PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (AP) — With time running out in an underachieving campaign for Texas governor, Democrat Wendy Davis is brandishing a darker and tougher edge in an aggressive courtship of female voters who are essential to her chances of pulling an upset in November.
The state senator, whose push to win the support of Texas women has long been symbolized by the bright coral sneakers she wore during a filibuster of abortion restrictions, struck a far different tone in her first statewide TV ad.
The spot, funded out of a $27 million campaign trove fortified by national donors, is a shadowy dramatization of a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman who raped a Texas mother in the 1990s. Davis then toured rape crisis centers and blasted her Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, for siding against the victim when her lawsuit reached his courtroom when he was a judge.
"I just remember turning it off because my 11 year old was in the room. I didn't want to have that conversation right then and there," said Beth Parli, 44, about the ad after dropping off her kids on their first day of school this week in suburban Austin.
Parli typifies the female voter Davis needs to convert. She sipped coffee in a Republican-leaning neighborhood where Davis this month led a block-walk through streets that are miles from Austin's liberal core in both distance and vibe. Nearby at Red's Indoor Gun Range, the marquee hawks Mondays as Ladies Day.
Despite a national profile, powerhouse fundraising and celebrity backers, Davis must still cobble together a formula that has eluded Texas Democrats during a 20-year losing streak: Turning out their base, getting a boost from a booming Hispanic population and swaying suburban women to their side.
In 2010, Republican Texas Gov. Rick Perry won 53 percent of the female vote and was favored nearly 2-to-1 among white women over Democratic opponent Bill White. Perry steamrolled to victory by double digits.
Republicans don't see a woman at the top of the Democratic ticket changing the outcome.
"As long as Wendy Davis continues to paint women as victims, she will continue to struggle as a candidate," said Cari Christman, executive director of the Red State Women, a political action committee in Texas.
Democrats mocked Christman earlier this year for saying women were "extremely busy" when she was asked about closing gender wage gaps. She said she started the PAC after watching Davis last summer stand in pink running shoes on the Texas Senate floor and talk for 13 hours to filibuster the proposed abortion limits.
In fiercely conservative Texas, Davis hasn't made reproductive rights a centerpiece of her campaign. She's instead hammered Abbott for not supporting a Texas version of the federal Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and criticized his office for paying men more than women in similar jobs.
Her television spot chastises Abbott for casting a dissenting vote on the Texas Supreme Court in a case brought by a rape victim who won a $160,000 award against the vacuum cleaner company Kirby Co. Abbott's campaign has said his decision didn't dispute the liability of the salesman and the Kirby contractor who hired him.
"Greg Abbott has presented a plan and a vision to build a better future for all Texans, while Sen. Davis continues her flailing and desperate campaign," spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said.
Not all females at the top of statewide tickets are magnifying gender so much this election year. In Wisconsin, Democrat Mary Burke has rarely strayed from a message of job creation in her race against Republican Gov. Scott Walker.
Back in Texas, meanwhile, Davis held a telephone town hall with supporters Wednesday to mark the 94th anniversary of women getting the right to vote.
"I think women will be paying close attention to this race. I think women will express their opinions about who they believe will most appropriately represent them," Davis said.
When Democrat Ann Richards was elected Texas governor in 1990, she won over suburban female voters who were energized about electing a woman to such a powerful office, said Mary Beth Rogers, who was Richards' campaign manager. But when Richards ran for re-election four years later against George W. Bush, Rogers said, the polling data began to change and more women had begun identifying themselves as Republican.
Davis is now hoping that pendulum is swinging back enough.
"I hope that shift is well enough underway," Rogers said. "That may be the central question."
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