Wendy Davis' Wheelchair Ad Vilifying Her Paralyzed Opponent Was Not, Repeat Not, A Good Idea

Election day is almost upon us — the 2014 midterms are on Nov. 4, just weeks away — and all across the country, state legislatures and governor's mansions are also due for a turnover. One high-profile governorship up for grabs is Texas, where Democrat Wendy Davis and Republican Greg Abbott are vying to replace the outgoing Governor Rick Perry. But now, in her quest to close a large polling gap, she may have gone too far — Davis' cringeworthy "wheelchair" attack ad against Abbott is drawing a lot of criticism, from conservatives and liberals alike.

Here's the basic outline: Abbott, 56, was struck by a falling tree while out running back in 1984, an accident which left him partially paralyzed. He sued the owner of the home that the tree had fallen from, securing a hefty compensation in return of $10 million — a hefty compensation, to be sure, though it's hard to imagine what could truly remedy such a traumatic incident. To this day, Abbott relies on a wheelchair. Davis' campaign ad begins by introducing that fact, before moving on to the main thrust of the criticism — that Abbott was rightly paid after his own debilitating injury, but that he doesn't want the same for everyday Texans.

Wendy Davis on YouTube
A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then, he's spent his career working against other victims. Abbott argued a woman whose leg was amputated was not disabled because she had an artificial limb. He ruled against a rape victim who sued a corporation for failing to do a background check on a sexual predator. He sided with a hospital who failed to stop a dangerous surgeon who paralyzed patients. Greg Abbott — he's not for you.

Abbott has been Texas' Attorney General since 2002, and served as an associate Justice on the Texas Supreme Court before that, and throughout that time he's been occasionally been criticized on this front. According to the Washington Post, Abbott attacked his Democratic opponent for Attorney General in 2002 for being a personal injury attorney, a charge which led his own former attorney accuse him of hypocrisy. He also argued against the constitutionality of the Americans With Disabilities Act back in 2003, a move which didn't endear him to supporters of the federal law. According to the AP's reporting at the time, organizer Jennifer McPhail of ADAPT was none too pleased with that decision.

It's ironic and sad, but I stopped trying to understand people's motivations a long time ago. It just gives you a headache.
Erich Schlegel/Getty Images News/Getty Images

There's no way around it: Davis' ad is politically boneheaded, and beyond the pale even for the most liberal observers. It strikes a grossly uncomfortable tone, as virtually any attempt to leverage Abbott's partial paralysis against him surely would, and it presumes that his past personal experience ought to dictate his public policy beliefs, giving no mind to the possibility his opinions have changed through the years. —

In fairness to Davis, who has stood behind the ad amid the controversy, it clearly isn't intending to attack Abbott for his use of a wheelchair, as some conservative commentators have claimed, but it's undeniably making an attack that couldn't exist without his painful history. I personally don't particularly like anything about Abbott, politically or in the legal decisions and arguments Davis is highlighting, but that doesn't make this any less of a disastrous decision, and a tone-deaf one at that.

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Of course, given Davis' flagging position in the polls leading up to Election Day, the reason she probably felt comfortable giving this ad the green light is pretty obvious — she's losing by double-digits, and Abbott is all but assured to cruise to an easy victory, maintaining the GOP lock on Texas' governorship that began with the election of George W. Bush in 1995. As such, it probably seemed like going in hard while praying for a miracle was the best option, but based on this effort I wouldn't count on that prayer being answered.

And that's pretty upsetting in a lot of ways — abortion access for Texas women, for example, is already under large-scale attack by the state GOP, and an Abbott administration would surely continue that approach with zeal. But, sad to say, his victory on November 4 is beginning to look like a foregone conclusion.

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