Wendy Davis's Secret Weapon to Win Texas

Winning the Hispanic vote is the key to the governor’s race. Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

Wendy Davis should send Rick Perry a muffin basket, because he may have handed her a winning issue in her longshot bid to succeed Perry as governor of Texas.

It may be counter-intuitive that Davis, a Democratic state senator running for governor in a red state, would bring up the controversial health care reform law, but it might be a risk she needs to take.

In order for Davis to defeat Attorney General Greg Abbott, her likely Republican opponent next November, political strategists say she needs to win big among two key demographics: Hispanics and white women. Among Hispanics in particular, Davis can't let her Republican opponent claim more than about 30 percent of the vote.

Texas has a wealth of Hispanics not registered to vote, but with only a year before the election, Davis will need to focus on winning over and turning out registered Hispanic voters. That's a taller order than in many states; against the national trend, in Texas Hispanics have been more open to supporting Republicans. Because 2014 is not a presidential election year, getting the base to turn out and vote could be a battle.

"The Latino vote will be more important in the Texas 2014 election than it has ever been before in the history of the state," said Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling group Latino Decisions. "If Davis can somehow find a way to engage and mobilize Latinos, she will have a very real chance to win."

That's where Obamacare comes in – though Davis is unlikely to call it that. Instead, she would be smart to talk about expanding Medicaid.

When Gov. Perry decided not to expand the state's Medicaid program, turning down $100 billion from the federal government over the next decade under the Affordable Care Act, he consigned up to 2 million Texans to live without health insurance. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Hispanics make up 60 percent of the non-elderly uninsured and 34 percent of the poor in Texas. In other words, there are a lot of Hispanics who will not get coverage, or have to pay significantly more for health insurance, without the expansion. Davis needs to persuade them that it is Perry's fault.

Unlike the rest of the country, or even the rest of Texas, Texan Hispanics do not distrust the Affordable Care Act. Polls last year showed 58 percent of Texan Hispanics want to keep the law ,while 60 percent said the government should ensure access to health insurance. "Our polling data has clearly documented access to affordable health care is a very important issue to Latinos in Texas and this could be one of the issues, along with immigration, that could very much help Wendy Davis reach out to [them]," Barreto said. So Davis can issue Hispanics a stark choice: Vote for me and you'll get health care; stay home or vote for Abbott, and you won't.

Jason Stanford, a Texas-based Democratic strategist, said Davis "absolutely" needs to communicate this to lower-income Hispanic voters. "This means they don't have to take their kids to the emergency room when they get sick, they can take them to a regular doctor. They get treated with some dignity here," he said. "So it's both a financial reason, and also it's a, 'Yeah, it's cool you're here,' which is not the message they're getting from Texas Republicans these days."

Of course, it's not a risk-free strategy. Davis can call it Medicaid, but her opponent will call it "Obamacare." Since Davis is a Democrat with national standing among progressives, she can already expect her opponent to target her connection to the president and his health care law. So the trick is separating the utility of the Medicaid expansion, which brings in a lot of federal money, from the rest of Obamacare. Stanford says there are ways to address the Medicaid expansion issue to the broader public and, even more crucially, to white suburban women, another demographic Davis must win over if she's going to win the governorship.

In Texas, a popular complaint among homeowners is high property-tax rates, which are used to reimburse hospitals who treat the uninsured in their emergency rooms. Davis could paint health care expansion as a means to cut property taxes. "In the suburbs, women pay a lot of the household bills," he said. "They might feel this a little more personally than the dudes."

Of course, this strategy has skeptics too. Marcus Dell'Artino, a Republican strategist in Arizona, another red state with a large Hispanic population, says the situation in Texas mirrors the one in his home state in one regard. "For as long as I've been in politics, there's always been this discussion about a massive Latino turnout at the ballot box," he said. "It has not yet materialized."

Dell'Artino doubts the Medicaid issue will be enough to turn out Texas Hispanics. "If their strategy is that somehow this will motivate the Latino base to break their way, I think they're over-analyzing their strategy," he said. This "nuanced policy decision" is unlikely to turn out more voters.

On the other hand, Davis is the underdog, and that means she may have to throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks. "If she were a frontrunner, I would probably tell her to use this issue very, very carefully," Stanford said. "Since she's going to have to take risks, this might be one that she really needs to take a look at."