11/08/2012 11:46 am ET Updated Jan 08, 2013

What Washington Can Learn from Big Tex

My 9-year-old son looked sad one morning, and his explanation surprised me.

"I'm sad about Big Tex," he said.

If you're a Texan reading this, you probably just smiled ruefully and remembered visiting the Texas State Fair as a kid. If you're not from around here, you're wondering what I'm talking about. In a nutshell, that's the problem when people in DC try to make political ads for Texans.

We've got bigger problems in this country than whether the DC political class can relate to Texans. Right now, what I'm ordering for lunch is a bigger challenge. But soon, Texas will be the biggest swing state in the country thanks to an exploding Hispanic population, according to Jeb Bush.

"It's a math question," said Bush. "Four years from now, Texas is going to be a so-called blue state. Imagine Texas as a blue state, how hard it would be to carry the presidency or gain control of the Senate."

Ohio has 18 electoral votes? That's cute. Texas has 38, as many as Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia combined, meaning both parties are going to have to lingua the local franca if they want to win the White House in 2016 and beyond.

Unfortunately, outsiders seem incapable of avoiding hackneyed cowboy clichés when they make ads for Texans. Republican bad boy Fred Davis once made a state convention video for Sen. John Cornyn that portrayed Texas' senior senator as a ridin', ropin' cowboy called "Big, bad John." As Chris Cellizza of the Washington Post wrote, the ad "went viral -- and not in a good way for Cornyn." Six years later, we're still mocking Sen. Cornyn as "Big John" behind his back.

Democrats do it, too. One of my clients in a targeted Texas congressional race "enjoyed" support from Super PACs. That meant we had to endure their television commercials, one of which cast this southwest Texas race as "high noon." For the record, "High Noon" was set in New Mexico, but that was the least of my problems. The ad featured a cowboy with jingling spurs walking down a dusty main street in a frontier town that might as well have been called Cliché City: swinging saloon doors, bull whips, a horse-drawn stagecoach and a wanted poster all make appearances. Those 19th-century tropes have as much to do with modern life in Texas as fur traders do in present-day Ohio, but Ohioans get an ad featuring astronaut John Glenn, and Texans get pale John Wayne imitations.

It's an easy mistake. Texans wear cowboy boots, drive pickup trucks, and own guns. But we don't want to actually be cowboys. Jon Bon Jovi might sing about being a cowboy riding a steel horse, but he's from New Jersey. A Texan warned our mothers not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys. We want to be quarterbacks, tycoons and presidents. In other words, Texans want to be the boss. The ultimate fantasy of a Texan is to own a ranch and hire cowboys to do all the hard work.

Which brings us back to Big Tex, the 52-foot-tall mechanical cowboy who was the most recognizable landmark at the state fair. When he burned down, the mayor rushed to the scene. One eyewitness compared losing Big Tex to a death in the family. Texans memorialized Big Tex at the fairgrounds with candles, flowers and corny dogs. An interstate billboard wished Big Tex a speedy recovery, and a funeral home held a memorial service presided over by a real Baptist pastor.

To Texans, Big Tex wasn't an animatronic incarnation of the mythical cowboy. He was the place your momma told you to go if you got lost at the state fair. Later, you told your friends to meet you at Big Tex. Texans mourned that big goofy machine because it was a part of our lives. We also eat barbecue not because it's what they fed ranch hands for lunch but because it's really tasty. We've moved on. With the rest of the country about to become very interested in our votes, maybe it's time for the DC political class to do so as well.