In her 1988 campaign classic, “Insider Baseball,” Joan Didion wrote that political campaigns had little to do with democracy, and were not about “affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs.” Instead, “the process” was a “mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals”—policy experts, reporters, pundits, pollsters, advisors—”to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life.”
In her essay, Didion coolly dissects the 1,001 bullshit ways Michael Dukakis and George H.W. Bush are manufactured as candidates, abetted by a media all too game to play along. But the meta-narrative she documents emerged from public performances—no one involved tried to hide what they were doing. (The title of the essay comes from an “eerily contrived moment” in which Dukakis tosses a baseball to his press secretary on an airport tarmac while reporters and camera crews diligently take notes for stories on Dukakis’ authenticity and “toughness.”)
This is simply how modern political campaigns—at least high-level ones—are conducted. Didion’s complaints now seem a tad antiquated, though still righteously spot-on.
But now comes a new twist: the art of the non-campaign. The candidate who doesn’t even bother to put on a show, doesn’t even pretend to reach the broad middle of the citizenry and instead appears behind closed doors to small groups of like-minded voters, if he or she appears in public at all.
That’s the kind of campaign that some Texas Republicans are now running, in particular Ken Paxton, who’s favored to become attorney general, and Dan Patrick, who’s the frontrunner for lieutenant governor. Their campaigns are marked by a general refusal to speak with reporters, engage with their opponents, hold press conferences, meet with newspaper editorial boards, publicly announce events in advance, or even run TV ads.
Instead, the two men are running “stealth” campaigns—as the Houston Chronicle recently put it—speaking to tea party gatherings or events closed to the press.
A talk-radio show host not known for his reticence, Patrick ran a boisterous campaign against his three rivals during the GOP lieutenant governor primary and later in a head-to-head runoff against Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Now, he’s like the chupacabra: rumored but rarely seen in the flesh. The Houston Chronicle reported in a Sept. 12 story:
Then, as if a switch flipped, his campaign went into hunker-down mode.
It sent two news releases in the six weeks after the runoff. Patrick did not re-emerge until even later, in a July 16 public speech in front of an estimated 11,000 students, parents and teachers at the annual gathering of the Texas Future Farmers Association.
When he addressed the state’s broadcaster’s association Aug. 7, Patrick quickly left without taking questions from reporters —but only after shouting, “I’ve been the most media-friendly guy in the Legislature!” before vanishing.
Just this week, Patrick’s campaign declined an invitation to appear before the Houston Chronicle editorial board.
“At this time the senator does not plan to meet with editorial boards,” Patrick spokesman Alejandro Garcia said.
When Patrick did announce a press conference last week, reporters wondered what big reveal he had in store. As it turned out, Patrick called the media together to announce that he was the most business-friendly candidate. The whole thing lasted 15 minutes.
His opponent, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio), who’s excited many Democrats with a peppy, wide-ranging effort, challenged Patrick to five debates but he agreed to only one. Patrick is campaigning—just not in a way accessible to most Texans.
“3 days – 6 cities – 3 planes & one rental car drive from Midland to Lubbock,” Patrick wrote in a Facebook post on Sept. 18. “I will not be out worked.”
Ted Delisi, a GOP consultant quoted in the Chronicle, acknowledged that it’s “not the typical campaigning” but then implausibly tried to coin the approach as not being “covert,” but rather “the new overt.”
If anything, state Sen. Ken Paxton is even more covertly overt. Paxton is the overwhelming favorite to be the next attorney general—he faces an underfunded Democratic attorney with the somewhat helpful name Sam Houston. The highlight of Paxton’s resume so far is that he’s admitted to violating state securities law by accepting kickbacks from an investment firm without disclosing that relationship to regulators or his clients. And apparently he’s not eager to talk about it: Paxton has been almost completely AWOL.
I can find precisely one news account of a public appearance in the last month. On Sept. 8, he was the special guest of honor at a San Jacinto County Republican Party event, where he told the crowd that Obamacare would be “obliterated” if unspecified lawsuits were successful.His Facebook page touts a fundraiser with Ted Cruz next Monday in Allen.
Perhaps Paxton learned the value of ducking the press in late July when—after noting to a sheriffs group that “a one-party system takes out accountability, takes out competition”—San Antonio Express-News reporter Nolan Hicks approached him after the event and was “physically blocked by Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm.”
Meanwhile, Sam Houston has fruitlessly tried to engage his opponent. He’s repeatedly challenged Paxton to debate, but Paxton’s only response has come through his spokesman. “Our opponent is losing, badly, so it’s not surprising that he continues this desperate ploy for publicity when he’s down by 20+ points,” Anthony Holm told the Texas Tribune in an email.
So we have the prospect of a state senator who faces indictment and serious ethics charges waltzing into office as the next attorney general without having debated, campaigned or meaningfully engaged his general election opponent or the public on the issues of the day.
The approach, of course, makes perfect strategic sense. Democrats haven’t won a single statewide race in two decades, and Republicans enjoy sizable structural advantages even against well-funded and charismatic Democrats. Why risk saying or doing something stupid when you don’t need to? Why legitimize your opponent by pretending that he or she even exists? Better to keep your head down and coast to election.
The non-campaign approach is not entirely new. Rick Perry tried aspects of it in 2010, when he ran for re-election against former Houston Mayor Bill White. Much to the chagrin of the White campaign, Perry refused to participate in a single debate and snubbed newspaper editorial boards. He crushed Bill White 55-42. What lesson does a GOP candidate for statewide office draw from that? That silence is preferable to splashy public events. That talking to the mainstream press isn’t worth it when the voters who show up to the polls either get their information from preferred sources or consider snubbing the lamestream media as a mark of political bravery.
It also puts the press in a bind: How do you cover a non-campaign? Press conferences, block-walking, baby-kissing, stumping, Chamber of Commerce speeches: This is the stuff of which political journalism is made. The Houston Chronicle, for example, did a thorough story on Patrick’s stealthiness. But it was a one-day piece; it’s hard to keep writing about silence.
And if Paxton and Patrick prevail as expected, will more GOP candidates attempt the stealth campaign in the next general election? Probably so, until Democrats can prove more competitive. Are we entering an era when the state’s top officials won’t even have to engage with Texas’ general election voters? For Democrats, this seems the ultimate insult. They’re losing, and their opponents aren’t even trying anymore.