State Sen. Wendy Davis touched off a political firestorm Friday with a 30-second TV ad that features an empty wheelchair and slams Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for working against disabled people despite winning a settlement after he was disabled himself.
“Wendy Davis is running one of the nastiest campaign ads you’ll ever see,” The Washington Post blared.
A “historic low” is how the attack ad was described by the Abbott campaign, which saw fellow Republicans rally to his side and issue demands that she pull down the ad.
Even liberal Mother Jones magazine unloaded on Davis, a Democrat.
“It's offensive and nasty and it shouldn't exist,” wrote Ben Dreyfess. “She's basically calling Abbott a cripple.”
The ad opens with the image of an empty wheelchair, after which an announcer states flatly, “A tree fell on Greg Abbott,” a reference to his catastrophic 1984 accident in Houston. It notes that Abbott won a multimillion-dollar settlement and then says he used his power as a state judge and as attorney general to oppose disabled Texans and others who have sued for damages or court redress — including a woman who had a leg amputated and another who was raped.
The hypocrisy attack isn’t new. As far back as 2002, when Abbott was first running for attorney general, Democratic critics accused him of a double standard by suing when he got hurt but then supporting lawsuit curbs for others. Abbott has said a victim of a similar accident would still be able to sue under state law.
Unlike the previous criticism, though, Davis' edgy new ad is stirring intense blowback — and it has spread far outside the borders of Texas. The image of the wheelchair sparked particularly heated chatter on social media, as pundits threw around words like “mean-spirited” and “nasty” and, from NBC’s Kasie Hunt, “Just, Wow.”
The New Hampshire Republican Party has already made the ad an issue in a hot U.S. Senate contest, in which Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is in a tight race with Republican Scott Brown.
“Shaheen should be ashamed of her support for her disgusting campaign,” New Hampshire GOP chairman Jennifer Horn said in a email blast. “Senator Shaheen has raised money to fund this despicable ad, and she should immediately call for Wendy Davis to take it down.”
Davis spokesman Zac Petkanas said Davis had no plans to take down the ad. He declined to talk about the campaign’s decision to use the image of the wheelchair but defended the content of the spot, which he said will begin airing Saturday.
“It’s not surprising that Greg Abbott and his allies don’t like the fact that voters are seeing that he sought justice for himself by going to court, suing a home owner and a tree company, and then building a career on denying that same justice to victims throughout the state of Texas,” Petkanas said.
Harold Cook, a Democratic strategist not affiliated with the Davis campaign, said he didn’t understand the outrage and noted that Republicans had often used hard-hitting, controversial tactics in their broadcast ads.
“I don’t know what the big deal is,” he said. “It’s clear she is not talking about his disability. She’s talking about his hypocrisy.”
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said Abbott himself had used his wheelchair in ads, showing himself pushing his way up a parking garage to underscore his perseverance and rolling alongside a jam-packed freeway to draw attention to traffic gridlock in Texas.
Jillson called the Davis campaign commercial a "jarring ad that will get people's attention." He said the content of it underscores her dominant theme that Abbott is an insider who sides with corporate interests and donors over the rights of average Texans.
If that's what people take away from the ad, she benefits, Jillson said.
"But that wheelchair makes it a little bit different," he said. "If the conversation is, 'I'm horrified at that empty wheelchair,' she loses."
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.