AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The leading candidates for Texas governor are learning that sticks and stone may break bones, but words last forever.
Democrat Wendy Davis shocked many in her party last week by coming out in support of allowing those with concealed handgun licenses to carry their pistols openly in public. Just days earlier, Republican Greg Abbott compared the Rio Grande Valley with corrupt Third World countries.
Neither comment did their campaigns any favors and belie the difficulty a candidate faces when trying to be strategic with their comments.
In Davis’ case, she was trying to pre-empt growing criticism that she doesn’t support the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Conservatives have been making a big deal about her vote to require background checks at gun shows in Fort Worth, where she served on the City Council, and nothing turns out conservative voters quite like a politician imposing restrictions on guns.
When The Associated Press asked her — and all the other major candidates for governor and lieutenant governor — about her position on a proposed open carry law, she made headlines by going against her party and other major Democratic candidates.
“Licensing for open carry should track that for concealed carry. This should help ensure that only mentally stable, law abiding citizens may carry whether concealed or open,” she said in a written response.
The reaction was probably not what she hoped. Gun rights activists mocked her position as pandering, and progressive Democrats denounced her for caving in to conservative groups who would never vote for her anyway.
“The Wendy Davis that has emerged thus far early in the Texas gubernatorial campaign has done little to distinguish her political profile from the Republican,” progressive political analyst Jim Moore said. “Why doesn’t she speak more clearly and directly to Texans who are tired of radical conservatism?”
Abbott got himself into hot water while announcing his border security initiative Tuesday in Dallas. He said he was worried about public officials getting involved in the drug trade.
“This creeping corruption resembles Third World country practices that erode the social fabric of our communities and destroys Texans’ trust in government,” Abbott said.
Tough talk about immigration and border security polls well with conservative voters, Republican campaign consultants say. Abbott was establishing his bona fides ahead of the March 4 Republican primary. Even Republicans running for offices that have nothing to do with the border take a hard-line stance on the issue.
Federal crime data, though, does not support the contention that the border is any more corrupt or dangerous than other parts of the state. And Hispanic border residents take offense at what they consider an ugly stereotype, something the Republican Party has tried to avoid as it courts Hispanic voters.
“There is … no doubt that Abbott would not have made a similar comparison to Third World countries had he been talking about corruption in Dallas or Houston,” The Monitor newspaper in McAllen said in an editorial on Friday. “This year’s election should not fall into that traditional zone of venomous nativist rhetoric that inflames the passions of white conservatives at the expense of the state’s growing Hispanic population.”
In a representative democracy, politicians are supposed to represent the views of their core supporters, but they also need to attract votes from those in the middle, those who don’t read every policy paper or read the fine print on television attack ads. Sometimes balancing these two objectives can get a candidate into trouble.
Last week, both Davis and Abbott made news-making statements based on a political calculus that angered many. Expect these comments to remain part of the conversation through November.
Follow Chris Tomlinson on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cltomlinson
Chris Tomlinson is the AP’s supervisory correspondent in Austin, responsible for state government and political reporting.