In Clinton-Trump Match-up, A Flashback To ‘Claytie Vs. The Lady’

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He wouldn’t shake her hand.

Instead, Clayton Williams – an oil tycoon and rancher who liked “kissing just about every woman who comes within arm’s reach” on the campaign trail – walked across the stage to his Democratic opponent for governor, Ann Richards, looked her in the face and called her a “liar.”

It was 1990 and Texas was in the midst of one nasty gubernatorial campaign.

“The truth hurts,” Williams said later in an interview about the exchange, accusing Richards of spreading “rumors” about his business practices.

The scene was just one of the turning points in a larger than life and downright demeaning Texas gubernatorial race that was nicknamed Claytie vs. the Lady, a nod to Williams’ not so subtle good ol’ boy routine that eventually sunk his bid for governor.

The race pitted Richards, a quick, shrewd and reforming state treasurer against Williams, a populist policy lightweight. Richards was the first women in 50 years to be elected statewide in Texas. She had gained national fame in 1988 with a gut-splitting, homespun speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Williams, meanwhile, had surprised some in the Republican establishment in Texas with a primary win. He had earned his reputation as a Midland cowboy millionaire who once confided that his paying for prostitutes was just “part of growing up in West Texas.”

“Williams is an oilman and ranch owner who arrived on the political scene last year with a pumped-up wallet and some of the slickest TV commercials ever seen in the state,” a Los Angeles Times profile written at the time said. “His detractors often refer to him as the ‘Donald Trump of Texas’ because he’s such an unabashed self-promoter.”

The race unfolded almost 30 years ago now, but the tone and gender dynamics that shaped it aren’t all that different from those overshadowing the campaign for the White House today.

“The parallels are quite striking,” said Cecile Richards, the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and daughter of Gov. Richards. “Rather than disagree with her on issues, it became a question of character. That is what I have seen with Donald Trump.”

Despite the urging of Republican leaders, Trump has yet to bolster his policy credentials. Instead, he’s doubled down on the same kinds of personal attacks he once waged in his primary against “lyin Cruz” and “little Marco.” He’s accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of playing the “woman’s card” on the campaign trail, called her “crooked” and said her husband Bill Clinton has got a “terrible record of women abuse,” an allusion to his ’90s-era extramarital scandals.

Heading into the general election, Clinton is about to confront a very different kind of opponent than she has before. This race–unlike her primary this year or the one in 2008– probably won’t be about the policy that the former secretary of state is well versed it (even though Republicans and Democrats alike would prefer it be).

“If he were looking to me for advice, which he’s not at this point, I would tell him to stop using the phrase that she’s playing the women’s card because that demeans her experience and her accomplishments,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). “And although I am not a supporter of Hillary for president, I worked well with her when she was in the Senate.”

Instead, Clinton will have to defuse Trump’s salacious attacks without being pulled into the gutter, a strategy that can be hard to balance for anyone, but especially for women who are constantly being reminded to be firm while keeping an eye on likability.

“We all joke that there is such a short distance for women between strong and confident and being the ‘B’ word, and I am not talking about being bossy,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), a Clinton supporter and author of “Plenty Ladylike,” a book about her own rise as a woman in politics.

In roughly a dozen interviews with women working in politics, many agreed that for Clinton, the best strategy may be to stay focused on her own policy agenda and gamble that Trump’s own brand is enough to ultimately sink him.

“I have been thinking a lot about how this race is unfolding and how it unfolded with my mom,” Richards said. “Women succeed when they don’t take the bait and they rise above it.”

Richards joked that her mom, of course, had a great sense of humor when it came to confronting sexism on the trail. She often told Cecile and others that the only people to make fun of her big head of white hair were men who didn’t have any. Maybe Trump’s insecure about his own hair, Richards joked.

“Let Donald Trump and the demolition derby take care of itself,” McCaskill advised. “I certainly knew that when Todd Akin got nominated, we were pretty comfortable that it was his words that were going to sink him. It wasn’t going to be anything we said.”

In McCaskill’s own 2012 election, her instinct was right on. In August after he had won the Republican primary, Akin made what came to be the definitive gaffe of the 2012 election when he said raped women couldn’t get pregnant because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

“You don’t want to get pulled into Donald Trump’s crazy circus arena reality TV show. You want to be the one that people have confidence in. I think it would be a big mistake for her to confront Donald Trump’s misogyny. I think it is out there for everyone to see,” McCaskill said.

In Texas, Williams’ misogyny certainly was. Eventually Williams’ own words did catch up to him. He went on to compare rape to the weather saying “If it’s inevitable, just relax and enjoy it,” a comment that has been credited with helping Richards to win crossover support from Republican women and moderates.

Of course, Richards wasn’t shy about reminding voters of what Williams said. She just was not about to make it the entirety of her campaign. In an ad titled “Clayton Williams in his own words,” her campaign strung together some of his most bombastic statements including one on his campaign strategy where he commented he would “head and hoof [Richards] and drag her through the dirt” and another where Williams alluded to Richards’ public recovery from alcoholism when talking about his lead in the polls.

“I hope she didn’t go back to drinking again,” Williams says in the video with a grin.

It’s a strategy Democrats are already deploying against Trump now. This week, the pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA released an ad of women reciting some of Trump’s most sexist comments, and Democratic Senate candidates have tried to tie their own Republican opponents to Trump’s comments about women.

Richards won in 1990 by painting herself as the more sophisticated and focused candidate. Clinton’s surrogates say that is how she can win, too.

“Secretary Clinton should run, as she has conducted her whole public career, to speak to the issues she has fought for, and I think those issues resonate with the American people,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the dean of the Senate women who is credited with taking many women senators under her wing over the years. “You have to elect a president based on substance not tone.”

That doesn’t mean that Trump’s comments will go completely unanswered though.

“Seriously. He is so bad,” McCaskill said. “I am more than happy to try to point some of those things out on a regular basis.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lauren Fox is a reporter at Talking Points Memo.
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