AUSTIN -- As Texas enters the dog days of summer, the Democratic and Republican nominees vying to become the next governor of Texas are busy bolstering their ranks.
While state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) is rallying troops on the road, Attorney General Greg Abbott (R-Texas) is stumping on the silver screen. The Abbott campaign advertisement running in movie theaters across the state and Davis' whistlestop visits with volunteers are both aimed to build up their respective armies of supporters.
"Really the summer months are intended to get everything in line so that you're ready to go 100 miles an hour right after Labor Day for the two-month sprint of the general election," Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak told KVUE. With many Texans taking advantage of the summer months, Mackowiak says Abbott's 30-second theater spot helps get the candidate's message before a captive audience that may not otherwise be paying attention to the race.
A June poll by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune showed Davis 12 percentage points behind Abbott, roughly the same spread as when Davis' campaign launched in October 2013. Political analysts have suggested the numbers indicate Texas voters responding to the race more or less along traditional party lines, with Republicans enjoying a comfortable advantage. What's more, Mackowiak says Abbott's additional cash advantage could give his campaign a freer hand when it comes to advertising and force Davis to be more strategic.
"Statewide television ads in Texas at saturation level cost about $2.2 million a week. With Abbott having $35 million on hand, he could essentially at this point basically run saturation level every week for the rest of the campaign," said Mackowiak, who explains once the ad blitz gets underway, it typically doesn't stop. "Television ads are cumulative. They build over time, so you want to get to a point so that when the voting starts you're at your absolute peak."
Abbott and other Republicans have sought to tie Davis to President Barack Obama, whose approval rating has been in a slow but steady decline since his reelection in 2012. With the exception of a brief meeting at the LBJ Presidential Library's Civil Rights Summit in April, Davis has largely distanced herself from the Democratic Commander-in-chief. With Davis currently showing few signs of successfully swinging Republican voters, a Sunday column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram suggested Davis should embrace the president, who successfully turned out Democratic voters to win the majority of Texas' largest urban counties.
Yet any ties to the president could be risky in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat in twenty years. It's a dilemma Mackowiak says sums up the challenges faced by Davis' campaign.
"Any time you move to the middle, you risk losing your base. If you stick to your base, then you make it hard to win your middle. In Texas, the Republican base is large enough to not have to move to the middle, and so Greg Abbott doesn't really face that challenge to the same extent," said Mackowiak, who points out Abbott has nonetheless mounted a sustained outreach to Hispanic voters.
"This isn't a presidential election," said Peck Young, director of the Center for Public Policy and Political Studies at Austin Community College. After 30 years as a Democratic strategist whose clients included Gov. Ann Richards, Young argues Davis running her own campaign as a Democrat is nothing noteworthy.
"That's not as surprising as the fact that you can't get two Republicans together with a warrant," said Young, who points out Abbott hasn't campaigned with fellow Republicans such as lieutenant governor nominee Dan Patrick or attorney general nominee Ken Paxton, both state senators and Tea party favorites. "These guys won't appear with each other. At the convention they weren't in town on the same days."
Young suggests Davis is Democrats' best candidate since Richards, whose successful 1990 election benefited from strong voter turnout and crossover from less partisan Republican voters who were turned off by brash and gaffe-prone GOP nominee Clayton Williams. Young argues those voters, who later broke for Bush in 1994, could return to the Democratic column if the Republicans are seen as out-of-step.
"I think that's why you do not see our friend Abbott appearing with some of his fellow Republican candidates who are so heavily Tea party," said Young. "If you can get a block of swing voters to leave the Republicans and come to the Democrats, and if you get the turnouts you got in the '80s and '90s, Wendy can win."
Davis and Abbott are scheduled for two statewide televised debates in September, the first of which is set for Sept. 19 in McAllen. The debate will be hosted by the McAllen Monitor and television stations KGBT-TV and KTLM-TV. The second debate is set for Sept. 30 in Dallas, and will be hosted by sister station WFAA-TV.