Ahead of the Texas Democratic Party convention in Dallas this July, a series of billboard ads strung along Interstate 35 depicted the elderly face of President Joe Biden morphing—sign by sign—into gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke. Each stage of the highway metamorphosis blared a different phrase. “Open Border,” “$5 for a Gallon of Gas,” “Dangerous Criminals Walk Free,” “CRT over ABCs.” The transition from 79- to 49-year-old completed with the final sign: “#TeamBido.”
Before O’Rourke even announced his bid for the state’s top executive position late last year, Republican Governor Greg Abbott had begun attacking Texas’ most well-known Democrat as a stalking horse for his national party’s radical agenda, dead set on destroying the state from the governor’s mansion. Ironically, the man responsible for conjuring these threats from outside political agitators, and on behalf of a governor whose brand is rooted in Texas jingoism, is a consultant based not in some office suite in downtown Austin, but in faraway New Hampshire.
For 20 years, Texas’ Republican governors have taken their campaign cues from Dave Carney, a towering and oft-disheveled Granite Stater who made his name working for President George H.W. Bush, the comparatively patrician grandfather of the Texas Grand Old Party. Despite his outsider status, Carney long ago proved his Lone Star bona fides by crafting winning statewide campaigns better than any native—making his two biggest clients, Rick Perry and Abbott, the state’s two longest-serving governors.
Now 63, Carney helped build Perry from an unelected governor into a singular force in Texas politics with a national profile as the premier anti-Obama Republican state leader, setting him up for a heralded presidential bid. Carney has managed to do much the same with Abbott—who lacks the natural political talent of his predecessor—by helping him navigate the turbulent Trump years and positioning the governor to match or even surpass Perry’s imprint.
“I think [Carney]’s a pretty extraordinary tactician and strategist,” said Harvey Kronberg, a longtime observer of Texas politics who founded the capitol insider newsletter Quorum Report. “He has been able to parse out vulnerabilities of opponents, take advantage of them, and brand them ruthlessly, whether Republicans or Democrats.”
An imposing figure both physically and politically, Carney stands at well over 6 feet and, at one point, weighed over 300 pounds (the New Englander was once described as “bear-sized”). While he was once a frequent TV talking head for the Bush campaign, he is more elusive these days. Speaking to a group of aspiring politicos at a New Hampshire college last year, he looked like a sort of chic survivalist with a grown-out gray beard, plaid shirt, green vest, and a smartwatch. Personality-wise, he’s known to be vulgar and, like many who choose to work in politics, a bit crazy.
Carney referred the Texas Observer’s request for an interview to the Abbott campaign, which did not respond to subsequent requests.
For all his eccentricities, Carney is widely respected by peers as a cutting-edge operative who embraces data-driven innovation and is always in pursuit of a leaner, meaner way to win. While Karl Rove masterminded the 1990s Republican takeover of Texas, along with George W. Bush’s political rise, Carney has served as more of a mechanic, fine-tuning the machinery of GOP dominance well into the 21st century.
“If Karl was the architect, I might call Dave the scientist,” said Ray Sullivan, a former chief of staff and campaign aide for Perry who’s worked with Carney since the early 1990s. “He focuses on trying to quantify and prove what works and what doesn’t in terms of campaign activities and advertising and maximizing the value of campaign resources. … It’s not just, ‘We’re going do this because we’ve always done it that way.’”
At the same time, as Carney’s adversaries have discovered, he’s unafraid of the political dark arts and ready to sling dirt with the worst of ’em. “Dave Carney is a ruthless political consultant,” Tommy Merritt, a former East Texas Republican state representative who’d found himself in Carney’s crosshairs, told the Houston Chronicle in 2009. “[He] has no respect for the person’s well-being or love of family if they stand in Dave Carney’s way.”
This year, Carney’s acumen and mudslinging are being deployed in Abbott’s bid for a third term in the governor’s mansion. It’s a task that could seem beneath a man of Carney’s talent: Abbott has a massive campaign war chest and arguably the most formidable statewide political organization in Texas history. But the governor’s once-venerable reputation among voters has taken a beating over the past few years as he’s lurched to the right and been mired in a string of high-profile disasters—from his haphazard handling of COVID-19 to the deadly winter grid failure to the school shooting in Uvalde.
