The Austin Chronicle

Davis: Abbott Soft on Rape

By Richard Whittaker, August 15, 2014, News

A history lesson. In 1990, Democrat Ann Richards was losing to Republican Clayton Williams in the race to be governor of Texas. Then Williams infamously compared rape to bad weather, saying, "If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it." Political lore holds that one hideous sentence wrecked Williams' hopes, and pushed Richards into the governor's mansion. In 2014, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is trying a reprise against Attor­ney General Greg Abbott. Only this time, she's throwing a whole Texas Supreme Court ruling at him.

On Aug. 8, Abbott launched his latest TV commercial, a positive spot featuring his mother-in-law saying how nice he is. On the same day, Davis came out swinging with a heavy accusation – that Abbott sided with a corporation over a rape victim. The 60-second TV spot recounts a 1998 ruling by the state Supreme Court. In 1993, Mickey Carter used his position as a door-to-door vacuum salesman for the San Antonio-based Sena Kirby Company, a distributor of Kirby products, to gain access to a Seguin home and rape the resident. The victim sued Sena and Kirby for damages, and six of the nine justices sided with her. The court argued that the firms failed in their duty to examine Carter's references: If they had, then they would have known that he had a history of "sexual inappropriate behavior" with female co-workers, and had received deferred adjudication on a charge of indecency with a child.

Abbott, then a Supreme Court justice, dissented, saying that "Kirby owed no duty" to the victim. He argued that Kirby's deal with Sena explicitly relinquished control over whom the distributor hired. He wrote, "In essence, the Court rewrites Kirby's [contracts]." However, the majority had already dismissed that argument: Since Kirby required that its vacuums be sold door-to-door, with the expectation that vendors would enter customers' homes, it had "a duty of reasonable care in selecting the persons who performed the demonstrations."

Davis' get-tough tactic may seem like a Hail Mary, but it follows the trajectory that Rich­ards took on Williams after his "relax and enjoy it" remark in 1990. It also comes just as Davis received some good polling news. Latest numbers from the Republican-leaning Rasmussen pollsters put her eight points behind Abbott, 40% to 48% – a jump from a similar Rasmussen poll in March, which showed Davis trailing by 12 points.

Abbott's campaign hopes voters will be put off by the ad's negativity (not that their candidate seemed squeamish about his supporters calling Davis "Abortion Barbie"). Within hours of its release, the Abbott campaign issued a rebuttal drawing partly from a late-night Twitter exchange between writers at the Houston Chronicle and the Fort Worth Star-Tele­gram, questioning the wisdom of the Davis strategy. However, the core messaging – that Abbott is bad for women, and always sides with corporations – seems in the sweet spot of Davis' overall campaign narrative.

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