By now it’s safe to say that the initial rollout of the Wendy Davis campaign has been as positively received as the launch of Mainway Toys’ Bag O’ Glass (or for a more timely joke, as well executed as the Denver Broncos’ first play from scrimmage last night). The mistakes and missteps are piling up so fast that it’s not worth repeating them all, but it seems all the clichés are holding true: If you’re not playing offense, you’re playing defense. If you don’t define yourself, your opponent will do it for you. And so on and so on.
After the latest round of bad press last week for not playing it straight with the press, the Texas Observer’s Dave Mann wrote, “the Wendy Davis operation is about the worst at media relations that I’ve ever seen.” And James Moore offered this in the Huffington Post:
Candidates need to talk — especially candidates who are considered the underdog. Wendy Davis ought to be running toward reporters, not away from them. Let them interview her on any and every topic they desire and then print and broadcast and post what she says from the Coastal Bend to the Franklin Mountains and from Boca Chica Beach to Dalhart. There is no other way for her to win than to be open and forthright. A candidate lacks credibility talking about running a government in a different manner when they campaign like every other person who has wanted to be governor.
It turns out you can add another cliché to Davis’ problems: Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel, even if they’re on the left.
But of course this is about more than Davis. The winner here, undoubtedly, is Greg Abbott, who had always planned, by virtue of his status and money and record, to run a campaign that was closer to a coronation. From his official announcement in San Antonio last summer, it seemed clear that he hoped to glide above the direct engagement that his fellow Republicans down ballot are waging every single day in their sprint to the far right. When it comes to his expected matchup with Davis in the general election, he too is following some familiar advice: when your opponent is shooting herself in the foot, stay out of the way.
Part of the problem too is that Davis became too quickly the sole face of the Democrats efforts in Texas in 2014. Last fall some prominent, veteran Democrats confided to Paul Burka that she simply wasn’t ready for the challenge. Many Ds had told me that they thought the Republicans were vulnerable because they hadn’t had to run competitive statewide races. Now it’s clear that that observation cuts both ways: neither have the Democrats, and it shows.
I had always thought that for the Democrats to make any significant headway this cycle—and by significant headway I simply mean to show a competitive pulse—she needed some ballast down ballot who could throw some punches and take some of the pressure off her. If, for example, Henry Cisneros ran for statewide office, he would inject some star power, energize Hispanic voters, and raise cash. For those of you scoffing about this possibility, he certainly has his own scandal to contend with, but given the passage of time, and assuming he would address that chapter of his life directly, he would have taken heat off of Davis and leveled a stronger attack against Republicans. No one else in the Democratic field is capable of doing that right now.
If there’s any good news for Davis, it’s that these stories hit in January. Though they have certainly darkened her already slim chances, it is still so early in the campaign that most of the damage will be blunted: the people who are truly paying attention have already made up their mind. But if she doesn’t figure it out soon, she will make the path to victory even easier than it already is for Abbott. And in turn he’ll do to her what George W. Bush did to Garry Mauro in 1998. Wendy Davis, you do remember Garry Mauro, don’t you?