The last open race for governor of Texas was in 1990 — a contest that ultimately featured two charismatic politicians and attracted national attention. But Attorney General Greg Abbott is no Clayton Williams, and state Sen. Wendy Davis is no Ann Richards.
Instead of bigger-than-life small-town characters who embodied the Texas of legend and in the process captured a fair amount of national attention in 1990, the 2014 race to replace Gov. Rick Perry features a couple of smart lawyers who exemplify a more buttoned-down version, the modern Texas of cities and suburbs. Abbott’s leading challenger in the Republican primary, Tom Pauken, is a lawyer, too.
Abbott and Davis may still get plenty of national attention. Texas has always been a reliably volatile corner of the national political laboratory, and people like President George W. Bush, Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz have made the state’s politics important nationally and internationally for more than a decade.
It would not be unreasonable for the rest of the country to watch the next race for governor just to get a peek at the contents of the next round of the state’s political exports.
The story in 1990 made for a great yarn and fit nicely into some of the stereotypes about the state. Headlines like “Claytie and the Lady” were common. A throwback Republican cowboy, rich on oil, gas, banking and cattle, steeped in West Texas and Aggie and Borderland lore, promising to make things the way they used to be. A big-haired, smart-mouthed feminist who taught school and overcame substance abuse and the expectations for stay-at-home mothers, rising in politics as the voice of what she called a new Texas that had outgrown its bad old days.
That political year unfolded like a movie in real time, a live seminar on politics, rhetoric and cultural history.
Political writers and consultants still get all misty remembering it.
Things are different now. The energy is in the crowd and not on the stage. People come to see Abbott and Davis, for sure, but not as spectacles, not for the same reasons they came to see the candidates who came to be known as Ann and Claytie.
That was a teacher trained at Baylor and an Aggie from Texas A&M. This is a lawyer from Vanderbilt (him) and a lawyer from Harvard (her), with hat tips, respectively, to undergrad degrees from the University of Texas and Texas Christian University.
Abbott hopes to be the next bit of a continuum that started with six years of Bush and was followed by 14 years of Perry. Davis is the latest hope of a party shut out since Richards lost to Bush in 1994. Neither has the kind of wealth that would let them self-finance a statewide race. Neither is the sort of speaker who makes even the opposition listen to enjoy the sheer art of it.
The things that made the 1990 race aren’t present in this one.
But it could get some attention. That continuum is complicated, partly because Perry made getting re-elected look so easy, and partly because the current Republican Party isn’t the same one that ruled Texas at the beginning of Perry’s term. This one is more conservative — enough so that it makes some of Perry’s early positions on things like in-state tuition for the children of undocumented immigrants look, well, liberal.
Richards was running against the trends in 1990, winning a race she might easily have lost if Williams had been a more careful politician. The state was going Republican. Perry and former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison were elected to statewide office that year and never looked back.
Like Abbott, Richards was part of a continuum, working her way up through the Democratic ranks to the top race. Williams and a lot of Texas Republicans thought it was time to turn the state red, once and for all, holding the governor’s office and sweeping the ballot. They were right, but they were a little early. And the conversation then was less about the shifts in party politics than about the personalities.
Now it is the Democrats who are trying to turn the tables. But Abbott and Davis, with their impressive personal stories and their nearly ridiculous résumés, aren’t the personalities of 1990. This time, the conversation is about the politics.