Everybody Hates the New Wendy Davis Ad. That Doesn't Mean It's a Failure.

Can a campaign ad work if it offends everyone? How can it not?
Photograph by Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Getty Images

The ad is titled "Justice," and it marks a sort of break between Wendy Davis and the national progressives who've hyped her campaign for governor of Texas. It opens with the image of a wheelchair, its user unseen. "A tree fell on Greg Abbott," rumbles a narrator. "He sued and got millions. Since then, he's spent his career working against other victims."

The ad was swiftly condemned by a who's-who of "even the liberal..." magazines and pundits. "She's basically calling Abbott a cripple," opined Mother Jones. On MSNBC's "Up with Steve Kornacki," liberal panelists climbed over each other to condemn the Davis ad. "I would not have used that wheelchair," said Democratic pundit and one-time DNC chair Donna Brazile. People are reacting viscerally, and their viscera tells them that Davis made a desperate and sleazy kamikaze move.

How does the Davis campaign respond? Her pollster Joel Benenson talked to Jay Root over the weekend to insist that "the ad is effective and working." None of the pundits can prove otherwise; they have, at most, collected he-said/she-saids from the campaigns. All I know is that it represents the end of any caution the Davis campaign had about attacking Abbott personally, and that this caution was captured 10 months ago in undercover videos by James O'Keefe's Project Veritas.

They were filmed at a more optimistic time for Democrats. At the end of 2013, after Davis jumped into the race, polling had her down to Abbott by single digits. O'Keefe's video sting operators sat in meetings where activists worried about the difficulty of messaging against a man in a wheelchair. "I'm wondering how this is going to work out," worried one man, "because he's in a wheelchair, and most of the slogans are 'Stand With Wendy.'" The conservative blogs that got this video first insisted that Davis supporters were actually mocking Abbott, who had launched his campaign with a video about the accident that robbed him of the use of his legs.

On TV, Abbott has reminded voters of his handicap with a striking spot in which he rolls his chair through an empty parking garage, fighting fatigue in order to climb to the top.

Davis's campaign, which I covered a bit in South Texas for a story (coming soon), had no response to this. And now it has one. With maximum unpleasantness it asks voters to consider whether that honorable-seeming man in the wheelchair is not doing unto others as he would have done unto himself.

Having put up with the backlash, Davis's campaign is finally winning over some contrarians. "Abbott hasn’t exactly been hiding the fact he uses a wheelchair, a la Franklin Roosevelt," pointed out The Daily Caller's Jamie Weinstein over the weekend. "Given the fact that Abbott himself has highlighted his infirmity, a nondescript picture of a wheelchair at the beginning of an ad hardly seems like some brilliant subliminal scheme to undercut Abbott’s campaign."

No, it's blunt. It leans into a defense of big tort awards, which Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce have been turning voters against for decades. Davis was on track to lose; she is now on track to lose on an issue that attracts Democratic donors but lacks a proud defender. The initial, dry-heave reaction to the ad, the human reaction, was not the one Davis and her strategists ever cared about.