Politics & Government

Davis undone by muddled messages, troubled tactics

On the day last year when Sen. Wendy Davis launched her bid for governor, something she failed to mention got almost as much attention as the speech itself: her filibuster of a bill creating new abortion regulations.

After all, taking a stand against that legislation in June 2013 is what propelled Davis into instant celebrity and made her a rare Texas Democratic fundraising phenom, so leaving it out was noticeable.

In the Haltom City auditorium where Davis made her announcement, senior adviser Matt Angle, mingling with reporters at the press table, explained why the dramatic event didn’t make the cut. He said that in the arc of her compelling biography, it wasn’t all that significant.

“The idea,” Angle said, “is to tell Wendy’s story.”

Thirteen months later, that unexecuted strategy sits atop a trash heap of failed tactics, unmet goals and muddled messages that helped doom Davis to an embarrassing defeat long before voters rendered their verdict Tuesday night.

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.

Davis probably never had a modicum of a chance to win the race. The 2014 campaign 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.

The spread between Attorney General Greg Abbott and Davis exceeded 20 points, greater than the split between Republican Gov. Rick Perry and Democrat Bill White in the historic Tea Party wave four years ago. In fact, it was the worst showing by a Democratic gubernatorial candidate since Garry Mauro was drubbed 68 percent to 31 percent at the hands of George W. Bush in 1998.

The percentage of Texans with a negative view of the single mom turned Harvard grad was exceptionally high.

The vaunted ground game that wealthy Democratic donors had been promised by Battleground Texas — started by the very people who pushed Barack Obama over the top in hard-fought contests in Ohio and Florida in 2012 — fell well below even the dismal turnout of 2010, in which Texas was dead-last in the U.S.

Even voter registration, as a percentage of the eligible population, dropped from the last governor’s race despite all the talk of a wave of new voters who would start making Texas more competitive.

And Davis’ message?

Whatever it started as, it bordered on incoherence in the waning days of the race.

Was she an Ann Richards progressive? A good-ol’-gal moderate? Did she run away from President Obama? Toward him?

Over the last 13 months, voters saw all that and more from the Davis operation.

Mixed messages

If the campaign telegraphed early caution on the abortion issue, Davis threw it to the wind two months before Election Day, when she released a memoir about her own late abortion in 1997. She went on a weeklong book tour that inevitably focused on abortion rights, followed by another week spent on the same subject — namely, bashing Abbott for opposing abortion even in cases of rape or incest.

On gun rights, she riled conservatives last fall by embracing restrictions on firearm sales at gun shows, only to take friendly fire in February from bewildered liberal supporters when she agreed with Abbott that Texans should be allowed to openly carry handguns.

She lauded job-luring tax incentives as a key economic development tool and even celebrated them during a stop last year at a San Antonio company that benefited from them.

Then she tried to use the programs as a cudgel against Abbott because he had received campaign money from corporate executives who benefited from them.

Davis also blew hot and cold on surrogates. Her campaign, fearing backlash from moderates and independents, reportedly opposed a possible appearance by Hillary Clinton and other big-name Democrats at the state convention this summer, then went on to tout an endorsement from the former secretary of state as her poll numbers began sinking hard before Election Day.

Even starker was the inconsistent approach to Obama, whose dizzying unpopularity made him a pariah in the 2014 midterms, particularly in the South.

Davis initially seemed to distance herself from the president. When he came to Austin in April, she met with him behind closed doors. And it was the White House, not the Davis campaign, that announced the meeting.

Contrast that with the final days of the race, when Davis ran radio ads featuring Michelle Obama, then — to the delight of her Republican opponent — told reporters that she would be “thrilled” if the president joined her on the campaign trail in Texas. And on the day before the election, she hopped on a conference call with the president to fire up turnout.

Davis pollster Joel Benenson, who advised Obama in 2008 and 2012, disputed the notion that Davis seesawed from one message to another, saying the campaign consistently kept Abbott on the defensive by tagging him as an “insider” working against average Texans.

When it came to surrogates, he said the point was to keep the focus on the candidate during the race while using big-name Democrats at the end to boost turnout.

Benenson’s take: Abbott’s unprecedented war chest allowed him to outspend Davis 3-to-1 on TV ads by the end of the race, and a national climate that favored Republicans made the climb far too steep for Davis.

“We were a challenger and an underdog, a significant underdog, in a very red state,” Benenson said. “We also had to deal with the reality that he had an enormous cash advantage and that at any point he could bury us on TV.”

But critics, even some Democrats, say Davis and her partners at Battleground Texas took a challenging situation and made it worse.

Glenn Smith, a longtime Democratic consultant in Austin, said he warned Battleground Texas Director Jenn Brown in spring 2013 that the group was overplaying its hand by bragging about the know-how it had gleaned from Obama campaigns in other states. He said he “didn’t get much of a response.”

“You have to speak Texan if you’re going to do well here. They didn’t,” Smith said. “There was this belief after 2012 that if you waved this turnout wand, you would wake up some progressive majority. It didn’t exist.”

Battleground did not respond to Smith’s critique.

Optimistic start

Things didn’t start out so bad for the Democrats.

Davis was well-known thanks to the filibuster, so she wouldn’t have to spend big to pump up name recognition. With Perry declining to seek re-election, Davis was competing in the first open governor’s race since Richards was elected. Her opponent, while exceptionally well-funded, was largely untested in high-profile political battles.

In the important race for campaign dollars, Davis had already raised nearly $1 million in the initial days after the filibuster, gaining instant credibility as a fundraiser who could tap into a network of small donors, something that had eluded Texas Democrats for years.

So when the new year began, Davis could legitimately share her party’s hope that, at last, a Texas Democrat could make it close for the first time in decades.

The high point came in mid-January, when the first major fundraising reports were released. When adding the money she raised plus the proceeds collected jointly with Battleground Texas, Davis laid claim to a bigger fundraising haul than Abbott for the last critical months of 2013, leading to a burst of positive news coverage.

First campaign crisis

That turned out to be short-lived. A few days later, on Jan. 18, The Dallas Morning News handed Davis her first major crisis when it posted a story criticizing Davis for discrepancies in her official campaign biography.

Throughout her political career, Davis had highlighted her struggles as a single mother, her rise from humble roots in a trailer park to a Harvard law degree and, eventually, the Texas Senate.

But not all the details were accurate. She was 21, not 19, when she divorced, for example. And her husband’s role in paying for her Harvard education had been downplayed in the official campaign version, the newspaper noted.

A day after the story ran, Davis press aides Rebecca Acuña and Bo Delp huddled on the phone and came up with a plan. They thought that some aspects of the story were unfair or inaccurate, that the discrepancies were relatively minor and that the findings could largely be portrayed as old news.

They agreed that Davis needed to push back hard and fast with a news conference.

But instead, the campaign tried to tamp down the controversy by giving selective media interviews and issuing news releases with a detailed timeline of Davis’ life.

Looking back, former campaign manager Karin Johanson said she regrets not responding more forcefully to a story that — to her surprise — generated far more attention in far more media markets than the campaign saw coming.

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