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Wendy Davis: Yes, She Can

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The Democratic primary and run-off in 1990 were vicious affairs, with opponents attacking Richards in the crudest and most personal ways. They didn't just suggest that she was too liberal; one foe ran TV ads that suggested she was "soft" on capital punishment, while another accused her of having drug problems.

Richards won a brutal Democratic runoff race, but she went into the general election with a divided party and a deficit in her campaign treasury. Her Republican foe, Williams, was on the attack and, while he bumbled at several turns, he was rich enough to "own" the airwaves -- outspending the Democrat two to one.

Yet, when the votes were counted, Richards won by a 100,000-vote margin, for a 49-47 finish.

What was her secret?

Ann Richards ran as Ann Richards. She was didn't pull punches or tailor her message to fit the demands of campaign consultants.

Richards was proudly pro-choice. She promised to veto legislation that attempted to limit access to reproductive health services. Her campaign proudly circulated a letter from pro-choice activists that identified the Democrat as a champion in the struggle to defend abortion rights.

Richards defended voting rights. She advocated for low-income Texans and people of color. And she was blunt. Very blunt.

"Power is what calls the shots, and power is a white male game," said Richards.

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She made points that made sense to working women of every race and ethnicity.

"They blame the low-income women for ruining the country because they are staying home with their children and not going out to work," explained Richards. "They blame the middle income women for ruining the country because they go out to work and do not stay home to take care of their children."

Ann Richards made so much sense, and she made it so boldly, so unapologetically, that voters who had grown frustrated with the process got engaged again. And new voters got excited.

Turnout was high on November 6, 1990 -- roughly 51 percent, as compared to 47 percent four years earlier. And the difference provided the margin by which Richards won.

Turnouts are nowhere near that these days. In 2010, just 38 percent of registered voters cast ballots for governor of Texas. In 2006, it was just 34 percent.

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Richards got more people to the polls. And she got their votes, sweeping the communities she has spoken to, and spoken for. Sixty percent of women who came to the polls backed Richards, as did 65 percent of Hispanic voters and 90 percent of African-American voters.

"She represented all of us who have lived with and learned to handle good ol' boys,"  recalled Ivins , "and she did it with laughter."

It is often suggested now that, at some point in the none-too-distant future, Texas will "tip" into the Democratic column as women and people of color form a new majority that beats the "good ol' boys" at the "white male game."

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

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