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Analysis: In Abbott World, Nugent Flap is Much Ado About Nothing

The way Democrats see it, Greg Abbott hurt himself by campaigning with caustic rocker Ted Nugent. In the Abbott camp, though, the Nuge blowback theory is another fiction spun by the liberal elites.

Republican candidate for governor Greg Abbott and rock musician Ted Nugent.

The view has become widespread: Attorney General Greg Abbott goofed, big time, by appearing on the campaign trail with trash talking rocker Ted Nugent.

Editorial writers are in a lather.

Democrats (and even some Republicans) are demanding apologies.

Nonpartisan analysts are calling it an unforced error by a candidate who can lose only from self-inflicted wounds.

“There are plenty of figures on the Republican right you could use without generating this kind of blowback,” said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato. “Everyone knows the guy is nuts. Why would you let your candidate do that?”

It's a decent question — and one that is met with derision and eye-rolling from the highest levels of the Abbott campaign.

A day after the rocker helped turn out voters for Abbott in North Texas last week, a senior Abbott campaign official was asked who had the bright idea of bringing the controversial rocker onto the campaign trail.

There was no hesitation.

“It worked, didn’t it?” he said. 

And right about the time Nugent was firing up the second crowd of North Texas voters last week in Wichita Falls, Abbott’s chief strategist, Dave Carney, wondered out loud on Twitter if the campaign’s Democratic opponent, Sen. Wendy Davis, wanted to go mano-a-mano with The Nuge on issues important to Texas voters.

“Wonder if @wendydavistexas would risk a straight up vote,” Carney wrote, using Davis’ Twitter account name. “Her and her views V. @TedNugent and his? I know who would win today!” 

A week’s worth of Democratic outrage did nothing to shake Carney from that notion. The longtime consultant, who worked in the first Bush White House, is no stranger to Texas politics. He got his start here in 1993, helping Kay Bailey Hutchison defeat Sen. Bob Krueger, the last Texas Democrat to serve in the U.S. Senate, and he has played a major role in every Republican gubernatorial campaign since 2002. 

The Nugent blowback theory, in his view, is yet another fiction spun by liberal elites and their friends in the mainstream media. Just like the fantasy that Sen. Kay “Bailout” Hutchison — who Carney quit working for long ago — was going to beat his more conservative client, Gov. Rick Perry, in the 2010 governor’s race. Just like the myth that a diverse “dream team” of Democratic candidates in 2002 had any chance of tossing out the dominant Republicans.

Never mind that Nugent has acknowledged having “beautiful” affairs with underage girls in his heavy touring days, or that he has called Hillary Clinton a "bitch” and worse. Yes, all that was a bit over the top. And no, the way Abbott handled the flap did not produce his finest hour on the campaign trail, particularly when CNN’s Ed Lavandera tried to ask the candidate about the controversy. After a standard brush-off failed to stop the reporter, an Abbott campaign aide physically blocked him from asking any more questions.

Now even Nugent, in the slightest nod to his critics, has issued a limited apology, not for any misogynistic slurs or engaging in sex with underage girls, but for referring to President Obama as a “subhuman mongrel,” a phrase Nazis once applied to Jews.

Regardless, inside the Abbott campaign, all of the handwringing over the gig with Nugent — and other perceived missteps — is confined to, as Carney puts it, a bunch of “Austin echo chamber” elites who are woefully out of touch with the voting public.

“They’re clueless about politics,” he said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “This group-think stuff has zero impact on voters.”

Carney declined to say who came up with the idea to put Abbott on stage with Nugent, and he said repeatedly that only “time will tell” if associating with Nugent was a wise move. (Davis, Abbott’s expected Democratic opponent, and her camp have played off of the controversy for more than a week now.)

What’s clear is that this latest media firestorm speaks volumes about the state of the 2014 governor’s race, and more specifically about the cultural war it appears to be sparking. 

