Wendy Davis: Filibusters Do Not a Candidate Make

Davis will have to figure out where she stands on issues before her opponents define her

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Eric Gay / AP

Senator Wendy Davis filibusters in an effort to kill an abortion bill in Austin, on June 25, 2013.

Wendy Davis, the Texas state senator who became a household name this summer after her gutsy filibuster to stop Gov. Rick Perry’s abortion restrictions, announced her candidacy yesterday to replace Perry. Democrats are giddy with excitement because Davis’ star power has given them their first real hope in nearly two decades of pulling this reliably red state into their orbit.

But Republican Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz might also want to wish her luck. Her candidacy is an early field test of their political strategy: Using filibusters on narrow issues that resonate with core constituencies as a tool for catapulting themselves from obscurity to greater political heights. But whether being a filibuster candidate can propel Wendy Davis into the governor’s office will depend on her ability to overcome its rather severe downsides.

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To actually win the race, Davis must broaden her appeal beyond her activist base and present herself as a moderate who doesn’t look at issues from a “liberal Democratic lens” but as someone “who believes everyone deserves opportunity.”

That, however, is going to be a tough sell not only in light of what she has done — but what she has not done.

She spent nine years in the city council and five in the senate, during which she dabbled unenthusiastically in garden-variety liberal causes — redeveloping blighted areas with government “incentives,” public schools and pay-day lending — but her real passion was for women’s issues. Besides demanding an end to pay discrimination and improving workplace conditions for women, she pushed law enforcement authorities to audit the backlog of unanalyzed rape kits gathering dust on their shelves.

Her one big foray outside of women’s issues was in 2011, when she launched her first filibuster to stop Perry from slashing $4 billion from public schools. Not only was it mostly a big yawn, but as TIME’s Hilary Hylton has reported, Davis represents a heavily minority — African American and Latino — district that strongly supports school choice. Had Davis pushed that, she might have become a sensation for a different reason: Having the guts to break away from her own party’s orthodoxies.

That would have made it much harder for Davis’ opponents to imprison her in her own cause by nicknaming her Abortion Barbie, an ugly but effective moniker that reminds general voters that she’s a single-issue ideologue.

(MORE: Wendy Davis: The Misogyny Will Actually Help Her—and Democrats)

But there are bigger problems with Davis’ catapult strategy. Had she followed the more conventional route of working her way up the ranks by engaging in bread-and-butter issues she could have pre-empted such attacks. She would have inevitably built bridges, making it harder for colleagues on the other side of the aisle to get too nasty. More importantly, it would have allowed her to develop a governing philosophy and sort out some existential questions in advance.

Right now, no one really knows what Davis would do once elected — not even likely Davis herself. Will she reverse her predecessor’s economic policies or stick with them? Texas has a $100 billion budget surplus. What will Davis do with it? Save it for a rainy day? Or invest it? If so, where? How much should she stick to the party line and on what issues? In the absence of a track record, Davis will have to figure all this out on the fly and define herself before her opponents define her.

This is precisely the problem that Paul and Cruz, both of whom are junior senators whose names are suddenly being tossed around as potential Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential elections, are also going to face. Paul made a name for himself when he filibustered the confirmation of President Obama’s CIA nominee to demand answers on the scope of the administration’s drone program. And Cruz last month went on a 21-hour talkathon to defund Obamacare as a condition for passing the budget. Like Davis, they are both playing to activists who care about one issue above all else—and hoping that eventually a broader cross-section of voters will listen.

If Davis succeeds next year, she’ll give them hope that this strategy is workable. If she stumbles, they might want to sit out the next presidential election cycle and begin the long, hard, unglamorous slog up.