O’Rourke, meanwhile, appeared to gain steam over the long, hot summer. The El Pasoan outraised Abbott over the first half of this year, breaking state fundraising records as he hauled in nearly $30 million. In July, he embarked a 49-day campaign tour that, much like his 2018 Senate run, were focused largely on the small towns and far-flung counties of deep-red rural Texas. Polls have shown a tightening single-digit race, with O’Rourke trailing by margins of between 5 and 10 percentage points. Most recently, a University of Texas at Austin poll showed voters surveyed in August favoring Abbott 45 to 40.
The Democrat’s apparent momentum, however, has not changed Carney and his candidate’s strategy. Abbott has kept his messaging almost wholly centered on border security and immigration, which polling has also shown is the top issue for a majority of Texas voters, using every opportunity to promote his multi-faceted, multi-billion-dollar Operation Lone Star.
“The source of [Carney’s] strength in Texas is he runs every single race like his client is about to lose,” said Harold Cook, a longtime state Democratic Party strategist. “There is only one way to run an effective race and that is to run scared. … The races where it was a foregone conclusion that the Republican was going to win, he doesn’t just win; he kills ’em. And the ones that are supposed to be closer, he just runs up the score with that too.”
At the helm of his sixth gubernatorial campaign, is Carney set to deliver another death blow?
In 1978, a young Carney got his first taste of GOP politics knocking on doors for a candidate for New Hampshire’s state executive council who’d visited his high school social studies class. Just two years later, Carney was field director of engineering professor John Sununu’s U.S. Senate campaign, during which he often lived out of the walk-in cooler of a converted bagel shop that was the campaign headquarters. They lost that race, but Sununu later became governor of New Hampshire, with Carney as his right-hand man in Concord. In 1988, Carney directed George H.W. Bush’s field operations in the New Hampshire presidential primary, later becoming H.W.’s political director in the White House. “He’s temperamental and a bit nuts,” a former Bush cabinet member once said of him. “But he defines action. He gets things done.”
In 1992, Carney hit a speed bump as a top advisor on Bush’s failed re-election bid against Bill Clinton—an experience he’s said he “almost completely repressed.” He then came back with a vengeance helping Republicans flip eight seats and take control of the Senate in the 1994 midterms. He then took his services to Senator Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, winning the Republican nomination only to get blown away again by Clinton. Despite being one of the most coveted operatives in his party, Carney had grown disenchanted with the Republican consulting scene in the nation’s capital and left to launch his own firm, Norway Hill Associates, back in New Hampshire.
That’s when Carney’s path to Texas eminence opened. Among his first clients: an ambitious agriculture commissioner in the Lone Star State with good hair and a flashy grin. In 1998, Carney convinced Rick Perry to hire him on as general consultant in charge of his run for lieutenant governor, and engineered a narrow victory against State Comptroller John Sharp, a popular conservative Democrat, in what was the most competitive statewide contest on the ballot. That race would prove to be Carney’s meal ticket for the rest of his career.
In 2002, Perry faced his first gubernatorial election—he’d ascended to the position by default after Bush departed for the White House—against Tony Sanchez, a wealthy Laredo banker and member of the Dems’ touted “Dream Team” ticket assembled to claw back statewide power. But Carney proved his mettle once again.
Sanchez spent over $70 million, much of it his own money, in an attempt to overwhelm Perry, who was outspent 3-to-1. While Sanchez tried to sell himself as a moderate businessman, Carney cut him to pieces with scorched-earth attacks. Infamously, the campaign ran a TV ad that accused the Laredo multimillionaire’s bank of laundering money for drug cartels that had murdered a Drug Enforcement Agency agent. The attack was condemned as a racist smear, but it proved devastatingly effective. Carney also orchestrated a massive turnout operation that hired an army of door-knockers to target voters in heavily Republican precincts. Perry won nearly 60 percent of the vote, beating Sanchez by almost 20 points. “That was really where Carney got his street cred,” Kronberg said.
