Consultants for Democrat Wendy Davis warned her campaign months ago that the Fort Worth senator was headed for a humiliating defeat in the governor’s race unless she adopted a more centrist message and ended staggering internal dysfunction.
The warnings are contained in two internal communications obtained by The Texas Tribune and written at the beginning of the year by longtime Democratic operatives Peter Cari and Maura Dougherty.
After Davis was drubbed by Gov.-elect Greg Abbott in last week’s election, they seem eerily prescient.
“The campaign is in disarray and is in danger of being embarrassed,” Cari and Dougherty wrote in a lengthy memorandum Jan. 6. “The level of dysfunction was understandable in July and August, when we had no infrastructure in place — but it doesn’t seem to be getting better.”
Addressed to then-campaign manager Karin Johanson, the memo warned that the campaign had “lurched to the left,” failed to communicate a positive message and offered virtually nothing to the swing voters the senator needed if she was going to win.
“There is not a model where a candidate who appears this liberal and culturally out of touch gets elected statewide anywhere in the south — much less in Texas — without some inoculation,” the consultants said.
Dougherty and Cari, founders of the national consulting firm Prism Communications, had helped guide Davis to two tough Senate wins in a Republican-leaning North Texas district, and they were deeply invested in her campaign.
But the media strategists complained that they and other consultants who had been involved in her past races and who knew her strengths and background were being sidelined, unable to communicate directly with Davis.
In a telephone interview with the Tribune, Dougherty said she and her business partner wrote the memo in a last-ditch attempt to right a listing campaign ship. She said she often did not know about major campaign developments until she read them in the news.
“Thank God for Google alerts, because I wouldn’t know what was going on in this campaign without them,” she said.
No one responded to calls and emails directed to Johanson and J.D. Angle, a senior Davis adviser.
The Prism consultants concluded that either the campaign was desperately broken or the hierarchy had decided to portray Davis not as a Texas moderate but rather a “national Democrat, appealing to liberal donors in the mistaken belief that there is a hidden liberal base in Texas that will turn out to vote if they have a liberal candidate to support.”
“Either scenario means that real changes need to be made, and quickly,” they wrote.
Not long after that January memo, the campaign indeed made changes, but not the ones Prism Communications had in mind.
About a month later, the firm was let go, Dougherty said. In a blistering follow-up letter to Johanson on Feb. 11, Dougherty and Cari described more dysfunction and mismanagement. And they predicted her margin of defeat within a single percentage point.
They wrote that the campaign was failing to portray Davis “like a Texan” and had turned her into a generic Democrat who would have a chance only in a state with a recent history of electing Democrats. The party hasn’t won a statewide election in Texas since 1994.
“Running Wendy Davis as a generic national Democrat is not only the quickest path to 38 percent, it’s also a huge disservice to Wendy, her record and the brand she has built,” they wrote. Davis got 38.9 percent of the vote, compared with 59.3 percent for Abbott.
A national wave swamped Democrats, including in governor races that Republicans won in traditionally blue states such as Maryland and Massachusetts. So it’s highly unlikely that any political strategy would have ushered Davis into the Governor’s Mansion.
But Dougherty said it didn’t have to be a rout.
“It’s possible to lose and still look good,” she said in the phone interview. “Our worry in January was it was setting Wendy up for embarrassment throughout the course of the campaign. I think the way the campaign played out was far, far worse than it should have been.”