Wendy Davis, the Texas State Senator who shot to political fame with her filibuster last year against new curbs on abortion, is fighting to protect her nascent bid for governor amidst savage, deeply personal attacks from the conservative right after small discrepancies emerged in her much touted hard-scrabble life story.
It is a nasty, Texas-sized storm that has national implications as Republicans fend off charges of sexist and misogynistic attitudes, underscored when former presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee averred last week that Democrats are committed to assuring access to contraception for women who “can’t control their libido”.
Democrats have not won state-wide office in Texas for two decades and are pining for the Davis campaign to succeed. At the heart of it was the gutsy story of a single, trailer-home mum who was divorced at 19 and yet managed to haul herself up all the way to Harvard and a successful career in public service back home.
But she was knocked off balance when a Dallas paper reported that in fact she was separated from her first husband at 19 and divorced him at 21, lived in the trailer for just six months and was able to borrow money to go to Harvard from her second husband, to whom she also gave custody of her two young children when she left to study.
Conservative piled on as one. Ms Davis has been variously branded a bad mother, a fraud and a liar. “Abortion Barbie had a Sugar Daddy Ken,” tweeted Fox News pundit Erick Erickson. Rush Limbaugh called her a “fake” while her likely Republican opponent, State Attorney General Greg Abbot, told voters not to “indulge her fanciful narrative”.
This weekend the campaign got out of its crouch and hit back. “They’re getting desperate,” Davis campaign manager Karin Johanson said in an email, adding that Republicans would “try anything, including the typical dirty tricks we’re all tired of” to bring Davis down.
What damage has been done is hard to gauge. Ms Davis was already facing long odds and was relying heavily on her life-story to bring new voters to the booths, including the fast-growing Hispanic community here, and to peel off a good number of women who would normally vote Republican.
But spirits were high at a meeting of Democrats at Smith Chapel on the south side of Dallas on Saturday. Darling Ewing, the Democrat Party chairperson for Dallas County, said the attacks will come back to bite the Republicans. “They are hung up on this ticky-tacky, nitpicking direction that has no meaning in the real world,” she said. “Does it matter if she was divorced at 19 or 21? She was young and she was a single mother.” And she accused Republicans of double standards. “If she had stayed home and put her husband through law school and he left home do you think we would be hearing the same things about him? I don’t think so.”
For Ms Davis, who represents Fort Worth in the legislature, the typhoon of the last seven days may in fact represent a form of flattery. It started, interestingly, just days after her campaign revealed unexpectedly strong fund-raising even outpacing Mr Abbott’s, numbers that had clearly caught everyone’s attention.
Ms Ewing believes Davis can still win. “It’s going to take a perfect storm of factors all coming together. But she has really energised the Democratic base because this is our chance at last to loosen the shackles that the Republican state legislature has put on us.” Then she quipped: “If the Republicans let Huckabee keep talking we will be fine.”