Behind the Curtain With Wendy Davis

After months of campaign stumbles, does Team Wendy have what it takes to right the ship? An exclusive insider’s look at the strategy, drama, dysfunction, and determination of the Democrats’ most famous hope.

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Ap | Eric Gay

On the afternoon of Thursday, January 30, 2014, I was sitting with Wendy Davis in her office on the third story of her gubernatorial campaign headquarters. The building is situated on the edge of Fort Worth’s once downtrodden, now buzzing South Side neighborhood, which has long been her sentimental favorite. About a mile away from the building resides a popular gastropub named Brewed that was once the site of Davis’s previous campaign headquarters—the one she used to fight her 2008 underdog state Senate campaign against GOP incumbent Kim Brimer. Davis had driven me past the building a week or so earlier, and while doing so she commented that when her campaign first rented the place, “it was disgusting, both inside and out.” But the nostalgia in her voice was evident. In that building, the unknown city councilwoman waged what must have felt at the time like a guerrilla operation, with all the attendant romance. Brewed’s employees later told me that Davis often dropped by for dinner these days, though none of them was aware of her emotional attachment to the building.

The site of her new headquarters was likely selected with the intention of recapturing that same scrappy spirit. It was once a hotel, and probably not a high-end one; the senior staffers arrive at their third-floor offices by means of steep and creaky stairs. More relevant is that each strategist is walled off from the others in individual former hotel rooms, suggesting the very dearth of flow and mind-meld that has seemed to plague the campaign from its inception. Though Davis’s senior team—which includes top strategist J. D. Angle, campaign manager Karin Johanson, Battleground Texas director Jenn Brown, and Lone Star Project (a statewide Democratic opposition research firm) veterans Matt Angle and Lisa Turner—confers every morning at eight, no unified vision has resulted from these meetings, for the simple reason that there’s been no unity in the ranks. That disharmony has led to dysfunction—and it has undermined Wendy Davis’s already-slim chances of beating Greg Abbott and thereby returning the governor’s mansion to the Democrats for the first time in two decades.

After having spent much of the previous May and June in Texas to research what would become Texas Monthly’s August 2013 cover story about the changing fortunes of the state Democratic party, I returned to my native state to write about Davis for the New York Times Magazine on January 14. That day, the campaign trumpeted that it had, in conjunction with affiliated groups, raised $12.2 million over the past three months, eclipsing the Abbott campaign’s $11.6 haul during the same period. Prior to the announcement, Texas politicos had been wondering aloud, “Where’s Wendy?” Now they knew where: she’d spent the past two months doing pretty much what she ought to be doing, raising gobs of cash from Democrats across America. For the moment, any concerns about the uninspired conduct of her campaign had been laid to rest. On the 16, I watched Davis give a pugnacious speech to Harris County Democrats, one of whom literally swooned at the foot of the stage. The next morning in Fort Worth, Davis took me on a leisurely two-hour driving tour through her former council district. She was practically Buddha-like in her serenity. Two days later, Wayne Slater’s story about Davis’s narrative appeared on the front page of the Dallas Morning News. Eleven days after that, she and I sat on adjacent couches on the third floor of Hotel Wendy, and the conversation was not a pleasant one. Though Davis insisted to me that her fund-raising events continued to be well-attended, I knew for a fact that top bundlers had been telling her, in fairly blunt language: Wendy, if you don’t stop the bleeding, the big checks are going to stop coming. It’ll be over.

My story about Davis was published this past Sunday. The next day, while discussing the piece on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, host Joe Scarborough declared, “She’s not ready—maybe in five or ten years.” Dismissing Davis’s fifteen years of solid public service—exactly fifteen years more than George W. Bush possessed when he prevailed against Governor Ann Richards two decades ago—Scarborough speculated that liberal groups must have pushed poor Davis into running. Given that my story and the ensuing discussion focused on gender double standards in American politics, his condescending musings were luminous in their unintended irony.

Davis had in fact been getting lots of pressure to run—for anything. (The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had made a case to her for challenging GOP senator John Cornyn, which Davis rejected on the spot during a meeting in Washington last summer. “I wanted to work in my state, on behalf of my state,” she told me.) Governor Bush endured a full year of cajoling before he plunged into presidential politics. It’s that way with pretty much all well-known politicians not named Steve Stockman. For that matter, it took a great deal of convincing before city councilwoman Davis agreed in 2007 to run for state Senate. By contrast, she had been mulling a gubernatorial run since 2011, when Senator Davis realized that even if she won reelection to Senate District 10 in 2012 (which she did), she might have to run again in two years instead of four because of redistricting in a district whose base of support had been depleted (which is what happened). She would probably win, but it wouldn’t be easy, and the payoff would be a return to a state legislature where the majority party viewed her with unalloyed contempt. Davis’s final decision wasn’t cavalier, but it was hers, and she made it even after her 26-year-old daughter, Dru, expressed worries that a high-profile statewide race would almost certainly invite a thorough revisitation of the Davis family’s past.

Dru was prescient. Now the more complicated version of her mother’s backstory, along with Davis’s stance on abortion, will accompany the candidate all the way to Election Day. Still, a far more decisive factor may be the performance of Wendy Davis’s campaign team—which, until very recently, had shown little sign that they know the way to win a statewide race any better than Bill White, Chris Bell, or Tony Sanchez did in the past three election cycles.

