Your Texas governor's race questions answered

Texas State Senator Wendy Davis rose to prominence last year after a 13-hour filibuster against new abortion restrictions. Her candidacy for governor has brought the Texas race into the national spotlight. Last week, msnbc reporter Zachary Roth profiled Davis's Republican opponent, Greg Abbott.

He took your reader questions and has answered them below. Questions have been edited for grammar and clarity, but you can you see them in their original context by clicking on the link.

Peter Gustaff: Democrat Wendy Davis trails now in double digits. Her name recognition is more current with the well-publicized and also honored filibuster. Yet, is that enough to close the gap and become the first Democratic Governor of Texas since Ann Richards over 20 years ago? Greg Abbott's been running for this job as Governor for years, steadily publicizing his actions as attorney general for at least the last five years. Does hanging on the Ted Nugent visit really harm Abbott at all? I mean, I'd hunt wild pigs in Texas with Ted, cuz I know he's got guns (and albums) that I just don't have. 

Zachary Roth: The smart money says it won’t be enough. Despite the demographic changes we’ve heard about, the voting population of Texas is still very conservative, meaning if Abbott can mobilize Republicans and right-leaning independents, he’ll likely win. And he currently has almost three times as much money as Davis.

What’s interesting about the Ted Nugent issue is that Davis’s campaign has largely ignored Nugent’s racially charged comments about President Obama, calculating that that angle won’t hurt Abbott in Texas, where Obama is unpopular. Rather, they’ve focused on Nugent’s admission of sex with underage girls, in an effort to win over the independent (mostly suburban) women that are absolutely crucial to her hopes of winning. Even here though, the experts I spoke with thought that, on its own, the Nugent story wouldn’t fundamentally change the race’s dynamics. However, if it were reinforced by another gender-related controversy, that might change. So watch for Davis and Democrats to do all they can to make that happen. Just a few minutes ago, for instance, I got a press release attacking Abbott for not taking a stance on a bill mandating equal pay for women.

@hoho_chyld: While most focus (from Tumblr and beyond) is on Wendy Davis's social positions (like gay marriage, abortion, planned parenthood etc.), why haven't we heard more about immigration throughout the race? And wouldn't it be better for Texas (and for Democrats) for Davis to emphasize the need for and mandate more liberal immigration policy? 

Zachary Roth: Abbott’s campaign wants to keep the immigration issue from flaring up because he needs to reach out to Latino voters without alienating conservative whites. So far, as your question suggests, he’s been successful. Democrats and the Davis campaign have been pushing the media to force Abbott to more clearly explain his stance on Texas’s DREAM Act, a 2001 law that gives in-state college tuition to young undocumented immigrants. That’s a topic Abbott would rather avoid, because he doesn’t want to be tied too closely to the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric of his party’s right-wing, which wants the law repealed. But unqualified support for the law would anger his base. So far, Abbott’s campaign has said the law should be “reformed,” without elaborating. If the issue does hit the front-burner, that’ll likely be good news for Davis.

More broadly, Abbott has tried to appeal to conservative voters with a $300 million border security plan that would add 500 state troopers to the border. And he has compared corruption on the border to “third world country practices”—a phrase the Davis campaign seized on as offensive. In small ways, Davis has taken your advice in terms of stressing the need for a more liberal immigration policy, as a way to woo the Hispanic voters she’ll need. For instance, she has said she supports drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants.

 @c05emily via Twitter: how does each candidate feel about LGBT rights in Texas and marriage equality?

Zachary Roth: There’s a clear contrast here. Davis last month told the San Antonio Express-News she supports same-sex marriage. She said as governor she would back repeal of the 2005 constitutional amendment banning gay nuptials. Abbott opposes same-sex marriage and his office has vigorously defended the state’s ban in court (Davis has called on Abbott to stop defending the ban).

What’s interesting, however, is that Abbott hasn’t used the issue to throw red meat to his conservative base, as he has with other cultural issues. It usually doesn’t get a mention in his stump speech, and when a federal court recently struck down the state ban, Abbott said he’d appeal, but his language and tone were notably restrained. Reading between the lines, it seems like Abbott’s camp realizes public opinion is shifting rapidly on the issue, even in Texas, and doesn’t want to get caught on the wrong side.

Willey640: Greg Abbott benefitted from an injury and a lawsuit—where he will receive $9 million by 2020. Texas has a cap on jury awards. Why hasn't this affected Abbott's [lawsuit] and (if his was grandfathered) would it affect anyone today with similar injuries?

Zachary Roth: Great question, and the answer is complicated. Abbott’s injury occurred in 1984 and the settlement was reached in ‘86, so any changes to the law that came later would not have affected Abbott’s payout.

In addition—and this gets into the legal weeds a bit—none of the caps on awards that the legislature later passed applied to Abbott’s situation:

-In 1995, lawmakers capped punitive damages stemming from non-economic losses at $750,000. Punitive damages were not alleged in Abbott’s case. Rather, most of the settlement was for damages from pain, suffering and mental anguish, and a smaller amount was for medical expenses and lost wages.

-Then in 2003, the legislature capped non-economic damages in medical malpractice cases at $250,000. Abbott was attorney general by this time, and he supported the move. Of course, Abbott’s case wasn’t about medical malpractice, either.

What is true, however, is that while Abbott was on the Texas Supreme Court, from 1996 to 2001, it began narrowing plaintiffs’ ability to win damages from pain, suffering and mental anguish.

Abbott has claimed that someone in his situation today would have access to the same legal recourse that he did. Some experts on tort law have said it’s unlikely that someone would win such a large settlement today in the same case, thanks in part to the courts’ adoption of tighter standards. But there’s nothing in the law that makes it impossible.

The best treatment of this subject was done by Jay Root of the Texas Tribune, and can be found here.

Liz with Romaine: It seems like for Sen. Davis to win, she has to make a mighty effort to get out the vote of left-of-center's who don't necessarily identify as card-carrying Dems, and who have been sitting out politics for a while in Texas because it's been painful to be a lefty in this state for a long, long time. I'm afraid her "moderate" positions won't light up the electorate that she needs to win this election, but I'd like to hear your expert thoughts on this. 

Zachary Roth: I think the Davis campaign calculates that there aren’t enough left-of-centers to win in Texas. Rather, they need to target a few very specific demographics: Most important are independent women who often vote Republican but could be winnable if they come to see Abbott as a real threat to women (that’s what’s behind the Davis campaign seizing so aggressively on the Nugent issue). The other key group is Hispanics, who in Texas are much more of a swing demographic than they are nationally. The other thing the Davis campaign and its allies need to do is expand the electorate by registering large number of new voters, many of whom will be black and Hispanic. That’s why you see the campaign working closely with Battleground Texas, a new organization with ties to the Obama presidential campaigns, that specializes in voter registration and mobilization.

Focusing on these targeted areas will be much more effective than generally taking more liberal positions, a strategy that in Texas would likely backfire by letting the GOP pigeon-hole Davis as a conventional liberal.