Can Wendy Davis win the Texas governor's race?

Democrats are rightly excited about

state Sen. Wendy Davis' entry into the Texas governor race, though everyone knows - or should know - Davis has an uphill battle in front of her. Yes, Texas is changing and Democrats are working to seize on it; some of the Obama campaign's brain trust set up shop to organize and register voters there with the same kind of targeting that worked so well nationally last year.

Still, if you're betting on Texas turning blue it's a better futures play than a short-term one. That doesn't mean this can't be a compelling campaign with long-term implications, at the very least. Here's why:

You'll hear a lot about the growing Hispanic vote and how it may become the catalyst for a "blue" Texas. But what makes Texas harder today for Democrats than some other high-growth, demographically changing states in the west and south is that Democrats in Texas get a very, very low share of the white vote - so low, that minority voters and Hispanic voters cannot yet make up the difference.

For instance: in the last midterm cycle of 2010, Texas' white voters gave the Democratic gubernatorial candidate just 29 percent of their votes. At the same time, Colorado's Democratic candidate got 47 percent of whites - and then the Hispanic vote put him over the top. In Florida, even in losing, the Democratic candidate got 41 percent of whites. For Democrats and the white vote in states like this, it's not about winning, it's about not losing by too much. (On the presidential level, Barack Obama had gotten 26 percent of Texas' white vote in 2008. That same year, he got 39 percent of it in Virginia, which he won, just to offer an example.)

If we look deeper into that Texas white vote, we see a lot of conservatives - and it isn't clear Davis is poised to run on an appeal to conservatives, given her history. Most Texas voters (51 percent) were conservative in the last midterm - yes, that's most voters, not just most Republicans. Even 20 percent of Texas Democrats in 2010 called themselves conservative, a relatively high percent compared to Democrats in blue states. Davis may look to appeal to women voters on women's issues, and that may well be effective. But in Texas, a lot of women independents are conservative, too: 40 percent, more than three times the number who called themselves liberal.

A competitive Davis coalition would look much like you'd expect: She'd have to do well with women, and seize on any growth of upper-income, younger, high-educated women in and around the suburbs of Dallas, especially. (Probably more than 60 percent-plus of suburban women.) Texas' growth isn't just from Hispanics, of course, and an influx of new voters like this will surely help. Like any Democrat, too, she'd need very high turnout from African Americans. Recent patterns suggest, though, that she'd have a tougher time in the exurban, expanding counties further out from the cities and around Houston, as well as rural areas.

About the Hispanic vote: one cannot just assign it all to the Democrats. In Texas, Republicans can do at least a little better than they do nationally. Rick Perry got 38 percent in 2010. In 2008, John McCain got 35 percent, four points better than he did nationally. (George W. Bush, the former governor who'd done well with Hispanics during his tenure, won them lopsidedly over John Kerry with 59 percent, but that may not be the right measure anymore.) There's little doubt that the growing ranks of Hispanic voters, as well as views of the Republican Party nationally, would lead one to think Hispanics will trend more toward the Democrats in Texas, too. Still, the question is whether it will be enough.

None of this means we know for sure how Davis' race will turn out 18 months ahead of time - many campaigns are, happily, unpredictable. Candidates matter. A strong, more conservative third party candidate would throw much this out the window. And the last midterm does not equal next year's midterm.

But it also means we might not be able to really evaluate Davis' run for a while. Its potential value for Democrats might really be whether she makes any measurable inroads for the party (and/or herself) in terms of their long-term efforts, fundraising, organizing, registering, and not just whether she simply wins or loses this one.

So if someone asks you whether Wendy Davis can win Texas, the right response might be a question: Which year?

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    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director

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