The Wendy Davis gubernatorial campaign in Texas is a disaster. But like a supercut of motorcycle accidents played to edify new riders, it is an instructive one. It turns out that the electorate can be just as unfriendly to bumbling liberal candidates who are identified almost exclusively with social issues.
The election cycle two years ago featured a theme: the war on women. A number of conservative highlights from 2012 played into this: Rick Santorum's presidential campaign, the resistance to the HHS contraception mandate on religious institutions, and, most famously, GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin, who burbled about how in a "legitimate rape" women's bodies have a way "to shut that whole thing down."
Roughly parallel to this cycle of Republican self-parody and self-sabotage, social liberals have experienced a surge of victories on social issues, especially the wave of judicial rulings that have made same-sex marriage legal in many states over the past two years. Add to this poll after poll showing that younger voters are increasingly liberal on social issues, and you might think that Democrats can finally win by running against the ghost of the Moral Majority.
It hasn't worked out. In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall has made social issues a prominent focus in his campaign against Republican Cory Gardner, so much so that The Denver Post joked that if the race "were a movie, the set would be a gynecologist's office, complete with an exam table and a set of stirrups." Udall has not only dinged Gardner for past support of an unpopular personhood amendment, but also run an ad claiming that Gardner was engaged in a decade-long campaign to "outlaw contraception." Udall has been dubbed "Mark Uterus" for these efforts, and his lead in the polls has shrunk to a tie.
But in the case of Wendy Davis, the miscalculation about how far social issues could carry liberals is even clearer. Davis was an obscurity in the Democratic Party before her 2013 filibuster of abortion regulations that threatened Texas clinics with closure. Fascination with her shoes exceeded that normally given to the Roman Pontiff's footwear. The money poured in. Here was a national figure for the moment, a Joan of Arc ready to win the war on women.
Alas, social issues are not enough. Polls show that Attorney General Greg Abbott, an anti-abortion Catholic, is attracting as much or more support from Texas women as Wendy Davis. She has tried pushing other hot-button issues, going so far as to suggest that Abbott opposed legal interracial marriage. "Greg Abbott won't say whether he'd defend an interracial marriage ban — troubling but not surprising from someone who defends a 'poll tax,'" she tweeted, seemingly unaware that Greg Abbott is married to a Latina. This is impossible to miss since he advertises that fact on his billboards.
Davis has made other missteps, too. An attack ad against Abbott used an image of a wheelchair. And while it may have been technically defensible, the Davis campaign acted so defensively afterward (packing a stage with people in wheelchairs) that it felt like an admission of guilt.
I'm a social conservative through and through. I think that social issues are legitimate political issues, and that it is important to debate them. But social issues are rating near the bottom of voter concerns heading into the 2014 election. Abortion and other social issues rarely rate more than a few percentage points above zero when Gallup polls voters on their concerns. It turns out that the Republican implosion on social issues in 2012 was not a prelude to Democratic triumphs on the same.
There may be a left-of-center coalition that can win Texas. But a politician like Wendy Davis, raised to premature celebrity by a social issues showdown, was never going to be the one to find and lead it.