Friday, July 04, 2014

It's not all peaches and cream for Texas Dems

I'm encouraged -- even enthusiastic -- about the past couple of weeks' worth of news, but there remain a few dark clouds on the horizon... most of them hovering over Wendy Davis.  In their latest TribTalk, pollmeisters Jim Henson and Joshua Blank -- unlike their previous attempt at post-polling analysis -- get it dead solid perfect this time.

When it comes to abortion, Texans are pro-access with a very limited acceptance of choice for women as most people understand it, according to University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling data.

This landscape forms the terrain on which the gubernatorial campaigns of Democrat Wendy Davis and Republican Greg Abbott are unfolding. While common sense says Democrats don’t want to run a campaign in Texas on the issue of abortion, Abbott's vagueness on just how restrictive his positions are — particularly on exceptions for rape, incest and threats to a woman’s health — likely benefits him much more than Davis’ silence on the matter benefits her.

That's about as strongly correct as anything I have read about the race for governor on this topic.

We wrote at the time of Davis’ 2013 filibuster that the policy that had garnered much of the media coverage up until that point, the 20-week ban, was not the likely cause of the long-unseen Democratic mobilization, because majorities of Texans expressed support for that provision. (Davis herself has subsequently suggested that she would have voted for it in isolation.) Her supporters were mobilized in opposition to other parts of the bill that promised to restrict abortion access (and have done so). In the same June 2013 survey showing that majorities supported the 20-week ban, 79 percent of respondents indicated that abortion should be allowed under varying circumstances (only 16 percent of respondents in Texas, as elsewhere, support an overall prohibition on the procedure). Thus, Davis’ reluctance to utter the A-word is not likely about her fear of a majority who abhors all access to abortion but rather a reluctance to provide further fodder for opponents who would attack her for her opposition to a bill that included a 20-week ban.

It’s little surprise that the most intense pressure on Davis is coming from those who wish her campaign ill. Republican partisans have worked overtime to reassociate Davis with opposition to the 20-week ban in an effort to define her not just as a liberal — a label that Republicans have tarred Democrats with for more than a generation — but also as an extremist on abortion.

Yes, the "Abortion Barbie" smear has been effective for the bottom-of-the-barrel conservatives in defining Davis.  So far.  But Abbott has a thin tightrope to walk on the issue himself (that's not insensitive to a man in a wheelchair, is it?).

We found broad support — greater than 70 percent — for access to abortion when a woman’s life may be in danger or when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest. While majorities of Republicans also support these exceptions, about 20 percent of Republicans regularly tell us that they oppose abortion under any circumstance. So any clarification by Abbott could potentially create a division within his base and provide ammunition for a future primary challenger — the prototype of whom is very much in the making. At the same time, any clarification that brings Abbott closer to Patrick’s position distances him further from the general electorate and gives Davis what she so sorely needs: a reason for some Republicans to vote for her.

Greg Abbott is dying to come out of the closet as an abortion absolutist, but he can't afford to do so until after he is elected.  Which is why those of us who support a woman's right to choose -- no matter the degree of that choice, no matter the party affiliation -- cannot afford to see him get elected.

But Abbott’s difficulties make for only the narrowest of political openings for Davis. Broad support for these abortion exceptions in tragic circumstances does not a pro-choice electorate make, certainly not in a literal sense of the word “choice.” In fact, under all of the circumstances in which a woman’s ability to exercise autonomous choice about a pregnancy was put to the test (for example, an unmarried woman who didn’t want to marry the man), Texans were much less supportive of abortion access.

These results highlight the difficulties that the abortion issue poses for Davis. While a clear rhetorical path that focuses on access to abortion when absolutely necessary exists and, in many respects, makes sense, to walk that tightrope would require a wholesale reconstruction of the politics that have defined the abortion debate for the last 30 years. But in the unreconstructed present, should Davis bring abortion back to the forefront, Abbott would no doubt reinforce support among his base — which is still large enough in Texas to win an election outright in the near term — by painting Davis as an old-school, pro-choice liberal.

The Dems' two-decades-long losing streak allows the Republicks to cater to the extremists in the Tea Party, more so than in any other state. Until they lose something, they won't moderate.  They don't have to.  More to the point, Abbott dodging the media's efforts to pin him down on exactly how much abortion he opposes makes more sense in this regard.  Henson and Blank saved the best for last.

Davis’ silence is nothing if not understandable — but also symptomatic of the campaign’s lack of options as it looks for ways to shake up the fundamentals of a race in which Republicans have so many advantages. But, in fact, it’s Abbott’s silence that offers the bigger advantage by allowing him to benefit from a status quo that has led Republicans to win every statewide office for the last 16 years — and enabled them to enact policies that reflect the preferences of their most activist voters. 

