2014 Archives

An ad with a wheelchair shakes up the Texas governor’s race


The following is from the Oct. 13, 2014, edition of The New York Times. SMU Political Science Professor Cal Jillson provided expertise for this story.

October 21, 2014


AUSTIN — A 30-second TV spot airs only in selected markets in Texas, but just four days after its release, the “wheelchair ad” from the campaign of State Senator Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for governor, has provoked a nationwide debate over its tone and the boundaries of political attack ads.

But as all negative advertising does, the spot puts a second fundamental issue in play: Will it help Ms. Davis’s campaign or hurt it?

The ad, which Ms. Davis defended in a news conference on Monday, constitutes the latest push in her campaign against the Republican front-runner, Greg Abbott, the state attorney general, who has used a wheelchair since becoming partly paralyzed in 1984 when he was struck by a falling tree while jogging. Mr. Abbott, who entered the race last year on the anniversary of the accident, has cited his successful struggle to adapt to the disability as a sign of strength and determination . . .

But Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said that the initial outpouring of negative reaction may be giving way to a more receptive response as the ad continues to air. “I think opinion has shifted over the past couple of days,” he said. “It is a galvanizing ad, and it stops and commands attention.” . . . 

Ads airing in his campaign show Mr. Abbott propelling his wheelchair up a multitiered parking garage to illustrate how he had rebuilt his strength after the injury and — to demonstrate his desire to reduce traffic problems in the state — moving alongside bumper-to-bumper traffic to show that even a man in a wheelchair can outpace gridlock in Texas cities.

By referring to his disability in his political campaign, some analysts say, Mr. Abbott effectively opened the door for Ms. Davis’s depiction of the wheelchair in her ad. “Greg Abbott has made the wheelchair a representation of his strength and his determination,” said Professor Jillson of S.M.U.

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