The ex-governor, the candidate, his wife and her ex

Wendy Davis announces her candidacy for governor of Texas on October 3, 2013. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis has been accused of putting ambition ahead of family

One was a leader in the Republican Party, reported to be on the short list for a vice-presidential nomination in 2012. The other is a rising star among Democrats, who in less than a year has gone from a little-known state senator to a high-profile campaign for governor.

Now, former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell is under indictment for corruption, his reputation in shambles. And Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis has found that her rise to fame has brought harsh scrutiny, as she is forced to explain discrepancies in details of her past.

The two politicians' stories may seem quite different, but they have a common thread in the role of spouses in politics and life.

Fall from grace

First, Mr McDonnell. His legal fate has been tied inextricably to that of his wife, Maureen. She was indicted alongside him, and the court documents dwell in detail on her attempts to have a wealthy donor buy her a dress for the gubernatorial inauguration and a $6,000 Rolex watch for her husband.

The Washington Post's Petula Dvorak writes that the heart of the story is Ms McDonnell's vanity.

"She comes from a humble background and worked hard as a stay-at-home mom, with occasional forays into home-based businesses such as vitamin supplements and teddy bear sales," Dvorak writes. "She was a Redskins cheerleader who married a football guy. He proposed in a parking lot. It was a life that didn't exactly polish her for the world of politics and Ladies Who Lunch."

Ms McDonnell's "misjudgement and taste for luxury" contributed to the governor's downfall, writes the New York Times' Trip Gabriel.

He quotes Republican political consultant Kellyanne Conway on how jealousy can take hold in political spouses: "There is the resentment of one person being in the spotlight and the other picking up Cheerios off the floor in her husband's college sweatshirt night after night."

Politico's Alexander Burns and John F Harris write that Mr McDonnell has been portrayed as a dupe: "A well-intentioned man, pure of heart but weak in dealing with the people around him, led cluelessly into dangerous legal territory by an acquisitive and ill-tempered wife - Lady Macbeth with an Amex card."

All of this has Slate's Dahlia Lithwick crying foul:

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ex-Governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, have been charged with corruption

The implication that it was the former NFL cheerleader and her quest for designer shoes and gowns that brought the McDonnells down is kind of a journalistic chip shot... But the truth is that McDonnell was just as profligate and greedy as his wife, and the indictment proves it. So why is his own fondness for racking up exorbitant golf expenses relegated to the last disembodied paragraph of the Times piece? Is it because in the hierarchy of political greed, golfing, and private jets rank as legitimate expenses whereas couture dresses and shoes are foolish? Remember: When men are extravagant it's manly. When women do it, it's tacky.

A questioned past

The story of Wendy Davis, in a way, is a mirror image of Mr McDonnell's. Whereas with Mr McDonnell the spouse was being used to bludgeon the politician, in this case it is Ms Davis's ex-husband who is being held up as too good for her.

The story began several weeks ago, when a Dallas Morning News profile of the Texas Democrat noted some discrepancies between reality and the single-mom, pulled-herself-up-from-poverty story she presented. Her conservative critics pounced.

She was 21, not 19, when she divorced her first husband. She only lived for a few months in a trailer park with her daughter before moving back in with her mother. And the focus of conservative fire: she did not work her way through college and Harvard Law School on her own; she remarried and her husband cashed in his retirement savings to help pay her tuition.

While Ms Davis was at Harvard, her husband stayed back in Dallas to look after their children. The couple would later divorce - shortly after Ms Davis's student loans had been paid off, her ex-husband said - and Mr Davis was given custody of the two daughters, by then in college and high school.

"The truth is less coal-miner's daughter than gold-digger who found a sugar daddy to raise her kids and pay for her education," writes conservative commentator Ann Coulter. "If someone else is taking care of your kids and paying your tuition, that's not amazing."

She suggested that maybe Mr Davis should be the one running for governor: "He's the one who raised two kids, including a stepdaughter, while holding down a job and paying for his wife's law school. There's a hard-luck story!"

