It's a sunny afternoon just before the election and Wendy Davis isn't addressing an arena packed with adoring supporters, speaking on national television or working a hotel ballroom of top donors.
Instead, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor is in a soldier's backyard in an especially conservative corner of the state that she has no hope of carrying, addressing 30 campaign volunteers as they slap at stinging fire ants.
Davis' campaign, which began with sky-high hopes among Democrats nationwide, is nearing the finish line facing seemingly insurmountable odds. The state senator dares critics to count her out, but her well-funded and popular Republican opponent, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, looks so unstoppable that the question now looming over the race is whether defeat will reduce her to a spent political force.
"Not everybody's going to win the first time. She'll be back," said Alfred Nairn, a retiree at the backyard event in Killeen, a town of fast-food joints and billboards emblazoned with religious slogans. The community of almost 140,000 is anchored by Fort Hood, one of the largest U.S. military posts in the world.
Davis, 51, built a national brand and showed more sizzle than most unsuccessful candidates. So even a sizeable loss could leave her with more appeal than any southern Democrat in recent memory. But her challenge will be retaining enough notoriety to capitalize on her state's booming Hispanic population, which holds the potential to help Democrats eventually end a 20-year, longest-in-the-nation losing streak in statewide elections.
Win or lose, Texas Democrats insist, Davis will remain atop the party alongside rising state stars such as Julian Castro, who stepped down as San Antonio mayor to become the nation's housing secretary and has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee in 2016.
Since Davis is giving up her Fort Worth-based Senate seat, she could take her national profile to a political think tank or a job as a television pundit.
"She does well on TV. That's a pretty well-tried path for people like her," said Matt Bennett, former aide to President Bill Clinton and Al Gore and co-founder of the moderate Democratic group Third Way. "That is a path she might be happier on anyway. She of all people knows how tough it is to win in Texas."
But Cathy Bonner, who was a close confidant to Texas' last Democratic governor, Ann Richards, said Davis isn't "as jaded as a pundit."
"She's very sophisticated in politics and elections," said Bonner, also a Davis donor. "I don't think she would ever be that."
Since Richards' day, most Democratic gubernatorial candidates have disappeared from the political landscape after defeat. That includes Gary Mauro, who was beaten by then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1998. Mauro said the state party would applaud any future political moves Davis makes, including possibly challenging tea party-backed U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2020.
"I would hope that she do that rather than take the pundit route," he said. "I think most Texans feel the same."
Cody Schuette, the 29-year-old Army captain who hosted Davis in Killeen, suggested she could run against Abbott again in four years.
Addressing the crowd at Schuette's home, Davis spoke over the barking of a neighbor's dog and the squeaking of a trampoline from which two girls caught glimpses of the event by peering over a fence. She scoffed at the notion that she would be a stronger candidate in future elections.
"We know we have enough votes out there," Davis said. "We just have to make sure they show up."
That kind of defiant tone made Davis an overnight sensation in Democratic circles when she laced up a pair of pink sneakers and launched a 12-plus-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate to temporarily stall tough new abortion restrictions.
Davis shattered Texas Democratic fundraising records and continues raking in big bucks from out-of-state sources. But her political power peaked with the filibuster. Since then, she has struggled to define herself beyond abortion rights and spent most of the campaign reacting to Abbott rather than honing her own image.
She eventually fired her veteran campaign manager, shook up her communications staff and launched a book tour to promote her highly anticipated memoir. But those efforts failed to make up much ground.
Her campaign recently created a television ad noting that Abbott collected millions from a lawsuit he filed after a tree fell on him while he was jogging — an injury that put him in a wheelchair. The ad accused her opponent of hypocrisy for his part in a Republican-led effort to limit "frivolous" lawsuits and cap damages awarded by juries. The message was decried by Republicans and even some Democrats as desperate.
"Hope outran reality" for Davis, Bennett said, but "she's definitely an asset" nationally.
"She's still a star in Democratic politics," he added. "It doesn't matter what Texas thinks of her."
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