The race for governor of Texas is expected to be one of the most closely watched (and most expensive) state races ever. One major key to any highly contested, nationally anticipated campaigns is to try to define your opposition as early as possible, before your opponent is able to create a positive image in the press.
In that respect, the campaign of Greg Abbott, current Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate, was handed a windfall when the Dallas Morning News ran an “expose” on state Senator and Democratic candidate Wendy Davis. In the investigation, the reporter discovered that Davis had “embellished” her backstory that she used when running for office. Among some of the discrepancies that the article noted: Davis didn’t disclose how short of a time she actually lived in a trailer; she wasn’t forthcoming with the fact that she was only separated, not officially divorced, from her husband when she was 19 (the divorce didn’t become legal until she was 21); and that she didn’t state emphatically enough that her husband helped care for their children or pay for her schooling.
Davis has responded by clarifying those issues in the media in as much as they needed to be clarified. But the question is, did she really need to be more specific? After all, why would she have to say specifically that her husband of the time helped her fund her education, or cared for her children while she was in school? Why is it important to clarify that she was separated, but was not officially divorced, for a year earlier than she stated, when the intent of the statement — that she was a single mother — is the same?
If the “truth” seems to be nitpicky, the quotes that the paper obtained are even more problematic. Although a number of the statements from Davis’s ex-husband seem mostly content with their past despite the ending of their marriage, statements like, “I made the last payment [on her student loan], and it was the next day she left,” are misleading. Such a quote from an ex-wife would be lauded as the sign of a bitter former spouse. Yet conservatives hoping for an Abbott victory are more than willing to embrace it as an unbiased truth.
“Wendy Davis would’ve ended up being really poor and destitute were it not for a man,” claims Rush Limbaugh. “But that’s no problem, they just made stuff up. It works for Obama.”
Some right-wing pundits are going even further. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson claims Davis’s ex asked the court to “order her not to use drugs before seeing her kids,” without noting that the order was a standard boilerplate form.
The story, as the GOP sees it, is one of a female candidate with a “sugar daddy” who gave her all the breaks, cared for her children, and allowed her to advance her career. In other words, the biggest issue they have with Davis is that she was focused on her work and someone else was spending more time with her children than she was, as well as supporting her in her professional pursuits.
Someone else was taking on the traditional role of wife.
Davis is being caught in the greatest of double standards in the political world: campaigning while female. A woman who doesn’t pull herself and her family out of a trailer within a matter of months is detested for not working hard enough, but a woman who succeeds quickly is pilloried as not being as downtrodden as she presented herself. A parent who leaves a partner at home to care for the children while seeking out more educational or career opportunities is a breadwinner when it’s a man, but a bad mother when it’s a woman.
At what point do male candidates receive massive newspaper profiles detailing how much older or younger they are than their current or past spouses, or who had custody of the children and for how long? Where are the candidate exposes on male politicians whose wives put them through school, and when do they get called out for having “sugar mamas?”
“The thing is that millions of Texas women know what it’s like to have their experiences and decisions examined and picked apart by those who think they know better,” political strategist Tarene Allison writes astutely at Huffington Post. “When we hear the recent attacks on Wendy Davis, we understand that they’re attacking all of our stories.”
Not all of our stories, mind you. Just those of women who have the audacity to believe they deserve to run for office on equal footing with their male challengers. Especially when those women are Democrats.
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