David Dewhurst is Texas’ second-longest serving lt. governor. He’s shaped the state like few other public officials in modern history. But though he’s wielded an enormous amount of power for a remarkably long time, for the last several years he’s been in a constant state of free fall. The beginning of the end was his humiliating loss to Ted Cruz in 2012, which quashed his hopes to move up through the political ranks. Then there were the indignities of the 2013 legislative session, where he was pushed to take up a special-session abortion fight that was never a Dewhurst priority, then got slammed for its failure. His re-election campaign this year has seen embarrassing scandals alternate with groveling before tea party groups. Indignities piled upon each other, weighing down a candidate who never seemed to have a lot of political acumen even when times were good. (This is a guy who once included a Luftwaffe pilot in a post-9/11 ad celebrating the American armed forces.)
But we might have finally arrived at the last chapter. After a lopsided primary loss, he’s stuck in a runoff with state Sen. Dan Patrick and is unlikely to win. Would Dewhurst finish his political career standing up, using the time to burnish a tarnished legacy that seemed to be slipping away from him? Or would he write himself a huge check and go nuclear, doing as much damage to Patrick as he could?
Dewhurst seems to be pursuing the latter path, with a blitz of negative TV ads across the state that might have cost as much as $1 million, and an attack site—realdanpatrick.com—that seems to mimic Patrick’s own sites from earlier in the primary. But it’s an odd push, in part because it seems like it’s too little, too late. It follows a month of apparent dysfunction in the Dewhurst campaign—several high-level campaign aides jumped ship two weeks ago. (One wonders if the operatives didn’t want to be affiliated with the push to go negative on Patrick, the likely victor and a potential future leader in the state GOP.)
The ad blitz, which focuses on Patrick’s bankruptcy and past business practices, began late last week, which leaves the Dewhurst camp a little over a month to get the message out before the May 27 runoff. But the issue of Patrick’s past debts—he walked away from more than $800,000 when he declared bankruptcy—are not new to primary voters. The issue has been raised repeatedly, including during January’s televised debate. The ad claims that Patrick changed his name from Danny Goeb to escape debts: In reality, Patrick had used the name since 1978, long before his bankruptcy. PolitiFact rated the claim “pants on fire.”
But the strangest thing about the ad’s emphasis on Patrick’s bankruptcy is that it let Patrick’s campaign remind voters that Dewhurst did exactly the same thing:
Dewhurst also experienced a 1980s bankruptcy and also never paid off unsecured creditors, Patrick’s campaign notes. It highlights Dewhurst’s recent failure to pay more than $1 million in debts to his 2012 U.S. Senate campaign’s vendors. That was an event related to a longtime Dewhurst aide’s alleged embezzlement of campaign funds.
Meanwhile, Dewhurst’s attack machine is going off the rails a bit.
— Cant Trust Dan (@CantTrustDan) April 18, 2014
So Dewhurst decided to go negative, but came to the game slow, without attacks that resonate, and with a weird, easily-disproven falsehood about Patrick’s personal history. The best politicians know how to lose just as well as they know how to win.