ filibuster helped defeat the bill during one special session, it was passed in a subsequent session. This month, the Democrats began an online mobilization effort to reach out to female voters and get them to promote the party’s platform to other women.
“It will be a woman-to-woman project to reach out and explain why it’s important to vote in this next election cycle and what issues are at stake,” Allison said, adding that the Democratic party had a “strong connection to women’s priorities” on issues like equal pay, education and health care.
Sharon Hirsch, president of Women Organizing Women Democrats, a group in North Texas, said having Davis and Van de Putte at the top of the 2014 ticket “has been very empowering for women.”
She added that she was seeing more women working to register voters, filling out weekly phone banks and block-walking, particularly in the suburbs.
“I really believe Wendy Davis has kind of lit the fire, and adding Leticia Van de Putte to the ticket will only make that desire stronger to get these women elected,” Hirsch said.
But Catherine Gibb, an officer for Plano Republican Women, said female voters should look at the whole candidate when deciding whom to support, regardless of sex. She said the Democratic candidates left a lot to be desired.
“I would be willing to stake my life that there’s not a woman in my club that they would vote for her even if she’s running for dogcatcher,” Gibb said of Davis.
James Henson, a Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said he did not see a clear changing of the tide among female voters. (The university is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.)
“It’s not as if suburban women are heading for the exits from the Republicans,” he said. But he added that the potential risk for Republicans “emanates from the necessities of competing in a GOP primary in a state where 39 percent of women identify as moderates — 11 points more than Texas men.”
The four Republicans running for lieutenant governor are already working to prove they are the most conservative in the race, which could present a challenge for the nominee in the general election.
Van de Putte knows her campaign must have broad appeal to win the votes of small business owners, veterans and conservatives.
“I don’t think Leticia and Wendy are going to be holding hands at every event we’re at,” Van de Putte said. “If we campaign thinking just because we’re women other women are going to vote for us, it’s a fallacy. It’s very condescending to women.”