In 1994, political consultant Bryan Eppstein bought a chicken in a cage and paid a cab driver to take it to the offices of then-Railroad Commissioner Jim Nugent. Eppstein's client, Republican Charles Matthews, was trying unsuccessfully to get the incumbent to debate. When the chicken got to Nugent's office, the press — alerted by Eppstein — was on hand. The next day's papers featured a photo of Nugent and the chicken, staring at each other.
Republican Holly Turner, a first-time candidate running for the state House, peppered southwestern Travis County with huge signs featuring her name and picture — and her mile-wide smile, with a row of bright white teeth. It was never pinned on a particular campaign, but before long, people were blacking out one or two teeth on the posters. Eppstein, who didn't have a candidate in that race, says simply, "Signs are pretty tempting."
Democrat Jason Stanford almost got fired from Ann Richards' 1994 re-election campaign against George W. Bush. The campaign was pushing the idea that Bush was a nice fellow who wasn't up to the job. Stanford took it upon himself to send the challenger's campaign a 12-pack of Busch Light on the candidate's birthday. Get it? Get it? "It started with us editing their press releases and sending them back over," he remembers now. When he escalated, it backfired on him. Richards wanted his head on a platter, but Stanford says he was rescued by Mary Beth Rogers, the campaign manager. "She told me if I ever did anything like that again, she wouldn't protect me."
It's an impulse most of us learn to suppress in seventh or eighth grade — the need to give your foes wedgies, to stick colored dye tablets in their faucets, to tape "kick me" signs to their backs and put lizards in their lunchboxes. Political people don't suppress these urges — they channel them into goofy stunts to attract attention, ridicule opponents and blow off steam.
Rick Perry's campaign has become expert at towel snapping, usually with its eye on a bigger message. They flew a plane around one of Kay Bailey Hutchison's events with a banner taunting her to release her tax returns (which she did). They kept referring to her as Kay "Bailout" Hutchison. And they sent a truckload of piglets to the Austin stop on her announcement tour, to draw negative attention to what she thought was a positive: attracting federal money — known commonly as pork — to Texas. "We believe in using all the resources to define our opponent," says Mark Miner, Perry's campaign spokesman. Does it work? "It certainly appears to."
Miner says the campaign uses a variety of channels — press releases, social media, etc. — to spread its messages. "The press at this point in the campaign are not really engaged," he says. "You have to be creative to get their attention."
What about those pigs? "The larger picture was that it emphasized her spending," he says. "It's all part of an effort, all tied into a message. … The goal has always been to define the opponent."
Needling and teasing opponents can be strategic but can also get inside their heads and distract them. A worn political line: If a candidate only has enough money to buy one billboard, it should be the billboard between the opponent's house and the airport. It'll bug the opponent. Maybe they'll mess up. "Can you get them majoring in the minors?" is how Eric Bearse, a political consultant who worked in Perry's earlier campaigns, puts it. That's when a candidate is distracted from the job at hand by the jibe at hand.
"I hate that stuff and try not to participate in it," says David Beckwith, a sometimes aide to Hutchison who wasn't formally involved in her most recent campaign. "The Perry camp, left unsupervised, seems to revel in it. … You'd think they'd want a certain level of dignity." He calls it "juvenile, junior high stuff." But others say it worked pretty well against Hutchison. And Beckwith says the Perry camp did pretty well with it against Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez in 2002, poking at him as a sleazy businessman in a way that helped the idea gel against the Democrat in the weeks before the November election.
"What Rick Perry does to his opponents is really effective," says Stanford, who managed Chris Bell's 2006 campaign against the governor. "It affects [media] coverage. It shows up in the way people talk about the race." An example? Calling Hutchison "Kay 'Bailout.'" "Any time you get people laughing at your opponent, you've won," he says.
"The problem is that when two candidates do it, they sound like kids," Stanford says. That's not usually the problem. It's usually not allowed. "Politicians are cautious, and they worry about it." Bill White, at the end of a press conference announcing a local politician's endorsement of him, was lobbed a softball question about Perry's recent mortal encounter with a coyote. "I don’t tend to be afraid of coyotes," he said, adding that they run away when they see him. "I can see why," Perry later told a reporter from The Dallas Morning News.
Asked by the Houston Chronicle about an earlier opponent, Perry inserted a long pause in his answer: "Tony Sanchez is short ... on ideas."
Four years later, Bearse wrote ads riffing on a then-popular beer commercial. He called Bell "Mr. Way-too-liberal-for-Texas-guy" and Carole Keeton Strayhorn "Mrs. Corrupt-comptroller-politician-woman." The Bell ad ran on the radio for about two weeks. The Strayhorn ad ran just once, on one station in Austin. But she heard it. "She talked about it for 48 hours," Bearse says. Mission accomplished.
Bearse and Stanford both mention the late Kelly Fero as the master of the towel snap. When Perry was running against John Sharp for lieutenant governor in 1998, he announced endorsements from baseball great Nolan Ryan and some football players. Fero "put out a press release calling them our 'athletic supporters,'" Bearse says.
"You are trying to get under your opponent's skin — or even his staff's skin," says Chuck McDonald, a Democrat who was part of the crew that taunted Republican Clayton Williams in the 1990 governor's race. That contest was decided in large part on Williams' gaffes. The Democrats nagged the Midland oilman about his taxes, at one point sending an empty panel truck to his headquarters that they said was voluminous enough to carry all of the returns he refused to release. They antagonized him with press releases, and McDonald contends that one of those press releases irked Williams and prompted him to publicly avoid shaking hands with Richards at a Dallas event. That was a critical mistake in the campaign. Another followed in short order, when Williams blurted to a scrum of reporters that he hadn't paid income taxes in 1986, when the collapse of oil prices brought him heavy losses. It turned out that being a millionaire who didn't pay or owe taxes was a losing message.
The next candidate against Richards — Bush in '94 — didn't take the bait. At least publicly: People inside the campaigns remember private references to things "Chuck 'bleeping' McDonald" said on a given day. But the needling didn't work on Bush or his staff publicly, and that's what counts. Since then, things have changed, McDonald says. Campaigns regularly use YouTube and social media for jokey ads and videos that they don't want to put on regular television. Nothing stings a politician worse than being laughed at, and you can cost the opposition a day or two by putting them in the clown's chair.
"If you have a candidate who's obsessed with coverage, and they get up at five in the morning to read it … they start losing focus," says Mark Sanders, a veteran strategist who is a master of the nasty quote (after a poll showed his candidate's opponent behind the pack, he summed up by saying, "Jack Rains is a corpse looking for a coffin”) but isn't a fan of towel snapping of the sort employed by the Perry campaign. That said, he's lost to the Perry bunch twice: Sanders worked for both Democrat Tony Sanchez in '02 and Republican-turned-independent Carole Keeton Strayhorn in '06. "It can sometimes backfire," he says, explaining his aversion, "with donors who don’t want to see you acting unsenatorial or ungubernatorial."
"The goal is to win. You use all your available resources to achieve that goal. You can also have a lot of fun," Miner says, and then he snickers with a new idea for Perry's race against the former mayor of Houston. They're trying to get people to focus on a particular part of his resume, and not in a good way: "I guess we could send a truck full of trial lawyers to visit Bill White."