But at a private fundraiser near Austin, Abbott made what sounded to Democrats like a reference to the acrimonious reaction playing out across social media, and he vowed to keep pushing that “conversation” all the way to November, according to newly released audio secretly recorded by his opponents.
“We’re going to heat up this campaign, and it’s going to turn red hot as we keep Texas red,” Abbott said on Jan. 21 at a fundraiser in Wimberley. “If anyone follows Twitter, you’ve seen an interesting conversation over the past 24 hours. We’re going to keep that conversation up for nine months.”
Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch denied that Abbott was specifically referencing the Davis résumé flap, saying instead that he was “speaking broadly to the attention the Texas governor’s race is receiving.”
But Matt Angle, the Democrat whose organization captured the audio, said Abbott’s remarks at the fundraiser demonstrate that he's trying to have it both ways: stoking the story about Davis behind the scenes while maintaining an above-the-fray approach in public appearances.
“There’s no question they’re pushing it, but they’re doing it in a away that gives them some deniability,” said Angle, head of the Democratic group the Lone Star Project. The group has provided consulting and research for Davis' gubernatorial campaign, and Angle's brother, J.D. Angle, is her chief paid consultant.
“They made the decision early that they were going to try their best to smear Wendy Davis and do it personally," Matt Angle said, "and that’s what they’ve done."
At the time of Abbott's remarks at the fundraiser, questions about Davis’ background — and whether she had exaggerated her rags-to-riches tale — were rocking the Twittersphere and garnering national headlines. Davis acknowledged getting some details wrong about her biography, including her age at the time she divorced. She was 21, not 19, as she had previously said.
But the story over the résumé discrepancies quickly turned into a contentious discussion about the Fort Worth senator's choices as a wife and mother, leading Democrats to allege that the attacks on her represented another battle in the Republicans' so-called war against women. Republicans countered that since Davis had fudged or omitted key details of her bio, she only had herself to blame for the controversy.
Two days later, Abbott appeared on a Fox News show and sought to distance himself from the mushrooming controversy, which by then had provoked a torrent of ad hominem criticism of Davis from conservative commentators on Twitter and elsewhere.
On Fox News, host Megyn Kelly repeatedly pressed Abbott to talk about whether his campaign had a role in hatching and promoting the story, and specifically referenced a Jan. 20 statement by Hirsch, who said Davis had “systematically, intentionally and repeatedly deceived” Texans by spinning a “fanciful narrative.”
Abbott noted that the Dallas Morning News reporter who wrote the account of Davis’ early biography that sparked the feeding frenzy had denied talking to his campaign about it before publication. Otherwise, Abbott declined to talk about his campaign’s role in promoting the story or making an issue of it. Kelly told him his answer “sounds like a dodge.”
“All of these, Megyn, are just distractions, because what really matters are not all of these background stories,” Abbott replied. “What Texans really care about is what we’re going to be doing fighting for their future.’’
It's the third time in two weeks that a secret recording is stirring controversy in the Texas governor's race. Both sides are touting footage or recordings obtained by so-called trackers — political operatives who infiltrate their opponents’ events to obtain damaging information or quotes about them.
Conservative activist James O’Keefe, for example, recently distributed a video that purported to show Democrats mocking Abbott’s disability. Abbott has used a wheelchair ever since a freak accident in 1984. At one point on the video, Democratic volunteers at a voter registration training meeting can be heard discussing Abbott's disability.
At another point, an unidentified woman is heard criticizing Abbott's looks, and a man appears to derisively laugh when she notes he's in a wheelchair. However, the raw video indicates that the laughter was selectively edited into the clip. The Austin American-Statesman compared the raw and edited videos and found there were distortions.
Angle’s Lone Star Project provided the unedited audio of Abbott’s speech in Wimberley to The Texas Tribune. The short clip it posted on its website only contains Abbott’s comment about keeping the Twitter conversation going. Otherwise, Abbott’s remarks largely resemble his standard campaign stump speech about keeping Texas in the hands of pro-business Republicans.
Here is the raw, unedited audio the Lone Star Project gathered from the Wimberley appearance: