State Rep. Sarah Davis has been around, but the way the moderate Republican’s primary campaign has played out—facing opposition by an antivaxxer and being attacked in ads by Gov. Greg Abbott, himself—has proved that even now, campaigning to be elected for her fifth term, politics can still surprise her.
Still, it’s not entirely a shock that members of her own party have come after her leading into the primary elections. Davis has long been known as a classic moderate, a confirmed member of the GOP in almost everything except for her stances in favor of LGBTQ rights and being pro-choice. From the time she was elected to House District 134 by the West University crowd in 2010 right up to now, Davis knows that she has garnered many opponents and irked some far right-leaning members of the GOP over the course of her time in office. Although she identifies as a “traditional Republican,” many of her party members view her more as a liberal.
But it has undeniably been an experience to be so clearly singled out by her own party this time around. “Certain factions of my party don’t agree with me. There will always be some that say I’m not conservative enough,” Davis says. “The social issues are typically what my opponents run on. I consider myself to be a fiscal conservative, but I don’t embrace all of these social conservative values.”
In just the past few months, Abbott has spent nearly $161,000 on advertisements attacking Davis and supporting her opponent in the primary, Susanna Dokupil, a conservative who has been eagerly supported by Texans for Vaccine Choice. (If you don’t know who that group is, they’re very against vaccines, movements that have led to larger-than-is-safe swathes of populations going without vaccines, which has subsequently led to outbreaks and increased risks of outbreaks of once-believed-to-be-outdated diseases like measles.)
But in this time of political fisticuffs, Davis is doing what she can to remain calm.“It’s not ideal to have the governor in your own party wanting to see you lose so bad, but I don’t represent Greg Abbott, I represent House District 134, and that’s who I am accountable to and will remain accountable to as long as I serve,” she says.
The most recent ad featured a comparison of Davis to Abbott’s 2014 Democratic opponent, Wendy Davis, saying that “both Davises are against limiting state spending,” “both Davises oppose Gov. Abbott,” and concluded the ad by saying, “you said no to Wendy Davis, now it’s time to say no to Sarah Davis.”
“There are many Republicans who don’t disapprove of the governor but disapprove of the governor’s aggressive involvement in the campaign,” Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston, says. “Davis has got a target on her because of some high-profile policy differences with the party and the governor.”
What’s most troubling about Abbott’s involvement is that Davis has always been a representative that has stuck closely to representing her constituents in a way that reflects their values. “She fits her district hand in glove—being a wealthy, educated, moderate district,” Rottinghaus says. “Former Speaker of the House Pete Laney’s would remind members before every vote that they should ‘vote their districts’ and Representative Davis has done that every session.”
This intense involvement could potentially backfire and cause more moderate Republicans to either split their ticket or completely refrain from voting in certain races, he warns. It could also have fallout for Abbott if the race doesn’t go the way he’s been pushing for it to go. After all, Abbott weighing in on a state legislative race is fairly unprecedented. But he may have his reasons, Rottinghaus says. “The governor is attempting to generate party unity and to leverage his war chest to shape the legislature with loyal supporters,” Rottinghaus says. “No governor in Texas history has been this involved in a political race and if it doesn’t work it may be embarrassing for him.”
More than anything, this House of Cards-worthy scenario is shedding more light on the deep-seated identity crisis that has been playing out on local, state and national levels for the GOP. Davis maintains this is much bigger than her and her race, and that the struggle of the party is simply exemplified with what she has dealt with during this primary run.
“I think there’s this war going on in the party and I think as Republicans we need to decide—do we want to have a party that focuses on pro-business and economic issues and having decent roads and good public education and access to health care,” Davis says, “or do we want to try to regulate where people go to the bathroom or push further and further unconstitutional abortion access bills, attacking local governments?”
During the last biennial legislative session, Davis was against the controversial bathroom bill, and was advocating for ethics reform that would change some rules on when politicians can do their fundraising, stances that she now believes exacerbated the divide between herself and Abbott. In addition to the request for ethics reform, Davis recalls being vocally opposed to the bathroom bill that was on call during the special session. “I don’t think the governor appreciated my viewpoints on that,” she acknowledges dryly.
The largest hurdle that Davis is facing is combatting the contorted picture the ads create of her legislative record. “They’re based on lies," she says. "The things that they’re accusing me of are just not true. It’s just falsehoods and distortions of my voting record.”
With the primaries on Tuesday, Davis has her eyes on the goal. She's been working to counteract Abbott’s shots by going directly to the voters and explaining to them everything she’s accomplished in the legislature.
“At the end of the day, I’m in my fourth term and a lot of my constituents know who I am," she says. "I’ve been around for eight years. It’s not like I’m new or like people don’t know me. I don’t think most people are buying into the narratives that the governor is trying to push.”
Or at least that’s what Davis is hoping. She’ll know for sure after the polls close and the votes are counted up Tuesday night.