Analysis: In Race for Governor, the Personal and the Political

Political campaigns can be cunning and crafty affairs where candidates are cautiously presented and positions are carefully tailored to voters. But the contenders are humans, and policy is sometimes personal.

Gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis are shown on primary night on March 4, 2014.
Gubernatorial candidates Greg Abbott and Wendy Davis are shown on primary night on March 4, 2014.  Bob Daemmrich / Laura Buckman

Politicans are so cunning and crafty that you can forget they are also humans and that their personal lives inform their politics. Their positions on issues of the day can be something greater than calculations of what voters want.

In her new memoir, state Sen. Wendy Davis reveals that she terminated two pregnancies — one a nonviable, ectopic pregnancy, and the other a pregnancy that was ended after doctors found developmental problems that would prevent the fetus, if she lived, from anything but a life of agony.

Davis' Republican opponent in the governor’s race, Attorney General Greg Abbott, first appeared on a statewide ballot in 1996, winning two elections to the Texas Supreme Court and three for his current post. This is the first campaign where he has discussed his disability to demonstrate his tenacity in overcoming obstacles.

The human side emerges. You learn about this one’s abortions and “an indescribable blackness” of despair that followed. Or see the pictures of that one in a hospital bed in a full body cast after an accident changed the course of his life.

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These are the kinds of stories that become burnished centerpieces in the biographies of famous political figures. Abraham Lincoln’s depression. Teddy Roosevelt’s asthma. Ann Richards’ alcoholism.

Characters are forged in these hard circumstances. Links are formed between experience and political action. One thing shapes the other.

Political hokum gets in the way, of course. Consultants and other geniuses who advise candidates, and some candidates themselves, make stuff up. They inflate tales of hardships overcome, bury stories of raw ambition and narcissism run rampant, doing what they can to set their subjects as contemporaries bound to join the great ones whose busts fill our capitols and our museums.

Battles over biography litter political campaigns and sometimes linger for years after, like Barack Obama’s birth certificate, John McCain’s adopted daughter, John Kerry’s Vietnam experiences or Hillary Clinton’s Whitewater.

Those kinds of political attacks can backfire. Abbott’s opponents over the years have sometimes tried to reproach him for seemingly different positions on tort reform in general and on the lawsuit and settlement that followed his own accident in 1984 in particular. He maintains that the legal remedies available then are still available today. He has turned his recovery, meanwhile, into a tale of persistence that is at the center of his bio.

As a matter of politics, the inspirational story has overpowered the policy one. For some, the personal component makes Abbott a much more sympathetic character.

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Internet trolls who didn’t like Davis to begin with are going to have a field day with her revelation, or try to. Others will find it inspiring, or comforting, that she is willing to talk about her personal experience. And this will make coarser attacks — like the “Abortion Barbie” line that found purchase on social media, including with one of Abbott’s top advisers — even less defensible than they were before. Some who are not with Davis on the politics will get, at a minimum, a better understanding of her filibuster on new abortion restrictions last summer.

That was the night she soared to political prominence. It made her a credible candidate for governor. Now, with fewer than 60 days left before Texans choose a replacement for Rick Perry, she has added this to the mix, something new to consider, something that might attract or repel people politically. She certainly didn’t have to do it. It is the kind of news that might go nowhere but might alter the governor’s race or the public discussion about abortion law in Texas or both.

It is a reminder that something more than political calculation often shapes political decisions. As both Davis and Abbott know firsthand, the personal is political.