AUSTIN, Texas — Underdog candidates often will make risky, long-shot strategic moves in the final weeks of a campaign, attempting one last “Hail Mary” pass to shake up the race, but Democrat Wendy Davis’ latest ad attacking Republican Greg Abbott not only failed to score points, but drew swift and sharply negative reaction within hours of its release Friday, both across the state and around the country.
As Breitbart Texas reported after the ad launched, it shows the image of an empty wheelchair as an ominous voice intones, “A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions.” The ad then goes on to criticize rulings that Abbott issued as a judge or cases that his office handled as Attorney General. Abbott’s campaign sent out a press release linking to several news articles from earlier this year that debunk the claims in the ad and condemned it as “a historic low for someone seeking to represent Texans,” and “a disturbing lack of judgment from a desperate politician [that] completely disqualifies her from seeking higher office in Texas.”
Reaction to the ad began immediately, and was almost universally extremely negative. Texas political commentators and journalists critiqued the ad, with many expecting it to be an unproductive strategy. The Quorum Report‘s Scott Braddock tweeted, “If an ad starts with ‘A tree fell on Greg Abbott,’ it better be an ad for Greg Abbott … Very poor execution.” Texas Monthly Senior Editor Erica Grieder weighed in: “Re the new [Wendy Davis] ad: It’s mean-spirited and misleading. Does not correspond to my sense of justice.” Texas Observer‘s Christopher Hooks added, “Holy s*** guys … Think of the number of people this had to get past in the planning process.”
PJ Media‘s Bryan Preston wrote in a post that the ad “seeks to paint Greg Abbott as a hypocrite [but instead] paints the Davis campaign as unethical and extremely desperate…Davis’ tactics and choices, and her inevitable defeat, will leave nothing for the Texas Democrats to build on.” Another former Texas political reporter told Breitbart Texas, “Davis is trying to bait Abbott into going nuclear on her, hoping that he’ll go too far and give her something she can use to get the independent votes she has been unable to move in the last thirteen months.”
Buzzfeed’s Andrew Kaczynski called the ad “pretty desperate” and Aaron Blake’s headline for his Washington Post article was “Wendy Davis is running one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see.” Karen Tumulty, also of the Washington Post, wanted to know “[w]hich pollster is going to own up to telling [Wendy Davis] that this empty wheelchair ad was a good idea?”
The harsh critiques of the ad came from all across the political spectrum. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt tweeted that the ad “ought to be condemned by other Democrats immediately…It is itself a reason to vote against all Dems who don’t.” Emily Zanotti at The American Spectator characterized the ad as “Wendy Davis exploiting the very worst of politics to take one last parting shot before she waves goodbye to her hopes of national public office as they disappear down the same abyss her credibility did.”
Sean Davis, Media Trackers COO and co-founder of The Federalist, was incredulous, tweeting that he could “only imagine how terrible Wendy Davis’s internal polls must be right now” for her to run this ad, adding “[t]hese are the types of ads you run when you want to lose by 20% instead of just 15%.” Twitchy.com’s write-up of the reaction to the ad remarked, “Wendy Davis has proven that there is no depth to which she will not sink in order to win the governorship.”
National Review‘s Jim Geraghty quipped, “At least Wendy Davis ends her campaign with her dignity intact…Wait, no, there it goes.” Another Republican consultant, Nathan Wurtzel, referenced Davis’ fame from her filibuster opposing the Texas law banning late term abortions: “[Wendy Davis] You know, you could have aborted that ad anytime before it went public. Legal even in Texas.”
Red State Women Executive Director Cari Christman told Breitbart Texas, “In her most desperate attempt yet, Wendy Davis crosses the line in her recent attack ad against Greg Abbott. Rather than take the high road and share her vision with Texans, Wendy Davis has chosen to take a low blow against a man who’s overcome great adversity. Greg Abbott is a man of integrity and character — none of which Wendy Davis has yet to exhibit in her campaign for Texas Governor.”
Bob Beckel, a host on Fox News Channel’s program The Five and a Democrat who served as campaign manager for Walter Mondale’s 1984 presidential campaign, strongly condemned the ad on the show Friday, not even willing to credit it as a Hail Mary. “This isn’t a Hail Mary. This is a Hail Mary to lose,” said Beckel. “This is like running the other way with the ball. This is the kind of thing that you never, ever do, is take advantage of some of your opponents physical or mental…conditions. To do this is almost certain to backfire in every direction you could possibly imagine.” Co-host Greg Gutfeld agreed with Beckel and commented that the ad was a “sign of desperation.”
