Maybe you thought the race for governor would be about gravel roads?
For the last week, it has instead been a public conversation about disability and divorce and, to some extent, an exercise in politically correct speech.
The leading characters in the contest — Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis — are not always the speakers in question. Others are doing some of the speaking for and about them: consultants, aides, supporters, social media gnats and the amplified trolls who always gather around partisan politics.
The governor’s seat is open for the first time in 14 years because of Rick Perry’s decision to move on down the road. Texas is solidly Republican, and a Democratic win would be a startling upset. But the Democrats are working furiously to rebuild — enough so that the Republican Party of Texas has been warning its members to take the minority party seriously.
It’s a high-profile, high-dollar contest. Abbott, the state’s attorney general, has built a strong base of Republican support — enough to scare away heavyweight primary competitors. Davis’ status stems from a dramatic Senate filibuster and debate over regulation of abortion and women’s health care that made her the favorite of a party that, unlike the Republicans, had no obvious candidate for the state’s top political job.
Assuming they win their respective primaries in March, the two candidates offer voters a clear choice between different ideas of what government should be doing and how it should work.
Perhaps that conversation comes later.
Right now, the contest is about Davis’ campaign biography, and whether it reflects her actual life. Several reports in the last few months — most recently and most prominently an article last week in The Dallas Morning News — have pointed to holes and discrepancies in her story. To cut this part short: Abbott's supporters accuse her of lying about her personal history, and she and her allies say the campaign version of her life story was correct, if unclear and incomplete. It’s complicated, and complicated in a way that has stretched her campaign’s ability to manage an early calamity.
It has also mutated into a debate over sexism. Revelations that Davis’ ex-husband had custody of their daughters while she worked on her education and career quickly led to a conversation about whether a male candidate with the same history would be facing the same questions or might be lauded for what he gave up to improve his family’s situation.
Score the points about historical fiction in Davis’ story as points in favor of Abbott, who would love to discredit his opponent for what his campaign called her “fanciful narrative.” When that conversation turns to sexism, the benefits probably accrue to Davis, who hopes to attract the support of women.
Abbott lost the use of his legs in 1984 when a tree fell on him while he and a friend were jogging in Houston. He has been in several public offices since then — district judge, state Supreme Court justice, attorney general — but it is probably safe to say that many of the people who know of him do not know he uses a wheelchair.
He does not hide it — the story of his disability is a central part of his speeches and of his biographical commercials. That helps distance him, politically, from any perception that the wheels are some sign of weakness.
It also forces everyone talking about the race — including the participants, news outlets and the public — to watch what they say. Like this, from a Davis campaign news release last week: “I am proud of where I came from and I am proud of what I’ve been able to achieve through hard work and perseverance. And I guarantee you that anyone who tries to say otherwise hasn’t walked a day in my shoes.”
Abbott fans joined the umbrage on social media, accusing the Democrat of insensitivity and suggesting her campaign had, in fact, chosen its words carefully to demean him.
This skirmish foreshadows the rest of the campaign. Some things are clear. The partisans are fired up. On both sides, they’re looking for slights, and people looking for slights always manage to find them. Both campaigns want to exploit real and perceived weaknesses on the other side.
Everybody will have to mind their words.