The Austin Chronicle

Debates: Davis Raises, Abbott Sticks

By Richard Whittaker, May 21, 2014, 2:40pm, Newsdesk

It's the traditional week of battling debate proposals in the governor's race. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has proposed a cycle of six debates with her opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, but the Republican is sticking firm to a schedule of two.

On Monday, Abbott proposed that they go face-to-face in only two televised debates: Sept. 19 in McAllen, and Oct. 3 in Dallas. However, this was done without Davis' consent. Texans for Greg Abbott communications director Matt Hirsch went on the attack, saying that Abbott was only doing what needed to be done. He even tried to politicize an earlier part of the debate negotiations, when Davis' campaign told McAllen-based The Monitor that their candidate wasn't committing to any debates yet. "For more than six weeks, Sen. Davis has ducked invitations to participate in debates," Hirsch said.

Well, Davis' campaign has called Abbott's bluff. Yesterday, her campaign issued a proposal for six debates, starting in July with a discussion in the Rio Grande Valley hosted by none other than The Monitor.

After that, she wants five more debates in five more locations around the state, including San Antonio, Dallas/Fort Worth, El Paso, Houston, and Lubbock. Moreover, she wants at least one Spanish/English simulcast, one weekend debate so that parents can attend, and at least two town hall meetings with "a technology partner and social media engagement" (clear short hand for the Texas Tribune.) Moreover, there's a dig at Abbott for saying he wants the Dallas debate to be broadcast by WFAA and its Gannett affiliates, when there's still a North Texas offer on the table from PBS affiliate KERA.

After releasing the list, Davis politely issued an open statement to Abbott that his people should call her people by noon today "to accept my invitation to plan a comprehensive debate series." However, she was much less temperate in a speech last night, when she said, "He needs to act like a Texan and debate me – and not just here in Dallas and in the Valley but in Houston, El Paso, San Antonio and Lubbock because we face a very real and very personal choice in this election."

Unsurprisingly, Abbott demurred. In a letter, his campaign manager Wayne Hamilton wrote that "General Abbott has already committed to two statewide televised debates, and therefore we must respectfully decline your proposal."

There's clearly a political calculation here. One, the more debates, the more opportunities for Davis to establish herself statewide as a serious candidate. Of course she wants more, and of course Abbott doesn't want to see his double digit lead eroded. Secondly, by only proposing two, but doing it first, Abbott got to call her "Tardy to the Party." Then again, by raising the stakes, she can call him out for not wanting to travel outside of his comfort zone.

Wait. Yes, Dallas is a GOP comfort zone, but how can the Valley be called that? Because that's where Hispanic Republicans of Texas has been working hardest. That's also ground zero for the Hispanic Republican Conference, the attack group founded by infamous Dem-to-GOP defector Aaron Pena (famous for switching parties in a deeply Democratic area, then grumbling that the GOP couldn't gerrymander a GOP district for him.)

Davis could probably do with a sizable turnout and win in the Valley to get past Abbott statewide. However, the fact that he's bypassing other major Hispanic voting blocks in El Paso and San Antonio, as well the perpetually flexing political landscape of Houston, now seems tone deaf.

In a bad sign for Abbott, his play has already drawn criticism from the Legislature's wise old man of the mountain, Harvey Kronberg of Quorum Report. He has pointed out that WFAA has a poor track record when it came to debates, not sharing the content online or with other stations. He told >Time Warner News Austin, "If it's a replay of history, it's a circumstance to have a debate where the fewest number of people actually see it."

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