As long as Greg Abbott keeps shooting himself in the foot (if you're paralyzed, does that hurt?) over things like chemical explosives concealment, continuously filing lawsuits against Obama and losing, flying around on corporate jets belonging to some of the worst conservatives in the world -- Wendy Davis can keep the pressure on him, dictating and defining the terms of engagement.  Mostly away from the subject of women's reproductive freedoms.

Update: More on this from Ted at jobsanger.

She miscalculated, however, in passing on an opportunity to boost her candidacy and the party's standing by asking Hillary Clinton (or Joe Biden, or even Kirsten Gillibrand) not to be the keynote speaker at last week's Democratic state convention.  Chris Hooks at the Texas Observer noticed what I wanted to post about a week or two ahead of the convention, and dug a little deeper into the why.

The Texas Republican convention last month featured a number of GOPers from across the country, including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, and Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska. They came to network, build ties with the state party, and raise money, and their presence helped give the convention a greater profile in national media. The slate of speakers at the Texas Democrats’ convention this past weekend in Dallas, by comparison, was devoid of such national figures.

It didn’t have to be that way, though. Democrats involved with planning the convention told the Observer that Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand were in talks to speak at the gathering. Each had seemed to signal a willingness to speak—with Gillibrand even offering to help with the cost of attending the convention. But Wendy Davis’ representatives nixed the plan, fearing the national pols would be a liability for her.

The Davis campaign wanted its candidate to be the primary focus of the convention and worried that the presence of national Democrats would distract from the Fort Worth state senator’s keynote. And according to Democrats with knowledge of the debate over the speaker lineup, the campaign feared connecting Davis’ name to national Democrats who may be unpopular in Texas. Davis has suffered from quite a bit of that kind of coverage.

Frankly, this lack of confidence is a manifestation of the tired, scared, defeatist Texas Democratic Party as demonstrated so many times over the past twenty years that I'm sick and tired of writing about it.

What would the participation of Clinton, Biden or Gillibrand have meant for the convention? According to Democrats who thought the decision to exclude national figures was a mistake, there would have almost certainly been more media attention. There simply wasn’t much to write about in Dallas, and coverage, even among Texas outlets, reflected that. And there would likely have been better attendance at the convention—Clinton, Biden and Gillibrand are generally quite popular among the progressive crowd of delegates that attended the event. “Ready for Hillary” stickers adorned many delegates. Gillibrand is an icon for progressive women thanks in part to her doomed push for military sexual assault legislation.

Clinton’s attendance, especially, would have drawn the convention into the national spotlight. Major national publications have reporters dedicated solely to chronicling Clinton’s activities. In the past, Clinton’s camp has made noises about contesting Texas in the course of the 2016 presidential race; if she spoke at the convention, that would likely have featured heavily in coverage and been a boost for a party in need of some encouraging headlines. Some closer to the party said they would have loved to see that boost—and the slate of statewide candidates that the Democrats are backing, many of whom suffer from low name recognition and limited fundraising ability, could have benefited from it, sources said.

The "Ready for Hillary" booth was the busiest, consistently, that I saw in the convention hall, which everyone had to walk through on their way to their seats in the main assembly.   There has indeed been lots of whining about the lack of corporate media coverage of last weekend's convention, and Peggy Fikac and Mike Ward nailed a few of the cowards among the Dems in the week before.

Jack Freeman is a yellow-dog Democrat who has voted for his party's candidates for longer than he can remember. But he hopes his party's Washington stars will stay away until after the November general election, especially from the state convention that start(ed last) Friday in Dallas.

"Please, Mr. Obama, stay home," said Freeman, an Austin retiree, echoing the sentiments of other rank-and-file Democrats. "They're not liked down here, and we've got good candidates here in Texas who can win, as long as they stay on Texas issues and not get caught up in the mess in Washington."

Battered-person syndrome on full display.   Back to Hooks in the TO.

The decision to exclude national speakers at the convention is fascinating for a couple of reasons. For one, it highlights a split in thinking between groups backing Wendy Davis—her campaign team and Battleground Texas—and the state party, which is providing the primary backing for most of Davis’ ticketmates, including Leticia Van de Putte. The two groups are bringing markedly different approaches to the general election. While those different strategies may complement each other in some areas, they clash in others. At the convention negotiations, Davis’ team won.

A spokesman with the Davis campaign declined to comment, but an official with knowledge of the convention planning told the Observer that “there was an effort to make sure Texas was the focus of the convention.”

