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.
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.