Both major candidates for governor have launched statewide television commercials in the past week. Republican Greg Abbott’s second TV ad is in Spanish and English and features his Hispanic mother-in-law. But it’s Democrat Wendy Davis’ first statewide ad that’s grabbing attention.
Davis’ ad is a dramatization of an event in 1993. A vacuum cleaner salesman offering in-home demonstrations rapes a young mother while her two children sleep in a nearby room.
“The salesman was a sexual predator on probation but the Kirby Vacuum Cleaner distributor had failed to perform a routine background check on him,” the narrator says over ominous music.
The ad explains that the victim and her family ask the Texas Supreme Court for the right to sue the vacuum cleaner company. A majority of six judges agree, but Greg Abbott – now running for governor- and two other judges dissented.
“Greg Abbott sided with the company against the victim saying the company had no responsibility,” the ad states.
Davis Communications Director Zak Petkanas says the ad underscores the campaign’s effort to define Abbott.
“This is the perfect example of the kind of governor he would be. He sided against a rape victim and for a corporation,” Petkanas said.
The Abbott campaign declined an interview but in a statement called the commercial “gutter politics”. It said Abbott as attorney general has worked to compensate victims of sexual assault and created a unit to arrest sex offenders who violate parole or probation.
SMU Political Science Professor Matthew Wilson says that for a candidate like Davis who’s running behind, and counting on a strong women’s vote, this ad could provide some traction.
“I think it is a very powerful ad,” said Wilson. “It gets people thinking about the question of whether Greg Abbott is overly deferential to corporations and whether he was insensitive in the case of a rape situation. And I think with a certain number of swing voters it could potentially be effective.”
Nationally-known communications professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson at the University of Pennsylvania has spent decades studying political ads, and penned several books on the subject. She says there’s a reason this ad may resonate.
“Ads that play on fear and in particular a fear when an individual feels vulnerable are often effective because it is difficult for the attacked person to put them back into context,” Jamieson said.
But Jamieson says it may be “problematic” for Davis to draw conclusions about Abbott’s character because of a ruling he made as a judge.
“The fact that someone disagrees with a majority and the fact a judge does something that might be perceived as unpopular does not mean he’s issued a poor judicial ruling.”
For the executive director of the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center, the Davis ad prompted other concerns.
Bobbie Villareal says the center is bracing for a surge of calls from sex assault victims who might be caught off guard by the commercial.
“Any time you have an event like this it can trigger memories. It can trigger feelings of insecurities especially if you see this ad late at night and you’re home by yourself or this happened to a family member of yours,” Villareal said.
She also hoped the woman raped more than 20 years ago felt comfortable with Davis airing the ad.
Davis spokesman Petkanas would only say the woman was notified.
“The survivor was contacted earlier this year that one of the judges who sided against her and for the corporation was running for governor and the case was likely to come up in the election,” said Petkanas.
The question now is whether the ad will help persuade swing voters that Abbott indeed backs businesses over individuals. Or whether they’ll see Davis as desperate and counting on sensationalism to move the needle.