Syndicated columnist Mona Charen says Ms Davis's situation is an indictment of liberal ideology:

This false heroic tale is a common trope on the left these days - women doing it all by themselves. It's more than partisan hackery. It reinforces the very damaging notion that women don't need husbands. Many, many women are swallowing this propaganda and acting on it. They, their children and our society are suffering mightily as a result.

The New York Post's Naomi Schaefer Riley thinks that the new information will be poison to Ms Davis's political career.

"Who could resist the siren call of the Ivy League?" she writes. "Well, I suspect that most women and plenty of men would, if it meant moving across the country from their kids for three years… Americans will forgive a lot in a politician. But a woman who leaves her kids is just beyond the pale."

Davis's defenders

Unlike Mr McDonnell, who has seen erstwhile friends and allies abandon him now that his power is gone, Ms Davis has drawn defenders from across the left.

The Daily Beast's Kirsten Powers writes that Ms Davis's treatment by conservative critics represents a double-standard - both in how they view men versus women and how they judge Democrats versus Republicans:

Here's a news flash: people who run for office are typically ambitious. But only with women is ambition treated as something shameful.

The double standard is reminiscent of how Sarah Palin was treated when she chose to run for vice president in 2008. Her candidacy set off a controversy about whether she was neglecting her children, in particular her special-needs baby. Back then, conservatives were the ones mostly defending her and expressing outrage that anyone would question her decision. Now they see attacking a woman's parenting choices as fair game.

The criticism of Ms Davis, writes syndicated columnist Connie Schultz, echoes the campaign against the last Democratic governor of Texas, Ann Richards, whose divorce and treatment for alcoholism were used in an anonymous letter-writing campaign to call her "an unfit wife and mother".

As for the view that the revelations will damage Ms Davis's political career, Salon's Carolyn Edgar thinks that it comes from an outdated view of how husbands and wives work together.

"The financial and emotional support Davis received from her second husband, Jeff, is the type of support most people in committed relationships expect from their partners, and hardly counts as gold digging," she writes.

She continues:

Davis' post-divorce relationship with Jeff Davis is an encouraging example of the type of co-parenting relationship most of us single mothers hope to have with our children's fathers. The feminization of Jeff Davis as "a better single mother than Wendy Davis" reflects a level of blindness to the ways that modern parenting has changed from traditional norms.

Ms Davis's two daughters have also come forward to say that they never felt their mother abandoned them.

'Abortion Barbie'

The National Review's Andrew Stiles writes that liberals are trying to change the subject: "Rather than address the actual discrepancies in Davis's 'rags to riches' narrative, her liberal supporters have devoted most of their energy to blasting her critics as sexist foot-soldiers in the Republican party's 'war on women.'"

Ms Davis gained national prominence when she stood for hours on the floor of the Texas legislature to block a state law increasing regulation of abortion clinics and banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy. For this RedState blog's Erick Erickson nicknamed her "Abortion Barbie" - and he was quick to weigh in against the liberal pushback.

"Instead of simply declaring her story exaggerated, the left is claiming Davis is being held to a double standard or they are simply screaming sexism," he writes. "Wendy Davis, the feminist hero, is reduced to playing the role of victim, victimized by her own fabrications being confronted with truth."

The vehemence with which Erickson has condemned Ms Davis (including tweeting "she's so cute when she's lying") has created some splits on the right, however.

Fox News host Greta Van Susteran writes on her blog: "I don't care how much you disagree or agree with Texas' Wendy Davis, you have to agree that this guy, Erick Erickson, is a real jerk and is really lousy at being a spokesperson for his views."

The campaign for governor in Texas is still in its early stages, and the jury is still out on whether the recent furore will affect Ms Davis's chances. She was considered a long-shot from the start, so anything that takes her off-message could prove debilitating. The Democrat has capitalised on her national name recognition to raise more than $10m (£6m), however, which means her candidacy will have the funds to make major investments in voter outreach and television advertising.

Meanwhile, Mr McDonnell has also been fundraising - for a legal defence team that will help him try to avoid a prison sentence.

Two politicians. Two spouses. Two controversies treading the fine line between love and politics, fidelity and ambition.