Why Didn’t Kay Bailey Even Mention Willingham?

Here’s a hypothetical campaign scenario.

Candidate X is a long-time incumbent with a history of cronyism. Six months before the election, Candidate X cleans out the leadership of a state commission investigating a scandal that Candidate X was directly involved in. The investigation is scuttled. A major controversy erupts. One of the largest daily newspapers in Texas calls Candidate X’s behavior a “brazen abuse of power.”

If you’re running against Candidate X, would you: A) make this issue part of your campaign in an effort to portray Candidate X as a power-abusing politician or B) ignore it completely and never mention one word about it.

If you chose item B, congratulations, you went the same route as Kay Bailey Hutchison.

And what have you won? Why, a 20-point loss in the primary!

Candidate X in this scenario is, of course, Gov. Rick Perry. The scandal I’m referencing involved the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and Perry’s derailing of the Forensic Science Commission’s investigation into the case. (Read background here.)

If you had told me six months ago that Perry would survive the primary without even once hearing the words “Willingham” or “Forensic Science Commission” mentioned in any debates, press conferences, or any of his opponents’ commercials, I would have been shocked.

The argument for why Hutchison’s campaign ignored the most recent—and perhaps the most explosive—Perry scandal is that the issue wouldn’t have mattered to GOP primary voters because they’re so pro-death penalty.

The Statesman‘s Jason Embry opened his column yesterday with a fascinating anecdote:

“The Hutchison campaign asked a focus group last fall about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham….A member of the focus group told the Hutchison campaign that he admired Perry for having the courage to execute someone whose guilt was questioned, according to multiple sources close to the campaign. (Perry says he is sure Willingham was guilty). The response spooked the Hutchison team and, perhaps as a result, the campaign did little to raise the issue from that point forward.”

It’s amazing that a single nutty respondent in a single focus group could “spook” campaign to never mention its opponent’s most recent major scandal.

Now, I have no great insight into the views of GOP primary voters. I’ve done no polling or focus groups. I’m not claiming that the Forensic Science Commission was some kind of magic bullet or that Hutchison would have won had she used the issue, though she couldn’t have fared much worse.

My only point is this: When the other team fumbles, you jump on the ball. Here was an issue that could have made Perry look very, very bad. The essence of this scandal isn’t about the death penalty. It’s about a cover-up. It’s about cronyism and incompetence. Any political hack can write that attack ad—one that would have fit nicely into a narrative about Perry’s cronyism.

Perry’s campaign clearly recognized the vulnerability and moved quickly to make the issue about the death penalty. Kudos to them. That was good politics.

But just because Perry wants to make the scandal about the death penalty doesn’t mean it has to be so. If Hutchison had hit him hard on that issue, the narrative might have changed.

And ask yourself this question: If their places were reversed and Hutchison had intervened in the Forensic Science Commission investigation, would the Perry campaign have ignored it entirely?

Dave Mann is a former editor of the Observer.

Published at 7:29 pm CST
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