From there, the wins kept coming. Carney shepherded Perry through a hairy reelection in 2006 against Democrat Chris Bell and two independent candidates, winning with 39 percent. During that campaign, Carney invited a team of political scientists—whom he called his “eggheads”—to conduct experiments with the campaign’s tactics in real time.
When U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison—a relatively moderate Republican—announced her intent to run against Perry in the 2010 GOP primary, her camp put out a poll showing her leading the incumbent by nearly 25 points. In a race billed as a clash of ideological titans, Perry appeared to be on the ropes—his unprecedented bid for a third term in peril. Hutchison was a former client of Carney, who’d helped her win her Senate seat in a special election that featured two dozen candidates back in 1993, and she had since become one of the most popular politicians in Texas. But under Carney’s direction, Perry tapped into the tea party’s anti-Washington fervor and ruthlessly recast her as Kay “Bailout” Hutchison, a Beltway insider who sold out the state with her vote to bail out big banks. In what the senator’s team described as “one of the sleaziest, dirtiest contests in Texas history,” Perry beat Hutchison by 20 points while also fending off a tea party challenger from his right. The defeat ushered in the end of Hutchison’s career.
Next, in November 2010’s historic Republican wave election, the governor handily defeated Houston Mayor Bill White, needing only to remind voters that Texas was “open for business” and the border was closed. One of the campaign’s notable attack ads implied that the Democratic mayor’s support for “sanctuary city” policies led to the death of a Houston cop killed by a previously deported immigrant.
With all his Lone Star swagger and tea party credentials, Perry was perfectly positioned for a highly anticipated presidential run in 2012. After ditching Newt Gingrich’s failed bid, Carney joined on as his top strategist and was hailed as the governor’s “wizard behind the curtain.” But Perry’s star quickly faded amid a series of high-profile missteps and gaffes. Within a few months of his launch, Perry had sidelined his top strategist as part of a last-ditch effort to reboot his sinking campaign.
But Carney was still king consultant back in Texas, so he took his wares over to then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican heir apparent to Perry. In the 2014 governor’s race, Abbott faced Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis, who jumped into the race on a wave of political stardom after her filibuster of an anti-abortion bill. Democrats generated a great deal of hype and expectations about how Davis—in tandem with a new organizing group called Battleground Texas founded by former Obama operatives—could turn the state blue.
They failed in spectacular fashion as Abbott pummeled Davis by over 20 points. While Abbott lacked the natural charisma and showmanship that made Perry a conservative phenom, he was a prodigious fundraiser. And, with far less hype than Battleground Texas, Carney used that warchest to quietly build a massive, sophisticated data and field organizing operation that was credited with supercharging turnout among Abbott’s base.
“Turning the Democrat dream of a blue Texas into the nightmare of a massive loss happened,” Carney wrote in an article for Politico, “because we ran a campaign that used every tool and strategy a modern campaign has at its disposal and did so in the most efficient and effective way possible.”
This election cycle, Carney finds himself facing the enviable challenge of efficiently spending what could be as much as $100 million, in an effort to grind Beto O’Rourke into political mincemeat.
As with past campaigns, Carney has sought to define the race—and O’Rourke—on his client’s terms, making the election all about open borders, rampant inflation, and high gas prices, as brought to you by Biden, Beto, and his band of gun-grabbin’, oil-hatin’ radicals. His strategy of branding his opponents early and often with rather reductive labels—like “Wrong Way O’Rourke”—has proven an effective schtick.
In campaign briefings with the Texas political press corps, Carney has dismissed the import of issues where Abbott is most exposed, from the Uvalde shooting to the repeal of abortion rights. Those topics aren’t top of mind for voters, Carney says, while the raft of right of right-wing policies that Abbott’s embraced—including his dubiously legal border stunt Operation Lone Star and his call to sic state investigators on the families of transgender children—will only help motivate their campaign’s 9 million targeted voters. After the March primary, Carney said in a press call that opposing gender-affirming healthcare for trans kids is a “75- to 80-percent winner” for Abbott, then described hormone treatments as akin to chopping a child’s hand off. “This is why the Democrats across the country are so out of touch,” he concluded.
