Abbott may benefit from turn away from issues

The gubernatorial campaigns of Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis moved decisively toward more intensely personal appeals last week. Each independently arrived at the conclusion that, as the gubernatorial campaign nears its decisive final phase, some strategic advantage was to be had with a shift toward biography.

What many recent analyses have missed is that both candidates moved to invoke their personal struggles over adversity — Davis’ terminated pregnancies and Abbott’s physical disability — at a time when uncontrollable events were threatening to shift the issue terrain. The court-instigated shift toward discussions of issues like education, Texas’ voter ID law and abortion may well have provided advantages to Davis, and could still. But this refocusing of the election may also have been forestalled by last week’s shift to the candidates’ biographies – a turn of events likely welcomed by the Abbott campaign.

Abbott actually initiated this biographical turn with the release of his “Garage” ad. That ad, featuring Abbott wheeling himself up eight levels of a parking garage as his voiceover describes the pain of his rebuilding regimen in the wake of a 1984 injury that left him in a wheelchair, was widely praised by political observers for its effectiveness. By Saturday morning, though, the Friday leak of Davis’ painful recounting of the termination of a pregnancy due to severe fetal complications, as well as an ectopic pregnancy that preceded it, dramatically raised the bar for frank personal revelation. The Abbott campaign’s cautiously worded statement exuded sympathy while still signaling to its base that he was sympathetic to both the suffering of Davis’ family and the loss of her baby.

Davis’ intensely personal story generated media coverage that thrust her back into the national spotlight. Ironically, this pre-scheduled burst of welcome coverage came after what could be described as the Davis campaign’s best couple of weeks. The campaign had been pointing to signs of momentum – an account quilted together out of Rick Perry’s felony indictments, a somewhat off-the-trend-line Rasmussen Poll that found Davis trailing Abbott by single digits, and the Abbott campaign’s to and fro on debate scheduling.

Lost in the ensuing coverage were other elements suggesting a slight change in Davis’ fortune, one that came from disparate corners of the judicial system. The voter identification trial in federal court in Corpus Christi triggered a return of media attention to Texas’s much-disputed voter ID law; a federal district court blocked key parts of the abortion law Davis had initially filibustered; and a state court forcefully rejected the adequacy of the state’s education funding, which Davis opposed in a high-profile fashion in her first, less famous, filibuster in 2011.

In terms of targeting voters, the Davis campaign could find something for everyone in these rulings: In abortion, a turnout mechanism for the young, unmarried and largely pro-choice portions of Obama’s ascendant — though usually absent in off-year elections — coalition; in voter ID, a potential instigator for the large and growing Hispanic population and a boost to off-year African American turnout; and in the underfunding of public education, a potential wedge issue for those illusive moderate Republicans.

Though hardly decisive (see here, here and here for why), it’s hard to read the resurfacing of these issues as advantageous to Abbott. As the state’s chief lawyer, Abbott’s has defended positions on these issues at odds with the preferences of dormant Democratic constituencies. None of these positions is likely to fundamentally shake up the race by providing Davis a winning mixture of Democratic mobilization and Republican defections. Nonetheless, the courts have produced manifestations of these issues in terms that, for the most part, the Abbott campaign would rather not be the focus of the 2014 election. No campaign wants to spend the fall playing defense, no matter how tilted the playing field may be.

Seen in this context, the attention paid to Davis’ book, whatever the rush of “earned” or “free” media coverage for her campaign, might in the end be a welcome redirection for Abbott. However careful Abbott must be in articulating his response and keeping a modulated distance from the inevitably intemperate responses of some of his allies, the subject of Davis’ biography represents a turn away from less advantageous subjects that had been creeping into the frame. This will likely be manifest in the coming weeks: Once her book tour is behind her, one should expect to see the Davis campaign attempting to goad Abbott into discussing these issues, be it in debates or through provocative campaign ads like the recent Davis contrast ad focused on education.

Yet the underlying pattern of this election continues to prove tough to break. The Abbott campaign quickly found a line of attack – whether her book tour is a form of corporate support – that has enabled them to return to their established strategy of taking the offensive against Davis on ethical grounds.  

Abbott has always been more comfortable making this campaign about Davis than about the issues that Davis wants to discuss – and the timing of Davis’ book release may have inadvertently helped him do just that, even if it has created new potential for forced errors by him and his allies. The Abbott campaign is likely to be fine with the trade-off.

This piece originally appeared in TribTalk.