Above: State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte speaks at the 2014 Democratic state convention in Dallas.
The Texas Republican convention last month featured a number of GOPers from across the country, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska. They came to network, build ties with the state party, and raise money, and their presence helped give the convention a greater profile in national media. The slate of speakers at the Texas Democrats’ convention this past weekend in Dallas, by comparison, was devoid of such national figures.
It didn’t have to be that way, though. Democrats involved with planning the convention told the Observer that Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand were in talks to speak at the gathering. Each had seemed to signal a willingness to speak—with Gillibrand even offering to help with the cost of attending the convention. But Wendy Davis’ representatives nixed the plan, fearing the national pols would be a liability for her.
The Davis campaign wanted its candidate to be the primary focus of the convention and worried that the presence of national Democrats would distract from the Fort Worth state senator’s keynote. And according to Democrats with knowledge of the debate over the speaker lineup, the campaign feared connecting Davis’ name to national Democrats who may be unpopular in Texas. Davis has suffered from quite a bit of that kind of coverage.
What would the participation of Clinton, Biden or Gillibrand have meant for the convention? According to Democrats who thought the decision to exclude national figures was a mistake, there would have almost certainly been more media attention. There simply wasn’t much to write about in Dallas, and coverage, even among Texas outlets, reflected that. And there would likely have been better attendance at the convention—Clinton, Biden and Gillibrand are generally quite popular among the progressive crowd of delegates that attended the event. “Ready for Hillary” stickers adorned many delegates. Gillibrand is an icon for progressive women thanks in part to her doomed push for military sexual assault legislation.
Clinton’s attendance, especially, would have drawn the convention into the national spotlight. Major national publications have reporters dedicated solely to chronicling Clinton’s activities. In the past, Clinton’s camp has made noises about contesting Texas in the course of the 2016 presidential race; if she spoke at the convention, that would likely have featured heavily in coverage and been a boost for a party in need of some encouraging headlines. Some closer to the party said they would have loved to see that boost—and the slate of statewide candidates that the Democrats are backing, many of whom suffer from low name recognition and limited fundraising ability, could have benefited from it, sources said.
As it was, Davis was asked to carry the convention—giving a keynote speech that ended pretty late on a Friday night. In that role, she performed adequately. But national speakers might have taken some of the pressure off Davis. (Greg Abbott, by contrast, gave a relaxed speech to his convention earlier in the day.)
The decision to exclude national speakers at the convention is fascinating for a couple of reasons. For one, it highlights a split in thinking between groups backing Wendy Davis—her campaign team and Battleground Texas—and the state party, which is providing the primary backing for most of Davis’ ticketmates, including Leticia Van de Putte. The two groups are bringing markedly different approaches to the general election. While those different strategies may complement each other in some areas, they clash in others. At the convention negotiations, Davis’ team won.
A spokesman with the Davis campaign declined to comment, but an official with knowledge of the convention planning told the Observer that “there was an effort to make sure Texas was the focus of the convention.”
Davis is running a pricey, high-stakes campaign that’s banking heavily on its ability to win over moderates and independents—the kind of voters that helped her retain a center-right Texas Senate district in Fort Worth. Some of her pronouncements in the past—flirting with open carry laws, embracing some abortion restrictions, and talking tough on the border crisis—make sense if seen through that prism. And it also makes sense that she would shy away from affiliation with national Democrats, who may not be popular with the moderates she hopes to win over.
Other candidates on the Democratic slate are being backed more heavily by the state party. They, particularly Van de Putte, have a very different strategy in mind. With a fraction of the resources Davis has, Van de Putte’s team will rely more heavily on turning out the base while taking advantage of as much free media and attention as she can. And she’ll hope that her opponent, Dan Patrick, alienates moderate voters on his own.
As such, Van de Putte, and the rest of the candidates the party is backing, might have relished the chance to stand on the same stage as Clinton et al, which might have brought some attention and resources to a party, and the party’s candidates, that are badly in need of both. But the Davis campaign was calling the shots. In the next couple months, we’ll see how this unusual dynamic plays out.