Davis is running a pricey, high-stakes campaign that’s banking heavily on its ability to win over moderates and independents—the kind of voters that helped her retain a center-right Texas Senate district in Fort Worth. Some of her pronouncements in the past—flirting with open carry laws, embracing some abortion restrictions, and talking tough on the border crisis—make sense if seen through that prism. And it also makes sense that she would shy away from affiliation with national Democrats, who may not be popular with the moderates she hopes to win over.

Other candidates on the Democratic slate are being backed more heavily by the state party. They, particularly Van de Putte, have a very different strategy in mind. With a fraction of the resources Davis has, Van de Putte’s team will rely more heavily on turning out the base while taking advantage of as much free media and attention as she can. And she’ll hope that her opponent, Dan Patrick, alienates moderate voters on his own.

Unfortunately I got the mild impression first-hand that Wendy is nervous about being overshadowed even by Leti, who generates her own high-wattage star power.

To illustrate that, I saw Davis speak twice the weekend before the convention, at two polar opposite events; one in Sugar Land named the Breakfast of Champions at the swanky Sweetwater Country Club raising funds for the Fort Bend Democratic Party, and then again at lunchtime in Houston, over barbecue plates at the CWA hall for the Legendary Ladies of Labor rally.  Two completely different audiences, and she gave different stump speeches at each.  The first one praised the diversity of Fort Bend County (the most so in the United States), its current purplish hue placing it right on the cusp of turning blue, and the occasion of the civil rights struggles of the era fifty years ago.  Her second speech was more boilerplate, acknowledging the power of the labor movement for Democrats and the associated call to arms for their support and organizational ability to help her.

In both venues she arrived in the room with an entourage of just one, former TDP hand Hector Nieto, who almost never looked up from his phone, thumbing furiously and constantly.  But Davis entered to a reaction as I have seen only rock stars generate.  Everyone in the room in both places -- perhaps 300 well-dressed people at the country club, and twice that many in jeans and T-shirts at the union hall --- murmur, rise to their feet, click away with their phones and cameras and begin applauding, and then cheering. The speaker at the dais in both places was drowned out by the interruption, which grew into an eruption.

Suffice it to say that neither Bill White nor Chris Bell, both Houston favorite sons who ran for governor in the last two off-presidential cycles, ever elicited anything close to that kind of response in my experience.

She spoke with conviction in both morning and afternoon appearances, clearly and forcefully... but not what I would consider passionately, and I was told by other Dems who have heard her speak many more times than me that she has improved on the stump.  I'll take that at face value.  In Dallas, I retired early before Davis' convention speech, which Hooks described as 'adequate'.  Van de Putte, by contrast, had the best speech of all by a long measure.  It included this pretty hilarious intro video.

Hooks with the last graf in his piece.

As such, Van de Putte, and the rest of the candidates the party is backing, might have relished the chance to stand on the same stage as Clinton et al, which might have brought some attention and resources to a party, and the party’s candidates, that are badly in need of both. But the Davis campaign was calling the shots. In the next couple months, we’ll see how this unusual dynamic plays out.

With so many positive developments over the last several weeks, it's worth noting that this negative one is really nothing more than a missed opportunity to build enthusiasm for all Democrats for November and beyond.  I hate to see the same old nervous, intimidated moderates continue to exert the most sway over party business, but that's how it's been for a long time.  There's still a solid puncher's chance that Dems can change their fortunes in four months, and closing whatever gap remains between defeat and victory still requires a lot of hard work and a little good luck.

Squandered chances, what-ifs, and other post mortems will be reserved for mid-November.


Gadfly said...

Very good post. On the "limelight" issue, is part of it jealousness, as well as fear of association with the "nationals"?

On abortion, the Trib is right that, on most points, that's where I am. I'd push the "cutoff" (with full range of exceptions ... up to 22 weeks. I want full access offered.

And, more than that, I want something that even Democrats to my left on this issue won't talk about -- restoration of Medicaid coverage for the poor for abortion.

Gadfly said...

Second comment, re the last graf ...

And, that's a bit of the problem, is it not? Given that the Gov has relatively less power, re other elected officials, than the president does at the national level, Davis' domination, as shown in the rejection of the national-level speakers, may not be the best thing for other Dems, even if Davis thinks it's the best thing for her. said...

Excellent post. The best speech of the convention in my estimation was Leticia'a at the Lady Bird Johnson Bluebonnet Breakfast. When she described her grandmother crawling on her knees to the church in thanksgiving for the safe return of her sons from WWII and the neighbors coming out and laying towels and sheets in the street to ease her way, the tears flowed in the room!