Two days ago, I received an email from a Davis campaign insider. “We are miles away from the dysfunction of six weeks ago,” it boasted. Wanting to hear more, I picked up the phone.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was open-carry,” the insider told me, referring to Davis’s recently announced support of a policy that would allow Texans to tote their firearms in plain view. Coming on the heels of the senator’s statement indicating that she would be open to a ban on abortions after twenty weeks—a seeming contradiction of her previous stance—progressive donors were deeply dismayed, and said so to Davis herself. To them, it appeared to be a dubious attempt on the campaign’s part to reposition her as a centrist, perhaps to mollify suburban voters who might have been put off by inconsistencies in her narrative. More to the point, it looked like Davis wasn’t in charge. This seemed counter to the woman’s strong and fearless persona; as she herself had told me, “I’ve never been one of those candidates who’s been maneuvered by the will of my team.” Something had changed, then—and, the big donors told her, it needed to change back.

The open-carry gambit, I was told, was something that Matt Angle had been pushing internally for some time, just as he and his younger brother J.D. had advocated a soft-selling approach that emphasized personal narrative over sharp contrast with Davis’s opponent. It’s worth noting that the Angle brothers, along with Lisa Turner, were instrumental in her 2008 state Senate victory. Along the way, Davis told me, she had come to develop an unshakable faith in their loyalty toward her: “They are much more interested in protecting me than in advancing their own careers.” She also trusted their political judgment and was in any event loath to test it. “Candidates are often scared to break old habits—they’re like baseball players,” the insider told me. “They win the World Series wearing a particular pair of socks, they’re going to keep wearing that fucking pair of socks. You’re never quite sure why you won. You know you did a bunch of shit, but you don’t know what made the difference.”

Meanwhile, it seemed obvious to me that Davis and her Fort Worth mafia had fallen a bit too in love with her 2008 victory. The lesson they took from that race was that she would always have doubters but that, through out-hustling and out-smarting the opposition while maximizing the base vote, Davis would invariably prove them wrong. But her triumph in Senate District 10 is hardly scalable to a 254-county, $100 million race in which national conservative groups are sure to figure heavily. Team Wendy can’t do it alone—and for the most part, they’ve played very poorly with others.

It’s axiomatic, for example, that a comparatively underfunded underdog gets its initial traction by courting the media. (See, among other examples, John McCain in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008.) In this regard, Davis had the wind at her back. Journalists are notoriously addicted to sweet storylines and savory conflict. The filibustering Democrat provided both. Her entry last October into an otherwise bleak landscape of 2014 statewide aspirants all but guaranteed that Texas political obsessives would have something to talk about all the way until November. As a consequence, Davis’s campaign had a receptive audience more than willing to bestow what’s known in the trade as “earned media,” a.k.a. free press, anytime the campaign had something newsworthy to offer.

Instead, the Davis communications shop succeeded in offending virtually everyone in Texas wearing a press badge. A notable case in point occurred last month, when Davis gave a feisty speech to Travis County Democrats in which she accused the Abbott campaign of “lying about my family.” Her staff had decided to make the event closed to the press. When local Democrats asked if they could live-stream the event, they were told, “We’re not ready for that.” Word reached Davis—and, a top campaign official later told me, she pointedly reminded her team, “Live-streaming was what put me on the map.” Had her press shop leaked this story to the media, and subsequently opened up the event to them, their boss would have received the hero’s treatment. Instead, they let in a single Texas Tribune camera for live-streaming, along with a single reporter, the Trib’s Jay Root, and locked everyone else out. The episode amounted to a textbook case of how to foster ill feelings for no reason at all.

And the example isn’t an isolated one. Key to Davis’s victory is turnout, and in recent memory no organization has proved more adept in this area than the Obama campaign. Texas Democrats and others have voiced suspicion about the motives and hype surrounding Battleground Texas, not without cause—but when it comes to the gritty task of getting out the vote, they’re the experts. (As to whether the Davis campaign can prevail in November by their preferred approach of relying heavily on maximizing turnout instead of an imaginative, outside-the-box messaging strategy, I have my doubts.) The Angles and Battleground director Jenn Brown have frequently quarreled over tactics, just as the brothers were in regular disagreement with Washington-based pollster Anna Greenberg, who ultimately left the campaign last month. Her replacement is Obama pollster Joel Benenson, and though the initial word is that Benenson has been a take-charge presence during conference calls, it remains to be seen whether a much-in-demand Beltway operative will have a sustained influence over a grueling Texas race. In fairness, I should add that no one on the extended Davis team knows the state’s electoral minutiae better than Matt Angle, or knows the candidate herself better than J. D. Angle. The point is not that Wendy Davis’s brain trust is without value. It’s that Davis needs all the help she can get—and that the campaign has behaved otherwise, until very recently.

Which brings me back to the campaign insider’s optimistic email and our subsequent phone conversation. Though it’s a little early to be proclaiming Davis out of the woods, of late her campaign has strung together some pretty decent days, and not out of sheer luck. It began on February 10, when the candidate called on Attorney General Abbott to settle his lawsuit relating to school funding, and was followed by strong performances before the editorial boards of the Dallas Morning News and the Austin American-Statesman. Then, earlier this week, Abbott handed the Davis campaign an unexpected gift by agreeing to appear with right-wing rocker Ted Nugent, whose denunciations of progressives routinely cross lines of decency.

Davis did not farm out the official response to her press shop. Instead, she told the media herself that she found Abbott’s embrace of Nugent “repulsive.” That sentiment was echoed not only by her campaign but also by a Greek chorus of liberal organizations—and not by coincidence, the insider told me: “All the progressive voices executed the same play at the same time. And why? Because they talked about it in advance.”

If that sort of coordination represents a new normal for the Wendy Davis campaign, then this summer and autumn the Texas political press might have a story to cover after all—provided they’re given the chance to do so.

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