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Wendy Davis campaign ad featuring empty wheelchair triggers outrage

The ad, which opens with a shot of a wheelchair, attacks Davis's disabled opponent, Greg Abbott, for working against accident victims.
Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) speaks at the National Press Club on Aug. 5, 2013 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)
Texas State Sen. Wendy Davis (D) speaks at the National Press Club on Aug. 5, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

A new ad released by state Sen. Wendy Davis's campaign has set off a firestorm in the race for Texas governor.

Beginning with a shot of an empty wheelchair, the ad, titled "Justice," tells viewers: "A tree fell on Greg Abbott. He sued and got millions. Since then he's spent his career working against other victims." Ominous music plays in the background.

The ad goes on to attack Abbott, Davis's Republican opponent and the state's attorney general, for making it harder for accident victims to use the courts to get justice.

Abbott was paralyzed from the neck down at age 26, after a tree fell on him while he was out jogging in Houston in 1984. He sued the homeowner responsible, and received a settlement that currently totals around $5.8 million, and will continue for the rest of his life. 

"It is challenging to find language strong enough to condemn Sen. Davis's disgusting television ad, which represents a historic low for someone seeking to represent Texas," Abbott spokeswoman Amelia Chasse told the Dallas Morning News. "Sen. Davis' ad shows a disturbing lack of judgment from a desperate politician, and completely disqualifies her from seeking higher office in Texas."

Republicans have demanded that the Davis campaign pull down the ad. But a Davis spokesman, Zac Petkanas, has said that's not going to happen.

“It’s not surprising that Greg Abbott and his allies don’t like the fact that voters are seeing that he sought justice for himself by going to court, suing a home owner and a tree company, and then building a career on denying that same justice to victims throughout the state of Texas,” Petkanas told the Texas Tribune.

But it's not just Abbott's campaign that's condemning the ad. The Washington Post called it "one of the nastiest campaign ads you will ever see." Even the liberal Mother Jones called it "offensive and nasty."

There is plenty to support the charge of hypocrisy against Abbott. Since the 1990s, he's supported several efforts to make it harder to sue, including a controversial 2003 Texas law that capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases at $250,000. A lengthy Dallas Morning News report from February found that he has "tenaciously battled to block the courthouse door to disabled Texans who sue the state."

In one case, mentioned in Davis's ad, his office argued that a woman with an amputated leg wasn't disabled because she had a prosthetic limb.

But by opening the ad with a shot of a wheelchair, Davis's campaign risked the ad being seen as an attack on his disability.

Abbott has not shied away from his disability during the campaign. On the stump, he talks about the determination that his recovery from the accident required. And he jokes that though many politicians brag about having a metaphorical steel spine in standing up to opponents, he has a real one.

The ad may be something of a hail mary effort. Abbott is the clear frontrunner in the race, with some polls showing him leading by double digits.