"The campaign is in disarray": Internal documents reveal turmoil in Wendy Davis campaign

Davis' consultants warned she'd lose big for not running a centrist campaign. She lost big, but they're still wrong

Published November 12, 2014 11:10PM (EST)

Wendy Davis                   (AP/Eric Gay)
Wendy Davis (AP/Eric Gay)

Newly unearthed campaign memos reveal inner turmoil in Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis' ill-fated gubernatorial campaign, with outside consultants warning that the Democrat would sustain a crushing loss to Republican Greg Abbott if she didn't chart a more centrist course.

The memos, reported by the Texas Tribune, also depict a campaign riven by dysfunction and lacking a viable infrastructure to overcome Texas Republicans' built-in advantages. The two memos obtained by the Tribune were written this winter by Peter Cari and Maura Dougherty, whose Prism Communications firm worked on Davis' two successful races for the State Senate.

In a January 6 memo to then-campaign manager Karin Johanson, Cari and Dougherty wrote, “The campaign is in disarray and is in danger of being embarrassed. The level of dysfunction was understandable in July and August, when we had no infrastructure in place — but it doesn’t seem to be getting better.”

Cari and Dougherty also charged that Davis' campaign had "lurched to the left" and was failing to win over swing voters.

“There is not a model where a candidate who appears this liberal and culturally out of touch gets elected statewide anywhere in the south — much less in Texas — without some inoculation,” they wrote.

By February, Cari and Dougherty said that Davis was on course to win only 38 percent of the vote; last week, she received just under 39 percent of the vote, while Abbot garnered 59 percent.

“Running Wendy Davis as a generic national Democrat is not only the quickest path to 38 percent, it’s also a huge disservice to Wendy, her record and the brand she has built,” they declared.

According to the Tribune, the memos "seem eerily prescient" in the aftermath of Abbott's landslide victory. But would a more centrist campaign have improved Davis' performance? Nobody -- not even Prism Communications -- is arguing that Davis would have won had she pursued their path, but Dougherty told the Tribune that at the very least, "It's possible to lose and still look good." Yet Davis performed  only a bit worse than Bill White, the former Houston mayor who ran a thoroughly middle-of-the-road campaign against Gov. Rick Perry in 2010. White received 42 percent of the vote in that race, just three percentage points higher than Davis' total. Moreover, 2014 proved to be an even worse year for Democrats nationally than 2010, with turnout at a 72-year low. Texas wasn't immune to this trend; 271,000 fewer people voted there this year than voted in 2010, suggesting that the GOP's voter suppression efforts in the state have worked.

Davis still wouldn't have matched White's performance had those 271,000 people turned out, but in a wave year that saw Republicans pick up gubernatorial seats in blue states like Maryland and Massachusetts, it's hard to buy that Davis would have performed appreciably better had she run a triangulating campaign. Indeed, given the scale of the Democrats' drubbing this year, it's hardly inconceivable that Davis would have scored an even lower percentage had she not been able to excite the progressive base with her filibuster of the Texas GOP's abortion restrictions last year. But a loss, alas, is a loss.

By Luke Brinker

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