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Guest Column: Advice for Kay

Don't believe all the loose talk that the GOP race for governor is over. A month is forever in politics, as Ann Richards proved in 1990.

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Dear Kay,

You're probably surprised to hear from me, and advice from this bluecoat is probably the last thing you want right now. Fear not. I come not to bury you but to inspire you. There's loose talk around the Capitol that the Republican race for governor is over — that Rick Perry's 15-point lead in the Rasmussen poll released this week is the final nail in your campaign's coffin. I know enough not to believe it.

See, back in 1990, when I was managing Ann Richards’ campaign for governor, we faced a dark time that reminds me of your circumstance today. Ann had slipped behind both Attorney General Jim Mattox and former Gov. Mark White in the polls. The gossip had evolved beyond predictions of Ann’s defeat. When Ann called a press conference for a “major announcement,” the rumor among lobbyists and others claiming inside knowledge of the campaign (they always claim that) was that she was going to quit the race.

There were only a few weeks left before the election. The attacks on Ann from Mattox and White are now part of Texas legend. They were scurrilous, lowdown and mean. But like most political attacks, they were working, even as people condemned them.

Before I get into the details of how we mounted a successful comeback despite the political street geniuses who said it couldn’t be done, some preliminary advice. Stay in close touch with your sense of humor. When the first public poll showed us trailing, our only response was to release a copy of a recent National Enquirer cover:  “55% Believe Elvis Lives!” Ann had spirit. Her campaign had a heartbeat. It was a lot better than the usual dull response to campaign poll trouble: “The only poll that matters is on election day.”

How did we do it? As the saying goes, if you’re going to be in a knife fight, bring a gun. We brought a cannon.

There was evidence that White had earned quite a tidy sum from the law firm he joined immediately after leaving office. This would be the same law firm that made a bundle from state bond deals under White. The Dallas Morning News ran the story. We grabbed the headline and had an ad up a few hours later. The damning line: White had “lined his pockets.”

White was outraged, but he was no innocent victim. His campaign had begun running some ugly East Texas radio ads alleging all kinds of nasty things about Ann. I still don’t know what White was thinking when he called a press conference to respond to our ad and released his income tax returns for the relevant years. The returns simply reinforced our argument: He was paid large sums upon joining the law firm.

I have to tell you that Ann hated our ad. The day it went up she called me from San Antonio. “Glenn, we’re not going to run that ad.” “Ann,” I said, “the ad is already on the air.” She slammed the phone down so hard my ears were ringing. But soon, our polls were singing.

White faded quickly. The dust-up dominated the news, and that hurt Mattox, too. We’d raised our flag above the smoking rubble, and that bolstered Ann’s troops. We finished first in the primary and beat Mattox handily in the runoff. (It helped that I’d gambled and hidden about $300,000 from the campaign so it wouldn’t get spent. We were on the air in the runoff before Mattox could make his first fundraising call.)

This all took place like a quit-cut fight scene in an action movie, except in the context of that famously brutal primary the political blood was real.

You want to beat Gov. Perry? I probably don’t need to remind you that Perry, unlike White, hasn’t even waited to leave office to, uh, improve his lifestyle. Our Mark White ad included a picture of White’s fancy new private home. Perry moved into his private digs on Crony Circle years ago — at taxpayer expense! I’m just saying…

A month is forever in politics. Public polls couldn’t resurrect Elvis, but they can be self-fulfilling. If you let them.

Senator, you’ve waited until you can see the White in Perry’s eyes. Fire!

Very truly yours,

Glenn Smith

Democratic strategist Glenn Smith managed Ann Richards 1990 primary campaign and other state and national efforts. Smith is the proprietor of the politics and culture blog and the co-director of the Texas Progress Council.

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2010 elections