Trump vs. Clinton? Try Claytie vs. Ann Richards

Photo by Bob Daemmrich

Stop me if you've heard this one: Republicans nominate a brash multimillionaire prone to gaffes and verbal acrobatics. His personal attacks against a veteran female politician divide voters, spiking the gender gap. He blames the media and claims to not play by traditional political rules.

Trump for president in 2016? Try Claytie for Texas governor in 1990.

Cut from the same cloth as Trump, 1990 Texas Republican gubernatorial nominee Clayton "Claytie" Williams parlayed his Texas A&M degree in animal husbandry to a multimillion dollar fortune in oil and gas, real estate and telecommunications. He got the political bug starring in television commercials for his phone company, where he used his cowboy charisma to rope his way onto Forbes' wealthiest Americans list. Williams had an expansive grin, huge drooping ears and a west-Texas wildcatter's drawl. Molly Ivins described him as the "perfect representative of a vanishing Texas": white, macho and rich — a character plucked right from Giant.

Trump and Williams are remarkably similar: larger-than-life figures, self-made men, bucolic, mostly self-funded campaigns and television personalities. Trump, like Williams, has attacked the media for bad coverage when his campaign went awry. Both candidates faced a sharp-elbowed female candidate with considerate political experience, keen political instincts and a reputation for getting things done.

If Williams' 1990 race for governor in Texas is any guide, the 2016 presidential campaign will get even nastier. Williams' Democratic opponent was Ann Richards, at that point a former Travis County commissioner and the sitting state treasurer, a seasoned and well-connected politician of a liberal stripe. She entered the general election after a bruising primary where she won 54 percent of the vote against Attorney General Jim Mattox.

Williams entered the race with a 27-point lead and immediately landed in hot water. Sitting informally with reporters on his ranch, he compared bad weather to rape: "If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it." Williams also bragged about how, as a student at A&M, he would travel to Boy's Town in Mexico or the famed Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange to "get serviced" by prostitutes.

The campaign also quickly turned personal against Richards. Williams said he wasn't comfortable running against a woman and had only battled a woman once, "way back when I had a divorce and I lost." Asked about his campaign strategy against Richards, Williams reported, "I'll head and hoof her and drag her through the dirt." Responding to a claim from the Richards campaign that they were up in the polls, he chortled of Richards, a recovering alcoholic, "I hope she didn't go back to drinking again." He also suggested that Richards was an "honorary lesbian" for her support of gay groups.

And he was still 12 points up.

But the last straw came when he refused shake her hand. The Richards campaign had run a scathing ad accusing Williams' Midland bank of laundering drug money. This volley was strategically crafted to strike at the heart of Williams' core campaign issue: cracking down on drugs. At the Greater Dallas Crime Commission lunch, where Richards was to appear before Williams, he confronted her on the stage. Richards rose to leave and put out her hand to shake his, and as he moved past her, he belted out, "I'm not going to shake hands with you. I won't shake hands with a liar."

While this was a seemingly small slight in comparison to Williams' escalating crassness toward Richards, the lack of gentlemanly manners sunk him. Williams' excuse was that he was frustrated by the conventions of the political scene, especially dealing with the media whom he claimed treated him unfairly, and that any mistakes he made happened only because he was new to politics.

Like today, the release of tax returns took on significance. The Richards campaign pressed Williams to release his tax returns, which he had long refused to do. Williams responded that over the years he "paid millions of dollars in taxes ... except in 1986." Although a crash in oil prices in 1986 crippled the whole Texas economy and bankrupted many in the oil and gas business, the issue highlighted the breaks the wealthy got, even though his losses far exceeded his income that year. The Williams campaign berated the media for what they considered one-sided coverage, but polls showed that after the handshake that wasn't and his admission that he didn't pay taxes in 1986, his 12-point lead reversed to a four-point deficit.

Richards ultimately won the election by 2 percent — just over 99,000 votes — fueled by the wide gender gap between the two. On election night, supporters shouted for him to run again. He responded, "I'm an Aggie, but I'm not crazy."

How does 1990 inform 2016? Like Clinton has done to Trump, Richards turned Williams' own words against him: Her campaign ads included direct quotes from Williams, enough to turn off many voters. Richards shifted to turn out her base, especially women, and campaigned in areas of strength. Clinton will do much the same, especially in emerging battlegrounds like New Mexico and Colorado.

The Richards campaign painted Williams as a wheeler-dealer with little substance, as Clinton has done of Trump. Richards also deflected criticism of her battles with addiction and reframed them into a strength while exploiting the gender gap — the campaign portrayed her as a tough protector of the family that had "been through hell and back" and was still fighting. Clinton may combat her legal troubles in much the same way.

Even with Williams' coarse and insensitive statements and Richards' adept exploitation of the material he gave her, the 1990 election in Texas was close. In 2016, Clinton also cannot depend on Trump's tasteless comments alone to defeat him. The question becomes whether Trump will finally go too far and have his own "handshake" moment that gives his campaign the fatal blow.

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Brandon Rottinghaus

Professor, University of Houston