AUSTIN, Texas — A pair of leaked memos — written at the beginning of the year by two consultants to Democrat Wendy Davis’ failed campaign for Texas Governor — paint an extremely unflattering picture of a “dysfunctional” campaign team. The memos describe an effort “not ready for prime time,” saddled with messaging that is radically out of touch with Texas, and headed to an embarrassing defeat against Republican Greg Abbott. One particularly prescient line warns that “running Wendy Davis as a generic national Democrat” was the “quickest path to 38 percent.” Davis ultimately lost to Abbott by about 20 points, taking 38.9 percent of the vote to Abbott’s 59.3 percent.
The memos, written by Prism Communications consultants Peter Cari and Maura Dougherty to Davis campaign manager Karin Johanson, were published by the Texas Tribune on Wednesday. Prism Communications had a long history with Davis before her gubernatorial campaign, helping her with her State Senate races in her Republican-leaning swing district. The first memo, dated January 6, 2014, describes Cari and Dougherty’s “concerns about the direction in which the campaign seems to be moving,” describing how the “campaign has lurched to the left” under the guidance of out-of-state Obama campaign operatives who were ignoring the advice from the advisers who had helped steer Davis to victories in a swing district in conservative Texas. “[W]e need to be selling something very different from what works for Democrats in other states,” the memo warns. “There is not a model where a candidate who appears this liberal and culturally out of touch gets elected anywhere in the South — much less in Texas — without some inoculation…We are worried that no one handling the messaging for the campaign has the natural instinct to find ways to center the message.” The memo asks if there had been “a decision to run Wendy not as a moderate Texan who could plausibly beat Greg Abbott, but rather as 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 January memo concludes that the campaign “needs to make changes quickly — or else we’re wasting the time of all the people volunteering, squandering the money of the record number of contributors who have dug deep to help, and forfeiting a real chance at making history by getting Wendy elected governor.”
The second memo, dated February 11, 2014, comes after Cari and Dougherty were told that the campaign was terminating their contract, and their anger and frustration with Johanson is clearly evident from the start. “The fecklessness and dishonesty with which you’ve approached this working relationship is shocking,” they write in the first paragraph.
Cari and Dougherty continue in their sharp critique of Johanson’s leadership and decision making. “But because of you, the campaign is now so far off the rails that we doubt it is salvageable…your divisiveness, your dishonesty, your lack of attention to details, and your refusal to tap into the team’s expertise all lead us to one conclusion: things simply aren’t going to get better under your watch…Senior members of the consulting team have repeatedly remarked on how passive you’ve been. There is no planning, no message, no strategic vision, and no tactical roadmap.”
The February memo is especially sharp about Johanson’s messaging strategy. “At every stage your messaging guidance has been disastrously off base,” it says, slamming her for calling it “brilliant” when Davis attempted to refer to herself as “pro-life,” a comment that was both unconvincing to conservative Texans and drew attention to the extremely liberal positions associated with Davis’ filibuster of the abortion bill. Cari and Dougherty go into detail with the campaign’s disastrous and slow response to a Dallas Morning News article that exposed inconsistencies and misrepresentations in Davis’ personal story.
“This campaign needed a competent manager who could build the disciplined, message-driven plan needed to win in a red state,” the February memo concluded. “Instead, we got a condescending, divisive, passive, ideologically-driven liberal who has added only chaos and dysfunction…Texas is not Wisconsin, and Wendy Davis is not Tammy Baldwin. This is red state politics, and the events of the last several weeks will be replicated time and time again over the next nine months. You are clearly not up to the job, and your insistence on blaming everyone around rather than actually righting the ship means you never will be.”
In an interview with the Tribune, Dougherty said acknowledged that this was a Republican wave year, and Davis was always a long-shot candidate, but Davis should have been able to perform better than a twenty point shellacking. She and Cari had written the memos out of frustration with a campaign they saw as a listing campaign ship, particularly the multiple times they were kept in the dark about major campaign developments until reading them in the news.
“It’s possible to lose and still look good,” Dougherty said. “Our worry in January was it was setting Wendy up for embarrassment throughout the course of the campaign. I think the way the campaign played out was far, far worse than it should have been.”
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.