New York Times Suggests Wheelchair-bound Greg Abbott 'Opened the Door' for Wendy Davis's Nasty Ad

October 14th, 2014 5:52 PM

Wendy Davis, pro-abortion Democrat and media darling, is trailing by a wide margin in her Texas gubernatorial race against Republican Greg Abbott. In desperation, her camp released the already infamous 30-second "wheelchair ad," targeting her Republican opponent Greg Abbott, wheelchair-bound since 1984 after a tree fell on him while he was out jogging. The ad opens with a black-and-white picture of a wheelchair, mentions the accident and says of Abbott, Texas attorney general: "He sued and got millions" before accusing him of hypocrisy.

It left even MSNBC's liberal panelists shaking their heads. The Washington Post also attacked the ad from various angles.

But not the New York Times. In the paper's first print story on the matter Tuesday, reporter David Montgomery suggested that "By referring to his disability in his political campaign, some analysts say, Mr. Abbott effectively opened the door for Ms. Davis’s depiction of the wheelchair in her ad."

A 30-second TV spot airs only in selected markets in Texas, but just four days after its release, the “wheelchair ad” from the campaign of State Senator Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, has provoked a nationwide debate over its tone and the boundaries of political attack ads.

But as all negative advertising does, the spot puts a second fundamental issue in play: Will it help Ms. Davis’s campaign or hurt it?

The ad, which Ms. Davis defended in a news conference on Monday, constitutes the latest push in her campaign against the Republican front-runner, Greg Abbott, the state attorney general, who has used a wheelchair since becoming partly paralyzed in 1984 when he was struck by a falling tree while jogging. Mr. Abbott, who entered the race last year on the anniversary of the accident, has cited his successful struggle to adapt to the disability as a sign of strength and determination.

The Davis ad opens with a picture of a wheelchair, mentions the accident and says: “He sued and got millions.” It then accuses Mr. Abbott, the state’s chief legal officer, of hypocrisy, saying he has spent “his career working against other victims” who wanted to pursue lawsuits.

Since it hit the air, the ad has become perhaps the most talked-about spot in the 2014 election cycle, creating a fierce pushback from those who feel it was woefully ill-advised and ventured into shameless bad taste.

“Yikes, I cringed watching that,” Mika Brzezinski said Monday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” saying she faulted “everything from the production of it, to the looming voice, to the issues.”

But reporter Montgomery quickly pivoted to the bright side for the Davis campaign:

But Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said that the initial outpouring of negative reaction may be giving way to a more receptive response as the ad continues to air. “I think opinion has shifted over the past couple of days,” he said. “It is a galvanizing ad, and it stops and commands attention.”

The Abbott campaign has blasted the ad as “disgusting,” but there is no doubt that it has received attention, grabbing more than 400,000 views on YouTube as of late Monday. And Ms. Davis is obviously hoping that the attention will translate into votes that can help propel her past Mr. Abbott by the Nov. 4 election.

(Montgomery, who reports from Austin, previously tried to keep a vengeful, clearly partisan Democratic indictment against Texas Republican Gov. Rick Perry in political play.)

Developed by the campaign’s media consultant, Shorr Johnson Magnus of Philadelphia, the ad opens with a picture of a wheelchair with a 2002 Associated Press report superimposed over it, saying that Mr. Abbott could receive as much as $10.7 million from his legal settlement. It restates the Davis campaign’s assertions that Mr. Abbott fought to block a woman with an amputated leg from suing the state; sided with a hospital that failed to stop a dangerous surgeon; and, while serving as a Texas Supreme Court justice, ruled against a rape victim who sued a vacuum cleaner company for failing to do a background check on an employee she accused of assaulting her.


Ads airing in his campaign show Mr. Abbott propelling his wheelchair up a multitiered parking garage to illustrate how he had rebuilt his strength after the injury and -- to demonstrate his desire to reduce traffic problems in the state -- moving alongside bumper-to-bumper traffic to show that even a man in a wheelchair can outpace gridlock in Texas cities.

By referring to his disability in his political campaign, some analysts say, Mr. Abbott effectively opened the door for Ms. Davis’s depiction of the wheelchair in her ad. “Greg Abbott has made the wheelchair a representation of his strength and his determination,” said Professor Jillson of S.M.U.

Less clear is whether the ad’s imagery effectively conveys the message Ms. Davis’s campaign had in mind, and whether so polarizing an ad is likely to help a long-shot campaign.

Montgomery's coolly neutral analysis contrasts strongly with the aggrieved tone the Times took when the GOP ran advertisements against a disabled Democratic politician, Georgia Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War. The paper falsely trashed a factual anti-Cleland ad in 2002 as accusing Cleland of being anti-American (Cleland lost his seat to Republican Saxby Chambliss).

The Times also unearthed non-existent racism in anti-Obama campaign ads from the GOP during the 2008 presidential campaign. And who could forget the Willie Horton ad from 1988? Certainly not the New York Times, which is still whining about it over two decades later.