Wendy Made it Worse

Wendy Davis

Texas ain’t a battleground. It’s more like a slaughterhouse, especially if you are a Democrat. And the candidacy of Wendy Davis made matters worse. Democrats have a ten-year uphill climb to get back to being a viable party in Texas.

Davis was never going to win. Celebrity is insufficient. But she also made all the wrong moves. It began with her staff. There seemed to be nothing indigenous about her campaign. Because she had a national profile after her abortion rights filibuster in the Texas senate, money flowed to her accounts. And she used it to hire the pros from Dover.

The initial campaign director for Davis was Karin Johanson, a Democratic operative from D.C., and Davis’ communications director, Zak Petkanas was a Harry Reid staffer come south from New York City. The rapid response coordinator was on loan from a DC political grass roots organization, and they all teamed up with ex-Obama operatives that were registering voters as part of an operation called “Battleground Texas.”

Very little about the Davis campaign felt like it was Texan.

Wendy Davis
Wendy Davis

Jeremy Bird, President Obama’s national field director in 2012, came to Texas to establish a program to register voters. Battleground Texas, going door-to-door and holding household gatherings, significantly increased the number of registered voters in the state. But they didn’t appear to vote on Election Day. Bird, who ought to consider a lengthy vacation in Australia, did not dent the turnout numbers in Texas.

Of course, much of that blame falls on the shoulders of the candidate. Regardless, the Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate and the Democratic-involved register-the-vote campaign called Battleground Texas had tens of millions of dollars at their combined disposals, and turnout was still flat. Wendy Davis, however, was not going to win, but had she run a smarter campaign, she could have helped her party move closer to turning Texas purple.

Instead, Davis started her campaign by saying she was in favor of “Open Carry,” a law allowing guns to be carried publicly without concealment. Who advised her to check that box in the candidate questionnaire? This position did nothing to energize her base and the people who might have cared about it were never going to vote for Davis. She later walked this back, slightly, by saying it should be up to establishments whether open carry guns were allowed on their premises.

Because Senator Davis’ campaign was a consequence of her high-profile abortion rights filibuster, she was never quite able to get out from under that imprimatur in a state that is too conservative to risk constantly waving such a flag. Nonetheless, in the middle of the campaign, Davis released her autobiography, which shared the personal narrative of her abortions. Was selling a book more important than earning votes?

Knowing that women outnumber men in population and voter turnout in Texas, Davis ran a campaign that, at times, seemingly focused on females. The issues she raised were important and relevant, regarding women, but they left the candidate little time to speak of other critical matters like education and immigration and Medicaid expansion in Texas. And she started wandering through the gender gap.

Davis spent several weeks talking about the unfairness in pay for women. In fact, she got a lot of media attention on the subject, including stories about the pay inequities in her opponent’s offices of attorney general. But whatever female voters she attracted on that topic were outnumbered by the men, who, as the results show, did not think she was speaking to them.

The other issue, which is important, but seemed obscure for a state governor’s race, was Davis’ determination to end the statute of limitations on rape. Again, no question this is a matter of relevance to everyone, but from a strategic standpoint for someone trying to reach the most voters with a message, the subject is relatively obscure. Davis was suddenly a female candidate speaking largely to females.

But this would not have been a fatal strategy if she had simply offered a vision. Davis spent the entirety of her campaign attacking her opponent, a man who clearly needs a serious political comeuppance. But it is axiomatic in American politics that when you run negative ads you drive up your own negatives almost as much as you do those of your opponent. Voters had a hard time turning on their TVs and seeing anything positive from Davis. No one today can effectively articulate how a Governor Davis would have made their lives different than a Governor Abbott because Davis simply did an ineffectual job of communicating on pocketbook and daily life issues.

In fact, on some issues she simply failed to communicate. Up until about the last 6-8 weeks of the campaign, Davis had nothing on her website about immigration or health care, and, in a state where the candidates for the top office talk constantly about the border, Davis was virtually silent on it. Never mind that it is a federal government responsibility and the state doesn’t have the resources to really have an impact; voters want to know what their governor thinks about securing the border.

