A couple of months ago, the Wendy Davis campaign was having a rough time. Then Ted Nugent appeared. Greg Abbott proudly circulated plans to hold a high-profile campaign event with the Nuge, the shock rocker with not-so-thoughtful views about women and non-white people and a guy who occasionally hints at his desire to assassinate the president. Abbott’s dalliance with Nugent blew up in his face, and the story went national, for good reason. It showed poor judgment on Abbott’s part, and it demonstrated the potential for myopic thinking among his campaign team, Texas political veterans who are used to winning elections one way—with red meat and brute force.
The Nugent incident was soon followed by a San Antonio Express-News investigation into pay practices in Abbott’s office. The narrative about the race shifted—the Davis team seemed like it had new energy. Hoping to establish a narrative about Abbott as an imperious, callous misogynist, the Davis campaign seized on subsequent new Abbott slip-ups and attempted to duplicate the political impact of Nugent’s brief foray into the governor’s race. But the tactic is beginning to wear a bit thin. And amid the noise, Davis might be missing an opportunity to talk about how she would govern the state differently than Abbott.
The Davis camp attacked Abbott for weeks because his citation of a Charles Murray book in an education policy paper. Murray’s ideology is extremely problematic, but for better or worse he’s widely cited and the passage in question, one of dozens mentioned, was pretty banal. There was the idea, promulgated by the campaign, that Abbott had called for mandated standardized tests for four-year-olds in the same policy paper, which wasn’t true. (The paper called for a method of evaluating the effectiveness of pre-K programs, but a test was one of three possible evaluation methods—and the drawbacks of testing were diligently noted.)
There was the Boats-and-Hoes blow-up, in which an employee of Allen Blakemore—a Republican strategist who had worked for Abbott a decade ago and is now associated with state Sen. Dan Patrick—created a joke political action committee with an offensive title that referenced a song from the frat-comedy Step Brothers. Recently, the campaign sent the press an item from the Burnt Orange Report asking why Abbott hadn’t denounced Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy.
All of these items have some significance, but it’s weird to see a statewide campaign make them the major focus of its effort. Last week, Wonkette, a liberal blog that specializes in caustic, satirical polemics (strong language in the link) compared Davis unfavorably to Ann Richards and argued that Davis needed to show more spine.
We love Wendy Davis. You love Wendy Davis. We and you want to do very sexy things to Wendy Davis, even the straight chicks. Unfortunately, even saying that is the kind of thing the Wendy Davis for Governor campaign would send out an OUTRAGED PRESS RELEASE ABOUT. Most of you don’t get Wendy Davis for Governor’s press releases. We are here to tell you they are terrible.
This whining [and] what (we hope) is fake umbrage is beneath you. It’s not a good look. You’re sounding like the candidate of only delicate flower suburban housewives, and we are pretty sure they don’t think you’re speaking for them.
There must be few things political operatives hate more than pundits and journalists admonishing them to talk about The Issues. But Davis needs to do so at some point. Democrats have not held power in Texas in 20 years, and to be given a chance by voters they need to effectively reassure the state that they won’t torpedo the things people like about the status quo—primarily, economic growth—in the process of trying to fix the things they don’t. That includes a creaking education and health care system, a dysfunctional relationship with the border and millions of new, undocumented neighbors, and an inefficient tax structure that punishes the middle class. As Austin writer Andrea Grimes noted on Twitter, the words “immigration” and “health care” do not appear on Davis’ issues page.
None of this, of course, is to say that Abbott is taking the high road. His new focus is on an arcane legal dispute with the federal Bureau of Land Management, which he feels will appeal to his base after the Bundy debacle. His issues page is similarly uninformative. But what if Davis could find a way to position herself as the grown-up and still attack Abbott?
Consider the criminal charges that might be brought against Gov. Rick Perry. If that happens in the next six months, it would become one of the dominant stories of the election cycle. And it could precipitate a wider conversation about the effect of long-time one-party rule in Texas.
One of the potential roots of that whole sordid tale is Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg’s investigation into the Cancer Prevention Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), a major Perry initiative, which was mismanaged to an almost comic degree. Taxpayer money, intended to be used for life-saving medical research, was effectively poured down the drain—or slipped in the pockets of individuals with political connections to Republicans. Democratic strategists have talked about it quite a bit since last year, but it never got the traction they might have hoped.
CPRIT had a governing board, which was supposed to provide oversight. One of the members was Attorney General Greg Abbott. State Rep. Jim Keffer (R-Eastland), who helped write the legislation that created CPRIT, said Abbott was appointed to the board to provide “that extra set of eyes and knowledge.” Abbott never bothered to show up, appointing a deputy to represent him on the board, who didn’t attend much either. Now one of CPRIT’s senior officials has been charged with a felony for his actions with the fund. That seems like an interesting thing to ask Abbott about.