Almost immediately after kicking off her campaign for governor last year, Democrat Wendy Davis began attempting to frame Republican Greg Abbott as “the ultimate Austin insider.” In one speech last month, she used the word “insider” nine times, including describing Abbott as “an insider working for other insiders.”
It was a line of attack that Texans had heard before. Repeatedly. Running against Austin’s “insider” culture has been a recurring hallmark of failed gubernatorial campaigns over the last 16 years. Davis’ resounding defeat Tuesday night became the latest example of that strategy failing to resonate with the state’s voters.
“Everyone’s tried it. All of them have failed,” said Bill Miller, an Austin-based political consultant. “It bounces off the opponent. It’s a small wound if you make a wound at all.”
The phrase “Austin insider” has long served as shorthand for those cozy with the levers of political power in Texas. For underdog gubernatorial campaigns, it’s been routinely employed to describe a front-runner as corrupt or at the very least comfortable leading a state government perceived as favoring the wealthy and well-connected.
"George Bush and Austin insiders put corporate families ahead of Texas families,'' Democrat Garry Mauro said in 1997, before losing his campaign against Gov. George W. Bush.
Mauro pointed to Bush’s fundraising from lobbyists and PACs and argued that Bush had become an insider himself. Bush’s team was more than happy to put up Bush’s résumé against Mauro’s.
"It's disingenuous to call Governor Bush an Austin insider," Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said at the time. "Garry Mauro has been here in Austin and in state government for 16 years, and Governor Bush has been here only three years.”
After Bush coasted to victory and moved on to the White House, candidates in the next three gubernatorial elections tried to hang the “Austin insider” label on Gov. Rick Perry. Carole Keeton Strayhorn did so the most prominently in her independent bid for governor in 2006.
“I have never been the darling of the insiders,” Strayhorn said often on the campaign trail. "I am not part of the Austin political establishment."
The claim drew ridicule from both Perry and Democratic challenger Chris Bell, given that Strayhorn was the state’s comptroller at the time and a former mayor of Austin.
“The only hope Carole Strayhorn has of winning a lifetime achievement award is if they give one for being an Austin insider,” mocked Perry spokesman Robert Black.
Former Houston Mayor Bill White tried similar messaging against Perry in 2010.
“Help me take down that 'For Sale' sign in Austin,” White said in a TV ad. “I’ll work hard for the young people in Texas, not the Austin insiders.”
While Davis' campaign was marred with problems with mixed messages on her own views and background, campaign surrogates were fairly consistent in their depictions of Abbott as an "insider" from the start. Over the past year, Davis tried to tie some of Abbott’s actions as attorney general to campaign donations from impacted industries, charges that Abbott repeatedly denied. Abbott’s campaign also hammered Davis on multiple allegations of conflicts of interest between her private work and her votes in public offices. Davis maintained that she always acted ethically.
“One could make the insider critique against both of them, but I think it applies a little more to Wendy Davis than Greg Abbott,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.
Democrats believed they were gaining traction when voters heard their arguments for why Abbott was more interested in protecting his donors than looking out for average Texans, said Democratic consultant James Aldrete, who advised Davis on her campaign. Yet other issues, like President Obama’s unpopularity and the recent influx of child migrants across the border, overwhelmed the gains from that approach, he argued.
“The insider thing is saying, ‘Hey, you need to take a second look at this beyond your partisan proclivities,’” Aldrete said. “Getting people to look beyond their partisan biases clearly didn’t happen.”
Indeed, voters appeared more receptive to an anti-Washington argument than an anti-Austin one. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted last month found 35 percent of Texas voters believe things are on the wrong track in Texas, while 65 percent say the same for the country.
Despite its poor track record, Jones predicted a Democratic or independent gubernatorial candidate would almost certainly try out the “Austin insider” charge again in four years.
“Republicans will be receiving the lion's share of donations from moneyed interests and of the Austin lobby,” Jones said. “If you’re on the outside looking in, it’s a strategy you’re going to at least test the waters with.”
Disclosure: Bill Miller is a donor to The Texas Tribune. Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin are corporate sponsors of the Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.