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In Texas, next year's race for governor is revving up. And it may end up being something voters there haven't seen in two decades: A real competition. Current Republican Governor Rick Perry is not running for reelection, so it's an open race with new faces and Democrats are feeling optimistic.
Ben Philpott, of member station KUT, reports.
BEN PHILPOTT, BYLINE: By mid-2013, Texas Democrats once again faced the prospects of scrambling to find someone to run for Texas Governor. Then, on June 25th, State Senator Wendy Davis came to the State Senate in Austin wearing running shoes and ready to block a restrictive abortion bill.
STATE SENATOR WENDY DAVIS: Members I'm rising on the floor today to humbly give voice to thousands of Texans who have been ignored.
PHILPOTT: An 11-hour filibuster and hundreds of thousands of online views later, she had become a political star and the presumptive Democratic nominee for Texas Governor. A title she made official last week in Fort Worth.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
DAVIS: It's time for a governor who believes that you don't have a buy a place in Texas' future. It's time for a governor who believes that the future of Texas belongs to all of us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
DAVIS: It's time for a leader who will put Texans first.
PHILPOTT: Her speech left nearly 1,800 supporters buzzing. Excitement her campaign needs against the presumptive GOP nominee, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.
GREG ABBOTT: And just as I've been a voice for liberty and the Constitution, I'll be a voice for you, for children, for parents, for homeowners and for small business owners. As your governor, I will fight for working middle-class Texans.
WAYNE SLATER: Greg Abbott is known in this state. He has a conservative, clear agenda. He also, most importantly, has a lot of money.
PHILPOTT: Wayne Slater is senior political writer for the Dallas Morning News.
SLATER: He already has some 20, $25 million in the bank. His people say they think he can raise 50 to $70 million. If he does that, he is going to be able to blanket the airwaves in this race and dominate the conversation.
PHILPOTT: Republicans have dominated Texas elections since 1994. That was the last time any Democrat won a statewide campaign. Jim Henson is a pollster at the University of Texas. He says Democrats can make gains in Texas, from increasing Hispanic turnout to bringing disgruntled Democrats back to the voting booth. Henson says even the national agenda of the Tea Party provides a small opportunity.
JIM HENSON: The conservative turn in the Texas Republican Party and the tone and content that's resulted from the impact of the Tea Party may be alienating some otherwise Republican-inclined suburban women.
PHILPOTT: Those are the same people Davis is wooing with her support of women's health and abortion. But campaigning on abortion is tricky. Conservatives have already started calling Davis an abortion zealot. Here's an attack ad launched by Texas Right to Life last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wendy Davis believes terminating babies, even halfway through pregnancy, is okay. She is wrong on life, wrong for our children and wrong for Texas.
PHILPOTT: Davis didn't even mention abortion in her kickoff speech. And it is the issue that brought her to national prominence. But her campaign won't be easy. Texas voted 57 percent for Mitt Romney in the last presidential election and is the same state that sent conservative Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate.
For NPR News, I'm Ben Philpott in Austin.