This won’t be Carney’s first run-in with O’Rourke. Soon after the latter dropped out of the Democratic presidential primaries in 2019—after a controversial flameout campaign that Carney joyfully exploits and mocks—O’Rourke turned his sights to a special election for House District 28. The suburban Fort Bend County seat had long been firmly Republican, but it was toward the bottom of Texas Democrats’ list of more than a dozen state House seats that they were targeting in an ambitious effort to flip the lower chamber.
The strategy was based on how O’Rourke had performed in these down-ballot districts during his near-successful Senate run against Ted Cruz in 2018. O’Rourke went all in to get Democrat Eliz Markowitz elected against Republican Gary Gates, basically moving into the district to lead a massive block-walking effort. But O’Rourke’s reputation in Texas had taken a big hit from his bid for prez, during which he embraced unpopular left-flank positions, including his now-notorious comment made after the mass shooting in El Paso: “Hell yes, we are going to take your AR-15.” His prominent involvement in the state House race turned a special election into a national referendum. Meanwhile, GOP polling showed he was toxic in the district, and Carney directed a counteroffensive using Abbott’s political machine to glue attention on O’Rourke. Gates, the Republican, won by 16 points.
“It would be a tragedy if [O’Rourke] learned his lesson,” Carney quipped to the Austin American-Statesman.
But O’Rourke doubled down, using his new political group Powered By People to marshal money and volunteer resources for legislative races across the state’s suburbs. House Democrats spent the months leading up to November 2020 touting poll after poll that showed they were leading or neck and neck in many of their targeted races. Tens of millions of dollars flooded in from national Democratic groups. Carney, meanwhile, was confident that Democrats’ polling was way off and that they had no shot at winning control of the Texas House. On election night, Democrats came up short in every single seat they targeted, once again dashing the high expectations of success that they had set for themselves.
Election after election, Texas Democrats keep falling on their faces because “they buy their own bullshit,” Carney told the Texas Tribune after the 2020 elections. “Here’s the best standard operating procedure for any campaign: Stop bragging, do your work, and then you can gloat afterward … [rather than] bragging about what’s gonna happen in the future and being embarrassed,” he added. “Why anybody would believe what these liars would say to them again is beyond belief.”
Cook, the Democratic consultant, acknowledged a grain of truth in that judgment. “I would not go to anybody like Carney for advice for how to win as a Democrat, but, on the other hand, he’s not entirely wrong,” Cook said. “Democrats are really bad about failing to put in the work, and come election time, they will fall in love with a candidate or two and decide ‘This is the year!’”
Running against Cruz in 2018, O’Rourke was criticized by some campaign pros—including old Dem vets who’d actually won statewide races in Texas decades ago—for what they saw as his arrogant dismissal of standard campaign strategy, including his reluctance to attack his highly attackable opponent or use his near $80 million haul on TV advertising until the final stretch. That, his critics say, cost him and Texas Democrats their first winnable race in a quarter-century.
O’Rourke hasn’t been shy about going after his opponent this time around. And though his current race for governor is even more of a longshot, some do see a path for him if he focuses the spotlight on Abbott rather than making the race about himself or President Biden—nearly half of Texas voters view him unfavorably, per one poll, and nearly 60 percent for Biden.
“He who defines the issues wins. Carney is very used to being the one who defines the issues,” said Kronberg, the political analyst. “This is really the first time someone can come to the table with enough resources to try to brand the Republican [governor], as opposed to Republicans branding the Democrats.”
Among Texas Republican consultants, Carney is now one of few who’s been in a competitive general election, which will come in handy if his client, who’s never faced a real election challenge, finds himself on the ropes.
For a Republican consultant, Texas is the biggest stage in the country, and for two decades, Carney has been the preeminent showrunner. He’s been compensated well for his services: Since 2000, he’s pulled in roughly $6 million in consulting fees, largely from Perry and Abbott. But there’s likely a motivator more powerful than money for the seasoned campaign hand.
Texas Republicans hold the longest streak of statewide election wins in the country, and the pressure to keep it alive grows with each cycle. As Carney’s former colleague Ray Sullivan put it: “No Republican consultant, especially someone as experienced or successful as Carney, wants to be the person to lose.”