After a break from the public eye, former State Senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis is back in the news. She’s an executive producer of an upcoming NBC drama based loosely on her statewide campaign, and she has been traveling the country and making speeches on women’s issues. Recently she sat down with Christopher Hooks for a lengthy interview, which you can read here.
Overall the interview gives the impression of a candidate unshackled, free of consultants and influential donors and able to speak her mind.
Here are four lessons from the article:
#1. Don’t endorse horrible policies in the name of political expediency.
Davis was pilloried by progressives and Democrats for endorsing open carry, a decision she now says was “made more for expediency than for what was right.” At the time she endorsed the gonzo gun policy, it was surmised that consultants close to Davis felt it was a necessary stance to avoid alienating gun owners.
It didn’t work on gun enthusiasts (Davis lost by over 20 points) but it certainly pissed off plenty of Democrats who declined to donate or volunteer as a result of her stance. If your consultants think the path to victory is supporting a horrible policy you disagree with, consider new consultants.
#2. Political efficacy is a huge problem for Texas Democrats.
I think when you look at the turnout among Democratic voters, it shows that people here have begun to believe that they just don’t have enough power to change. And so they don’t show up. And it’s convincing them of the power of their own voice that is the real challenge.
She’s describing political efficacy, aka citizens’ belief that they can influence political affairs, which is considered a key indicator in the health of a democratic society. In Texas, political efficacy is arguably awfully low for anyone that isn’t a Republican primary voter, as that’s where statewide offices are currently being decided.
Consider, too, that in the months leading up to the 2014 general election, the media constantly reported on polling suggesting Abbott was winning by ever widening margins (as he did). If Democratic voters hear that the election is already a foregone conclusion, why would they bother showing up?
#3. Persuading white voters is STILL a bad strategy for Democrats, y’all.
Davis candidly suggests that Democrats would be better served by messaging and organizing that appeals to our partisan base. She criticizes the relationship with Battleground Texas — an organization founded to do base-building in the state — even though the group appeared to shift strategies and do substantial amounts of persuasion as the field arm of the Davis campaign.
(Memos released after the campaign suggest that consultants urged Davis to adopt a more centrist persona.)
This choice — persuasion or base mobilization — comes down to polling and consultants deciding how best to spend donors’ money. It’s impossible to say how Davis would have done if her campaign and BGTX had focused on growing the Democratic voting base, or if BGTX had stayed focused on that while Davis’s campaign handled persuasion in house. It’s not even clear if enough volunteer and financial capacity exists to do both — and that’s no small concern. Field plans need volunteers or paid staff to carry them out, and campaign workers do need to be compensated for their labor (people don’t work 80-hour weeks for free!).
Notably, Battleground did make some really impressive gains in turns of recruiting volunteers and contacting voters. Personally I think their effort was a success on a number of metrics.
But as yet another former candidate questions the strategy of persuading voters, the question remains: what candidate is going to finally run a campaign that goes all-in on registration and mobilization, rather than catering to white suburban moderates?
#4. Wendy Davis didn’t have a lot of great options in 2014.
In the interview, Davis tactfully bemoans her replacement in the Senate, Konni Burton, and the frustration of watching this year’s legislative session from the sidelines.
Her situation is a reminder that there’s no best choice for a candidate — Davis had the choice in 2014 between a long-shot run for governor and really tough re-election campaign. Even had Davis stayed in her SD-10 seat to try and prevent Konni Burton from winning, it’s unclear if she would have prevailed given the horrible environment for Democrats — and the presumable lack of a strong top-ticket draw. (Arguably not running for governor and then losing to Burton would have been the worst outcome.)
I’ve been asked many times since the election if a candidate other than Davis would have fared better against Abbott. It’s a question that ignores the utter dearth of alternatives before the history-making filibuster that launched Davis’s campaign. Neither of the brothers Castro was chomping at the bit to get in and Democrats don’t have many other standard-bearers willing to face the starting expectations of an 18% loss. Many political observers fail to appreciate the importance of a candidate who can inspire voters and give organizers something to rally around.
All told, the article makes clear the challenges of running statewide in offce — not enough money to compete on TV, a lack of an electoral base for Democrats to rely on and the difficulty of persuading voters.
It didn’t end in electoral success for Davis — at what point and for what candidate will it?