AUSTIN — Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis abruptly replaced her campaign manager Wednesday — the latest sign that a run that began with national fanfare and sky-high hopes of a major blue victory in one of America’s reddest states has floundered against a strong Republican favorite.
Davis replaced strategist Karin Johanson, a Washington-based consultant with a glittering national pedigree, with state Rep. Chris Turner, who is himself running to keep his Grand Prairie-based seat in November. She said in a statement she needed someone who had “fought — and won — tough races in this state.”
While Davis opened as a decided underdog against long-serving and well-funded Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott, Democrats were optimistic she’d defy dismal odds and score her party’s first win in a statewide race in 20 years — the nation’s longest such streak.
Davis, a state senator from Fort Worth, has raised more than $16 million. But she’s struggled to define herself on any issue beyond her 12-plus hour filibuster in the state Legislature last summer against a bill imposing tough new abortion restrictions. Her effort delayed the measure, but it was eventually overwhelmingly approved.
“The conventional wisdom was the campaign wasn’t going anywhere and Wendy couldn’t win,” said Gary Mauro, a former Democratic Texas Land Commissioner who lost to George W. Bush in the 1998 governor’s race. “She had to shake up the campaign and change the narrative.”
Johanson, who started with Davis in October, has three decades of political experience and managed the campaign of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, the Wisconsin Democrat who became the first openly gay candidate elected to the Senate. Her appointment had been intended to show the national firepower of the Davis campaign — but her departure comes less than five months before the election.
Still, Johanson stayed positive, saying in a note to Davis staffers and supporters Wednesday that she’d suggested Turner as her replacement.
“I am proud of what we have all built in this campaign,” she wrote, adding that she’s “going to go home and spend some time this summer with my 90-year old father and lose the pounds I gained from eating tacos for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Her departure, however, isn’t the campaign’s first makeover. When reports surfaced that Davis had misstated small but key details about her rise from a trailer park to Harvard Law School, her campaign scheduled a speech to respond on the same night as the State of the Union — and at a venue where nearly all of the Texas press corps was barred from because of limited space.
After that, Zac Petkanas, a former top aide to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, was hired as communications manager.
Matt Hirsch, an Abbott campaign spokesman, said the move was indicative of the way the governor’s race has gone.
“The steady stream of campaign shake-ups and reboot attempts we’ve seen from Sen. Davis’ operation indicates one thing — a candidate who is out of touch with Texans and is looking for external fixes to an internal problem,” Hirsch said via email.
Abbott also has had missteps, including appearing with renegade rocker Ted Nugent, who has called President Barack Obama a “sub-human mongrel.”
Meanwhile, Davis has tried to frame the campaign in terms beyond her famous filibuster, calling Abbott, who took office in 2002, a Texas insider, and saying Republicans have under-funded education and taken hard-line immigration stances. But the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association didn’t include Texas while recently listing top races that the group deems winnable this year.
Davis also has been criticized by the GOP for attending high-profile out-of-state fundraisers — even though she has assembled her campaign war chest with donations from around Texas as well as elsewhere.
Turner won his seat in 2008 but was defeated in 2010. He won again two years later, though, becoming the Texas House Democratic Caucus Chairman and prevailing in this year’s Democratic primary. His district is heavily Democratic and he now faces no major opposition for re-election.
He was previously a campaign manager for former U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a Democrat who held a conservative, Waco-based seat from 1991 until 2011 — and he was mentioned as a possible vice presidential nominee for Obama in 2008.
“His commitment to the people of Texas is unparalleled and demonstrated in his service in the state legislature,” Davis said. “He is an honorable public servant, a highly regarded political strategist and a friend who believes in my vision for all Texans.”