Wendy Davis never had a chance, but she was a terrible candidate

When Wendy Davis lost to Greg Abbott last Tuesday, it was not surprising. But what would have been surprising looking at her campaign from the perspective of her initial rise to fame was the scale of the loss. But by election day I had seen the train wreck develop here in Texas based on how bad the Davis campaign was. Today, Ross Douthat in the NY Times reflected from the outside and made a devastating comparison

The Christine O’Donnell thing really did happen more or less by accident, because she happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch an anti-establishment wave and win a primary in which she was supposed to be a protest candidate. Whereas the Davis experiment was intentionally designed: She was treated to fawning press coverage, lavished with funding, had the primary field mostly cleared for her, and was touted repeatedly as part of an actual party strategy for competing in a conservative-leaning state. Of course she had a much more impressive resume than O’Donnell, with less witchcraft and real political experience, and in that sense she made a more credible candidate overall. (Though, ahem, O’Donnell actually outperformed Davis at the polls in the end …)


Remarkably, the morning after, longtime Texas Monthly political writer Paul Burka wrote

Davis didn’t run a bad race. She raised a lot of money and she chipped away at Abbott’s weaknesses with some effectiveness.

The Texas Tribune’s Jay Root disagrees.

Davis probably never had a modicum of a chance to win the Texas governor’s race. The 2014 election turned out to be another wave election that cost Democrats the U.S. Senate, governor’s races in heavily Democratic states and competitive legislative races across the land, including here.

But for more than a year, Democrats were crowing that with a well-funded turnout operation, Davis was the kind of candidate who could at least move the needle for the bedraggled party, which hadn’t won a statewide election since 1994. In one sense they were correct: She moved the needle, all right — backward.

Root talks about how Davis failed to utilize her inspiring personal story

When the curtain came down on Team Davis, the campaign had not aired a single English-language TV ad focusing on the Fort Worth senator’s up-from-the-trailer-park narrative once seen as her campaign’s thematic foundation. In the final days, Davis couldn’t afford to effectively air such an ad, despite her campaign’s own claims of raising almost $40 million, a top official acknowledged.

We probably don’t watch as much TV in the prime advertising slots as most prospective voters, and I time shift past commercials when I can. I did see some of the gubernatorial ads when I couldn’t avoid them during live events like sports, and I saw some of the online coverage in blogs and social media. I didn’t watch any of the debates, but I glanced at some of the news stories about them. My perspective on the race is thus pretty limited, but I suspect that it’s not that different from what an average Texas likely voter actually saw.

So, within that window, Wendy Davis started as someone who was pro-choice and against regulation of abortions at 20 weeks or later. She then told me that she was:

Really? I mean, Ted Nugent is a loon, but his groupie history and Abbott’s defense of sex toy laws as AG never seemed like things that are priorities for Texas. And while Root says Davis didn’t have the resources to run positive ads, the Kirby Vacuum salesman ad was one that I saw a lot more than anything else from Davis.

Setting aside problems with the up from the trailer park narrative, and the general problem of trying to base your narrative on overcoming adversity when running against the guy in a wheelchair, Davis never established a positive agenda that I could detect. There were lots of things that Davis could have used on the negative side against Abbott, but it seems to me that a smarter campaign would have realized that for average voters, Greg Abbott is still a nonentity. The place to attack Abbott was not for anything specific about Abbott himself: it was as a continuation of the bad parts of one-party rule and the continuation of Rick Perry’s time as Gov. I would have gone after:

  • dysfunction in the lege that meant that initiatives tapping the Rainy Day Fund were needed to deal with funding for basic things like roads and water over the past few elections
  • cronyism and its effects on things like CPRIT and the Texas Enterprise Fund.
  • the ways in which Perry’s appointments and The TPPF agenda have been hurting higher ed in Texas. Ted Nugent is a loon, but perhaps it would have been better to point out the looniness of Wallace Hall.  Despite the dislike for us pointy-headed pinko academics, I think that between sports and economics, even some conservative Texans are uncomfortable with where Perry’s Regents have been taking the UT and TAMU systems. The defenestration of Bill Powers was recent news.

Davis was perhaps never the best candidate to make these points. But she was the anointed candidate and while I agree that she was doomed from day 1, moving the needle forward required showing that there was more to her than pink sneakers and abortion celebrity.  Instead, she showed us that there was less.