Davis might have even won the campaign (Yeah, I know, wild assertion), if she simply talked about Medicaid. Estimates are that Texas has close to two million residents that would be eligible for Medicaid if Governor Rick Perry would allow it to be expanded under Obamacare. But Davis did not use the issue on the stump. Texas is expected to lose $22 billion by 2020 in federal tax money by not participating in Medicaid.

Instead of ads on that topic, though, Davis ran a commercial about a woman who was raped by a vacuum cleaner salesman, and her opponent, as attorney general, defended the company. The spot had the usual sonorous voice explaining how Abbott argued to protect the company against the victim’s lawsuit and it used grayish video of a man getting out of a car and going to a door with a vacuum cleaner. Bad ad. Bad idea. Even worse, the Davis team did not tell the woman who had been victimized that the political ad about her tragedy was going to be a part of the statewide discourse.

Davis did nothing but attack. And that did nothing toward communicating her vision for Texas, assuming she had pondered a future for the state. On education, she got sucked into a fight with Abbott over Pre-k and never effectively explained how she would improve public schools. Property taxes in the state are onerous but she never addressed that beyond a vague mention of looking at corporate tax breaks. In a state where roads are crowded and water is running low, she hardly even had generalities to offer on those two critical concerns. But in one day she put out twelve news releases on ending the statute of limitations on rape.

Davis lost because she deserved to lose. And Texas is a very conservative, Republican state that will take time to turn the purple Obama’s acolytes were convinced it could be colored this year. The pros from Dover can go home now. They’ve made a lot of money on the Davis campaign. There will be no statue erected to honor Jeremy Bird on the grounds of the Texas capitol. And Battleground Texas will likely become another historical Texas footnote about the outlanders who came down to show us how to make it happen, but didn’t.

This is a huge setback for those of us who love Texas and dream of a progressive government. More uniforms will patrol the border and turn it into an armed camp. An increasing number of toll roads will be built and there will be little or no advancement in mass transit and rail. Religion will creep back into public schools and our textbooks will teach evolution as a theory.

It’s not all her fault, obviously. She would’ve had made a much better governor than Greg Abbott. But there is no denying Wendy Davis made things worse for Democrats in Texas.


  1. Oh, come on. If people are too lazy to register, it isn’t a far stretch to imagine that they are too lazy to vote too. The Dem Party is filled with lazy fools who don’t like politics, or whiners who won’t vote because they think that will help them get Dems into office somehow (yeah, it’s that ridiculous). Wendy was wildly popular, sometimes it has to do with the constituents and not the candidates.

  2. Yes, it is the fault of Democrats outside of Texas who came in. You know, the people who have actually won something.

    You can’t have it both ways. You can’t complain about a lack of national help, and then complain when you get national help.

    At least you got your Wendy Davis critique reasonably correct.

    • I’m not a Democrat and I’m not complaining about anything. I’m offering criticism of what I observed as someone who has written on Texas politics since 1975. Whenever someone wins a big nomination in this state, they run to DC to get consultants because it makes them feel important. There is rarely a grass roots or anything indigenous about their campaigns, as a consequence of bringing in outsiders. If Wendy had been smarter, she’d have seen that the close association with the Obama campaign through Karin Johanson and Battleground Texas would be a net negative. There were certainly people in Texas trying to tell her that much. And being an expert who wins outside of Texas has nothing to do with winning in Texas.

      • Since Democrats in Texas have done such a marvelous job of winning statewide races the past couple of decades, they got nothing to tell anybody about it. Texas Dems who weren’t being paid by the Davis campaign were on record that she had no chance to win before the race even started. Do you think that was a minor hindrance for her?

        It’s time for the Dem establishment in Texas, such as it is, to sit the fuck down and shut the fuck up. Maybe then turnout might be higher since people won’t know for certain their votes won’t count.

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