Wendy Davis has spent enough time in Austin to be familiar with the wit and wisdom of the iconic University of Texas football coach who was so legendary people simply called him “Coach.”
“You dance with the one that brung ya,” the late Darrell Royal was fond of saying.
The consensus of the post-race analysis is that Davis made more than a few mistakes en route to her embarrassing defeat in the Nov. 4 election for Texas governor. But the votes were barely counted before we learned that the biggest mistake, the one that sealed her fate, was one Coach Royal would have warned her to avoid: She ditched her date.
In fact, she was warned – not by a fabled football genius, but by the very date she dumped before the dance really started. According to veteran political reporter Jay Root of The Texas Tribune, Davis’ own campaign consultants sounded the alarm last January that the Fort Worth Democrat was ignoring the tried-and-true formula they had used to guide her successfully through two hard-fought campaigns for the state Senate and was instead embracing a strategy that was certain to result in a crushing defeat.
In refusing to run the campaign consultants wanted, she reverted from the candidate they thought they knew to being the real Wendy Davis. Remaining true to herself, she ran as the liberal she has always been and not as a middle of the road compromiser.
Months before the first vote was cast, Root reported, consultants Peter Cari and Maura Dougherty told the Davis campaign in no uncertain terms that the candidate was on the road to ruin.
Here’s an excerpt from The Tribune’s story:
“The campaign is in disarray and is in danger of being embarrassed,” Cari and Dougherty wrote in a lengthy memorandum on 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 Davis campaign had “lurched to the left,” was failing to communicate a positive message and offered virtually nothing to the swing voters the senator would need to win statewide.
“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.
The … consultants concluded that the campaign was either desperately broken or that 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.”
The consultants’ criticism and candor got them canned. And Davis danced her way to electoral disaster.
The depth of the disaster was predicted in a second memo the consultants sent to the Davis campaign after they were cut loose in February, according to The Texas Tribune:
“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 surpassed the consultants’ projection, but not by much – she ended up with 38.9 percent while winner Greg Abbott racked up 59.3 percent.
Davis is now being blamed for derailing the nationally-inspired Democratic initiative to remake Texas voting patterns. The idea that Davis and the Democrats could turn one of the nation’s reddest states blue was a pipedream, based on the belief that Hispanics and women in Texas would turn out in decisive numbers to support a liberal Democrat espousing policies and political positions closely identified with President Barack Obama. It was a hopelessly misguided assessment of the political climate in the Lone Star State; for now and the immediate future, at least, the GOP is the ruling party.
The consultants’ complaint that Davis was running as a “generic national Democrat” was particularly telling and insightful. Her June 2013 filibuster against a bill restricting abortions in Texas catapulted her into the national spotlight and, eventually, into the governor’s race.
Embraced by the national media – she landed a cover story in The New York Times Magazine as well as appearances on most of the network TV news programs and talk shows – Davis became a darling of the Democrats’ campaign money machine and quickly created the impression that she was a political force to be reckoned with.
For one shining moment, she was a heroic figure, particularly for women who shared her political views. Standing and fighting the Texas good ol’ boys in Austin, she went from a gutsy state senator in pink running shoes to Cinderella in glass slippers at Hollywood fundraisers.
It’s easy to imagine that she and her staff believed her press clippings. But it was all an illusion. She was popular in Hollywood and Manhattan but less so in Hubbard and Mexia. With a real-world resume that was light on experience and meaningful legislative accomplishments, unseasoned by time and results, Davis was not the formidable candidate at home that her out-of-state champions believed her to be.
You dance with the one that brung ya.
Now, a devastating loss behind her and her state Senate seat captured by a Republican after Davis decided to run for governor rather than re-election to the Senate, a question emerges: What’s next for Wendy? Could there be life after losing in the mold of failed GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who has made a career and tons of money as an opinionated political gadfly with a tart tongue and good looks?
The Business Press is a local paper and we love homegrown talent that seeks the challenges of greener pastures and bigger arenas, but we never thought Davis had a chance. We wrote about that in editorials. In retrospect, we would now add that we admire her for standing on principal, on being herself. If it was campaign suicide to run for governor of Texas as a liberal Democrat, at least it was honest and straightforward. She is what she is.
I never weighed in on any of our news coverage of the campaign, or our editorials commenting on her candidacy. Davis sued the Star-Telegram and me a long time ago after she suffered her first defeat. That was in a race for Fort Worth City Council.
When she won the Democratic nomination for governor I was contacted frequently to discuss the lawsuits, even though they are ancient history. I was invited to talk on the record, off the record, and to appear on national television.
No thank you, I said. Time to forget and move on, I said. A number of circumstances had changed my opinion of her over the years. Wendy Davis is someone I happen to like. I admire the success she has had. She is tough and she is a fighter.
As I watched from the sidelines I was constantly struck by the similarities in what was happening to her and what happened to Ann Richards, who was revered outside of Texas – especially in New York, Hollywood and Washington, D.C. – but who barely won her first race for governor and couldn’t muster enough support at home to win a second.
It’s a model other candidates could learn from.
Richard Connor is chairman of the Business Press’ parent company, DRC Media. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.