Consultants for Democrat Wendy Davis warned her campaign months ago that the Fort Worth senator was headed for a humiliating defeat in the Texas governor’s race unless she adopted a more centrist message and put a stop to staggering internal dysfunction.
The warnings are contained in two internal communications obtained by The Texas Tribune and written at the beginning of the year by longtime Democratic operatives Peter Cari and Maura Dougherty.
After the drubbing Davis got from Gov.-elect Greg Abbott last week, they seem eerily prescient.
“The campaign is in disarray and is in danger of being embarrassed,” Cari and Dougherty wrote in a lengthy memorandum on Jan. 6. “The level of dysfunction was understandable in July and August, when we had no infrastructure in place — but it doesn’t seem to be getting better.”
Addressed to then-Campaign Manager Karin Johanson, the memo warned that the Davis campaign had “lurched to the left,” was failing to communicate a positive message and offered virtually nothing to the swing voters the senator would need to win statewide.
“There is not a model where a candidate who appears this liberal and culturally out of touch gets elected statewide anywhere in the south — much less in Texas — without some inoculation,” the consultants said.
Dougherty and Cari, founders of the national consulting firm Prism Communications, had helped guide Davis to two tough Senate wins in a Republican-leaning North Texas district, and they were deeply invested in her campaign.
But the media strategists complained that they and other consultants who had been involved in her past races, and who knew her strengths and background, were being sidelined and had been unable to communicate directly with Davis.
In a telephone interview with the Tribune, Dougherty said she and her business partner wrote the memo in a last-ditch attempt to right a listing campaign ship. She said she often did not know about major campaign developments until she read them in the news.
“Thank God for Google alerts, because I wouldn’t know what was going on this campaign without them,” she said.
Calls and emails directed to Johanson and J.D. Angle, Davis' top consultant, were not immediately returned.
The Prism consultants concluded that the campaign was either desperately broken or that the hierarchy had decided to portray Davis not as a Texas moderate but rather a “national Democrat, appealing to liberal donors in the mistaken belief that there is a hidden liberal base in Texas that will turn out to vote if they have a liberal candidate to support.”
“Either scenario means that real changes need to be made, and quickly,” they wrote.
Not long after that January memo, the campaign indeed made changes, but not the ones Prism Communications had in mind.
About a month later, the firm was let go, Dougherty said. In a blistering follow-up letter to Johanson on Feb. 11, Dougherty and Cari described more dysfunction and mismanagement. And they predicted her margin of defeat within a single percentage point.
They wrote that the campaign was failing to portray Davis “like a Texan” and had turned her into a generic Democrat who would only have a chance in a state with a recent history of electing Democrats. The party hasn’t won a statewide election in Texas since 1994.
“Running Wendy Davis as a generic national Democrat is not only the quickest path to 38 percent, it’s also a huge disservice to Wendy, her record and the brand she has built,” they wrote. Davis got 38.9 percent of the vote, compared with the 59.3 percent of voters who cast ballots for Abbott.
Given the national wave that swamped Democrats around the country, including in governor races that Republicans won in traditionally blue states like Maryland and Massachusetts, it’s highly unlikely that any political strategy would have ushered Davis into the Texas Governor’s Mansion.
But Dougherty said it didn’t have to be such a rout.
“It’s possible to lose and still look good,” she said in the phone interview. “Our worry in January was it was setting Wendy up for embarrassment throughout the course of the campaign. I think the way the campaign played out was far, far worse than it should have been.”