Mother Jones reporter Patrick Caldwell, who himself spent some time in high school in a wheelchair because of a debilitating nerve condition in his leg, called the ad “offensive,” and added, “Disagree w/ Greg Abbott on a lot of policy. But it’s pretty f***ing fantastic that a large state is ready to elect a guy in a wheelchair.”
Republican media strategist Rick Wilson told Breitbart Texas that the ad “really sets a new low mark for tastelessness [for Wendy Davis] with her grotesque insensitivity to the disabled. This woman makes even Todd Akin look like a political genius, and if you were looking for the low point of this cycle, look no further than an ad that will shame Wendy Davis long after Greg Abbott cleans her clock in November.”
Akin was the Missouri Senate candidate whose comment during a television interview that women’s bodies had “ways to try to shut that whole thing down” to prevent pregnancies after a “legitimate rape” not only cost him his race, but became a point of attack against Republican candidates nationwide. Wilson was not the only one to draw the analogy with Akin. Commentary editor John Podhoretz tweeted, “My honest advice to Democrats re Davis is the same as my honest advice to Republicans re Akin: Unwise to defend the indefensible.” Podhoretz also had a pair of zingers on Twitter, asking, “Is Wendy Davis insane? Completely serious.” Washington Free Beacon‘s Andrew Stiles also asked if Davis was “the Todd Akin of 2014?”
Within hours of the launch of the ad, the New Hampshire GOP sent out a press release saying that Democrat Senator Jeanne Shaheen, facing Republican Scott Brown in a tight race for the New Hampshire Senate seat, “should be ashamed of her support for her disgusting campaign,” noting that Shaheen, who had helped host a fundraiser for Davis, “has raised money to fund this despicable ad, and she should immediately call for Wendy Davis to take it down.”
That was far from the only call for Davis to take the ad down. The Austin Young Republicans launched a “#PullTheAd” campaign on Twitter, retweeting articles and tweets all day long with the hashtag. Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak called the ad “disgusting” and “one of the most despicable ads in Texas political history,” condemning how the ad “viciously attacks a paraplegic, using his disability and the circumstance surrounding his paralysis in a desperate and failing attempt to revive her flagging campaign.” Mackowiak added “She should take it down immediately. Has she no shame whatsoever?” [Disclosure: Mackowiak is a Breitbart Texas contributor.]
Texas Senator John Cornyn, after posting an early tweet as the news about the ad spread calling it a “low blow,” later released a statement on his campaign website calling on Davis to apologize and pull the ad down. “Everyone knows that politics can be a tough business but sometimes certain things are way over the line and running an attack ad on a serious medical accident suffered by your opponent is one of them,” said Cornyn.
Mark Miner, the spokesman for Governor Rick Perry’s political action committee, RickPAC, went even further. “It’s appalling, an appalling ad of desperation,” said Miner. “Every Democrat from Barack Obama on down should call on Wendy Davis to get of of the race. There is no room for this type of venomous hatred in Texas or in the country. She should apologize and get out of the race immediately.” Like Beckel, Miner would not call the ad a Hail Mary: “You have to be in the game to throw a Hail Mary. She hasn’t been running on any issues.”
Konni Burton, the Republican candidate running to replace Davis in Senate District 10, also pointed out the lack of issues in Davis’ campaign messaging, telling Breitbart Texas that this was a case of how “weak candidates attack strong candidates.” “To me this is more of the same from the Democrats,” said Burton. “They don’t have anything to run on because their policies are in full view at the national level, so all they can do is attack.”
Abbott himself reacted to the ad in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News, saying that the ad was “offensive” and “shows the tenor of the campaign…If you look at my ads, I focused on what I’m going to be doing as governor, and my opponent spends all her time in ads attacking me, as I’m attacking the challenges that fellow Texans deal with.” Abbott added that he did not expect Davis’ strategy to work: “It’s her choice if she wants to attack a guy in a wheelchair. I don’t think it’s going to sell too well.”
The Davis campaign remains unapologetic, at least for now. The official Wendy Davis account tweeted at 7:30 p.m. Central Time Friday — hours after many of these critical comments were public — “After a terrible accident @GregAbbott_TX sued & got millions–then spent his career denying others that same justice” and a link to the ad again. Davis spokesman Zac Petkanas posted several tweets defending the ad, and replied to NBC’s Chuck Todd’s comment that the ad was “very risky” by saying, “You wouldn’t think it was so risky if you talked to the voters who’ve seen this ad.”
How risky the ad ultimately was will be proven in less than a month at the ballot box in November. Recent polling has shown Davis between about ten and twenty points behind Abbott, losing even women voters.
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.