Last month, the big controversy centered on questions about discrepancies in Davis’ early biography. And everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about the choices Davis made as a single mother living in a trailer 30 years ago — opinions that generally broke down along partisan lines.

Now, even Girl Scout cookies have become props in the contest, thanks to a conservative group’s fledgling boycott of the treats. The “Cookie-Cott” was organized after the Girl Scouts said in its Twitter feed last month that Davis should be considered one of the most “incredible ladies” of 2013.

A couple of weeks later, a new cultural battlefront opened up when Abbott compared corruption in South Texas to “third-world-country practices.” It was perceived by some as an insensitive and derogatory slap at a region that happens to be overwhelmingly Hispanic and predominantly Democratic.

Once again, there were calls by Democrats for apologies, a round of critical editorials and talk of unforced errors.

And once again, the Abbott camp reacted with bemused disdain. Abbott said in the aftermath that Davis was “clueless” about the Rio Grande Valley, and his campaign has continued the brash border talk ever since. To ignore drug cartel corruption in South Texas and elsewhere, he says, is to ignore an issue Texans want solved.

Anything beyond that is just liberal carping in Carney’s view.

“You can play the victim and the over-outrage so many times,” he said. “You look at the reaction. Other than a few partisan hacks and elected leaders, the vast majority of citizens support taking action.” 

It’s another way of saying that when it comes to taking sides in Texas' culture war, Carney has been there before, and he likes his chances.

The New Hampshire-born strategist, who guided Perry to four successive statewide victories before famously falling out with him during his disastrous run for president in 2011, is executing a tried-and-true strategy: Pump up the base. Protect your right flank. Turn all your opponents into whiny liberals. 

Why wouldn’t that be his strategy? In an electorate that has turned increasingly Republican since Carney served as Perry’s consultant in the 1998 nail-biter lieutenant governor’s race, political testosterone has rarely failed him.

And when things didn’t work out so well for one of Carney’s clients — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the U.S. Senate race in 2012 — it wasn’t because he had finally veered too far to the right. It was because his own candidate was the one who got portrayed as liberal and out of touch — by Tea Party firebrand Ted Cruz.

It doesn’t matter to Carney one iota that Davis and her allies think they have a real shot in the first open race for governor in nearly a quarter century. Or that a well-known candidate like her might attract just the kind of coalition — women and minorities in particular — that would likely be offended by Nugent’s caustic rhetoric or, perhaps, Abbott’s controversial remarks about a region that thrives on cross-border business and cultural ties.

In the Texas that Carney knows, Davis has no chance.

“I’ve not seen a single person articulate a pathway for her,” he said.

Nothing in politics is impossible, but on this point political analysts generally agree: It remains an uphill battle for Davis. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that Abbott had widened his lead over Davis since October, taking it from 6 points to 11 points while his favorability increased and hers declined slightly.

It’s worth noting that, in the snapshot of time the poll captured, the voters in it had been exposed to negative stories about discrepancies in Davis’ early biography but not to the Nugent controversy, which exploded just as the survey was wrapping up.

UT pollster Jim Henson, head of the Texas Politics Project, said Davis could experience short-term gains because it has given her a new fundraising tool and helps her get off the defensive, either about her biography or perceived bungling by her campaign.

But Henson said he’s not surprised that Abbott campaigned with Nugent, and he doesn’t agree it was particularly foolish or incautious. What might appear politically suicidal in an imaginary electorate that is as diverse as the Texas population looks a lot less harmful in the actual electorate, which is about two-thirds white and overwhelmingly conservative.

“I don’t see it as risky. I see it actually as speaking to the Republican electorate as Greg Abbott finds it in 2014,’’ he said. “What outsiders and non-Republicans consider errors and reckless, Republican primary voters consider giving them what they want.”

Of course, electorates stay the same until they change. And on that score, Abbott might be playing with fire.

As Carney said: “Time will tell.”

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Politics 2014 elections Greg Abbott Wendy Davis