The Irresistible Plot Arc of a Two-Party Texas

How social media has buoyed Wendy Davis's star and added some turbulence to what must have seemed like a clear glide path to the governor’s mansion for Attorney General Greg Abbott.

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State Senator Wendy Davis at a fundraiser on July 25 in Washington, D.C.
AP Photo | Nick Wass

If Wendy Davis does run for governor in 2014, as most observers of Texas politics now expect, it will be a sign that the new universe of social media meets traditional news media has had a fundamental impact on the 2014 governor’s race. The fact of this impact is already obvious in Davis’ case, though its double-edged nature has been underestimated. With most eyes focused on Davis’ final decision to enter the race, less attention has been paid to how Davis’ rise influences the fortunes of the presumed Republican candidate, Attorney General Greg Abbott. Should Davis enter the race, he will also have reason to think that social media’s interaction with the traditional news media has added some turbulence to what must have seemed like a clear glide path to the governor’s mansion.

While most supporters of a Davis candidacy will tend to see this media attention as a plus, the magnitude of her sudden celebrity has actually narrowed her choices. Now that she been profiled by every major newspaper, appeared on the cover of Ms., and even been featured in Vogue’s September issue, entering the governor’s race seems the only rational choice before her. Because she is now a national star, passing on a statewide race to run for reelection to her Fort Worth senate seat would require her to run for smaller stakes with an even bigger target on her back than during her 2012 reelection bid. That was an expensive and hard-fought race, even before she had become a potential threat to Republican hegemony. There may have been a moment when it made sense for Davis to bide her time for four years while Democrats gathered their forces. That option seems much less viable now as a result of her ever-increasing, newfound fame.

While the circumstances surrounding her filibuster were likely to bring her media attention, her story fit a narrative that has informed media coverage of Texas politics at least since the 2012 election. The alleged looming resurrection of the Democratic Party in Texas was born in the “demographics are destiny” discussion of 2010 census numbers predicting dramatic increases in the Latino population in Texas. This storyline was amplified by Romney’s 2012 loss and his poor performance among minority voters. Then came the expertly staged media rollout of Battleground Texas and the organization’s ambition to Turn Texas Blue.

So even before Wendy Davis slipped on her pink tennies and headed to the Senate floor that last day of the first special session, stories about the Democratic comeback were practically writing themselves. It’s no surprise that the press jumped on the drama of Davis’ story and merged it with the narrative they had already spent months creating.

Yet some inconvenient facts have been consistently downplayed in this narrative. There are significant structural obstacles to translating Davis’ media-nurtured prominence into winning a gubernatorial election. The fundamentals of the oft-repeated gloomy situation of the Democrats in the body politic – Republican partisan identification among voters outstripped Democratic identification by at least 11 points statewide in the last midterm election, the lopsided financial balance of power, the lack of candidates will make Davis do all the heavy lifting on whatever Democratic ticket finally materializes – are no less factual for being old news.

No one has effectively disputed that these fundamentals of Texas politics dictate against Davis winning a statewide race unless some wild cards that radically change the formidable advantages Attorney General Abbott currently enjoys come into play.

This brings us to the ways in which Davis’ media-propelled rise changes the game for Abbott, too. In a bit of symmetry that is interesting in the abstract, more consequential in the real world, and a potential headache for the Abbott campaign, the same interactions between press coverage and social media that contributed to the sense of necessity now attached to a Davis candidacy might also disrupt the current patterns of normal politics that have made Abbott Rick Perry’s heir apparent.

The press will flock to the story of the heretofore-unexpected challenge to Abbott. This is not because the press is in the tank for her, but because Davis’ entrance presents editors and reporters with a much more interesting story than the expected alternative. For Abbott, being portrayed as the unchallenged heir apparent to Rick Perry is critically different from being heavily favored but facing the first legitimate rising star of the Democratic Party in a generation. The first is a boring story of inevitability with little potential for surprise; the latter is a story of unexpected conflict with an underdog that will interest a press corps already primed by the preexisting storyline that has already fueled coverage of Davis’s rise. This is not fatal for the Abbott campaign, but it is not likely the race they were prepared to run.

This reframing of the race will inevitably lead the political press to raise the question of whether Abbott is really as strong as his bank account and conservative pedigree suggest. The Abbott campaign moved early and directly to dispel potential campaign vulnerabilities in areas such as tort reform and his embrace of arguments that the Americans with Disability Act is unconstitutional. Such early campaign inoculations are much more likely to forestall later press interest in an uncontested race.

Finally and probably most treacherous for Abbott, a Davis-Abbott race would also introduce gender politics that are a minefield for the Abbott campaign. It’s been more than 20 years since Clayton Williams verbally stepped on his manhood and transformed the 1990 governor’s race in Ann Richards’ favor. Abbott seems by nature a more careful candidate than Williams; but over the weekend the Abbott campaign committed an unforced error on Twitter, sending a “thanks for your support” Tweet to a supporter in apparent response to a Tweet that called Davis an “idiot” and referred to her as “Retard Barbie.” A clumsy retraction of sorts followed, but the story was almost immediately flagged by Democrats and picked up by Politico and the Washington Post.

This social media dust up and its quick journey into the coverage of the institutional press is unlikely to transform the race, but it provides a tidy and timely example of the importance of the media terrain of the 2014 governor’s race. Many women view Davis through the prism of women’s health and women’s rights, and, more broadly, personally identify with her as a woman. A mistake in message or even tone that disturbs the partisan identification of Republican women, or mobilizes female Davis voters who might have otherwise stayed home in a mid-term election, could seriously hurt Abbott’s candidacy. He will need to proceed with care in a media environment that has now fundamentally changed the grounds of his long-awaited shot at the governorship – first by boosting Wendy Davis’s already rising star, then by providing opportunities for the kind of race-transforming tactical errors that even the colorful and careless Clayton Williams couldn’t have imagined.

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James Henson directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Joshua Blank is the manager of polling and research at the Texas Politics Project.

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