For a politician derided as a “media creation,” Wendy Davis has gotten some bad press lately. Whether it’s Texas Monthly‘s own Paul Burka opining last week that “there was no governor’s race” or the Texas Observer‘s Forrest Wilder declaring that “right now, she’s a focus-grouped, poll-tested, highly mediated, stage-managed candidate running a somewhat moribund campaign,” most reporters in the state who cover politics aren’t writing glowing reports about her candidacy. Andrea Grimes, the Texas-based senior political reporter at RHRealityCheck.com, a website devoted to covering reproductive health issues, and one of Davis’s earliest supporters, has even made criticism of Davis’ campaign a regular facet of her Twitter account:
Either the Davis campaign starts running a proactive, positive, pro-Wendy game, or they lose running a reactionary, anti-Abbott game.
— Andrea Grimes (@andreagrimes) August 11, 2014
Grimes and others spent some time Monday morning discussing Davis’s first television ad, in which a narrator ominously tells the story of a woman who was raped by a vacuum cleaner salesman in 1993. The ad reveals that then-Texas Supreme Court justice Greg Abbott ruled with the court’s minority that the company that hired this salesman as an independent contractor had no responsibility to run a background check on him. The commercial, as our own Erica Grieder wrote yesterday, isn’t exactly a slam dunk piece of political advertising: it doesn’t necessarily align with the narrative the Davis campaign is trying to develop around Abbott; the suggestion that Abbott is on the side of door-to-door rapists doesn’t pass the smell test; and going all-in on a creepy, disturbing story is a risky maneuver in the first place.
But those weren’t the only problems with the television spot. According to the Houston Chronicle, the woman in the story wasn’t consulted before having her horrific experience blasted onto television sets throughout the state of Texas:
The risk may be especially high after the Davis campaign acknowledged Friday it had not spoken with the victim before releasing the ad Thursday night.
Davis spokesman Zac Petkanas said the victim spoke out about her case at the time and he thinks a Democratic organization warned her earlier this year it may be brought up in the governor’s race.
Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson said not consulting the woman “sounds like political malpractice.”
“If that’s right, the campaign is at moral and political fault,” Jillson said.
The ad is clearly misguided and poorly executed, but it does show that Davis and her campaign, which has been described as listless and unfocused, is at least working now to develop a clearer strategy, which didn’t appear to be the case as recently as early this summer. For months, Davis had attempted to frame Abbott as unacceptably sexist for failing to scold supporters who made inappropriate comments about her. Similarly, she sought to smudge the attorney general’s character by highlighting his awkward rapport with Ted Nugent. This wasn’t necessarily an effective tack to take against Abbott. Sure, an independent street artist making “Abortion Barbie” posters might be offensive, but it’s hard to imagine pointing that out to be an effective strategy in winning votes away from Greg Abbott. Ted Nugent’s past statements might make him an unsuitable figure for respectable statewide office, but he’s not the one running for governor, so who cares?
Now, though, the Davis campaign seems to have found something else to say, as the Austin Chronicle‘s Richard Whittaker writes:
In the last few weeks – notably ever since Rep. Chris Turner, D-Fort Worth, took over as campaign manager – Davis has found new traction with a full-frontal assault on Abbott’s ethics. “It seems like every few weeks,” she said, “we hear of another instance where he’s siding with insiders when he knows it will hurt hard-working Texans.”
Compiling a portrait of Abbott as an insider who has occupied positions of power in this one-party state has some potential for a candidate running an underdog campaign. This hits him on his right flank while speaking to the Democratic base. And the Davis campaign has evidence to make the case that their opponent is beholden to the rich and powerful: the campaign contributions Abbott has received from the Koch Brothers, who own plants that use potentially dangerous chemicals; the money Abbott has received from the Farmer Insurance Employee political action committee while the state is engaged in a lawsuit against the company; and his willingness to enter the fray in defending the Baylor Medical Center against malpractice lawsuits related to the actions of a “sociopath” doctor while receiving a $350,000 donation from the ownership company’s chairperson. And while there’s no evidence that Abbott ever received donations from the Kirby vacuum cleaner company that the Davis campaign refers to in its latest ad, the spot attempts to paint the attorney general’s actions in that situation as part of the pattern the campaign has outlined above.
Can this narrative help Davis close the polling gap? As Whittaker writes, “the key to a good campaign is telling a good story.” But that’s the sort of thing that someone whose whole job is telling good stories is inclined to think. There’s a strong argument to be made that the real work of running a campaign is much less about convincing the media of its legitimacy and much more about convincing the 18,000 volunteers to recruit their friends for a fall push. As NPR reported in late June:
[T]he Democrats’ ground game is in progress. Battleground Texas is working with the Davis campaign and has generated more than 18,000 volunteers who’ve knocked on 170,000 doors already. For the Democratic Party, this is where the real action lies. Even if Davis can’t get there this year, rebuilding the party’s base in Texas is the foundation for the future.
Even if that happens, nothing is likely to shake Davis out of the role of “underdog” in a campaign against a better-funded opponent whose party hasn’t lost a statewide race in a generation—which, ultimately, is why we’re writing about Davis right now, rather than about Abbott: Abbott, ahead in the polls and a member of the party in power, doesn’t need to do as much in the way of building narratives or an active ground game. Unless the 2014 gubernatorial race shatters precedents in the state, “business as usual” ought to be enough for the attorney general. But if the Davis campaign does turn out to be disruptive, it’s reasonable to suspect that it might have more to do with the volunteers on the ground than the story in the press.