The long-shot race for the chance to unseat Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will come down to Houston businessman Andrew White, the son of former Democratic Texas Gov. Mark White; and former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. The two will compete in the runoff for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination on Tuesday.
Some political scientists in Texas don’t mince words talking about the likelihood of a Democrat actually beating Abbott — one of the 10 most popular governors in the country, according to a Morning Consult poll conducted in January. As Rice University political science professor Mark Jones put it, “The race between Valdez and White determines who loses to Greg Abbott in November.”
An April Quinnipiac University poll found Abbott leading Valdez and White by 9 and 7 points, respectively. The two Democrats are, of course, more optimistic about their chances.
“That’s the old narrative,” White told me during a March interview. “[That’s] the conventional wisdom that’s been spread over three to four months. The last week of early voting has turned that conventional wisdom upside down.”
But no matter what happens in November, outside political observers say the current primary could indicate whether the future of Texas Democrats lies.
Valdez and White each represent different paths forward for Democrats in Texas. White, a moderate businessman, is the candidate who could appeal to suburban Texans who dislike President Donald Trump and the current strain of right-wing politics dominating the statehouse under Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Valdez, Texas’s first openly gay and first Latina sheriff, is likely to appeal to the state’s Latino voters, especially given the current political climate.
Valdez said she’s spoken to voters who voted for her simply because she was the only Latina on the ballot.
“This is not the same Texas that [Abbott] took four years ago,” she said. “This is a different Texas. Change is coming. I want to be the change-maker.”
What White and Valdez are running on
Both first-time candidates for a statewide political office, Valdez and White were spurred to get involved this year for slightly different reasons. Valdez said a deluge of nasty national political rhetoric combined with what she sees as dysfunctional, moneyed state government administration inspired her to run for office.
White started thinking seriously about a run after his home city of Houston was devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Using his small boat, White became one of the many civilian rescuers who saved neighbors from the rising floodwaters.
For White, the floods weren’t just a natural event; they were also indicative of a failure of state planning and response, something he said has continued.
“The fact that we had that flood is a lack of leadership of 20 years ago,” he said. “We have entire neighborhoods that don’t exist anymore. There are people living in hotels still. [Abbott] called a special session for a bathroom bill, but doesn’t call a special session for Hurricane Harvey.”
White says that in his years in Texas, he’s noticed a rightward shift within the state’s Republican Party, especially with Abbott and Patrick at the helm.
“The extremists have slowly and quietly taken over,” he said. “I think the average voter in Texas is realizing what’s been happening.”
The state’s economy is booming (it’s the second biggest behind California), and there is a massive influx of people moving to the state. But both White and Valdez have a simple message: All is not well in Texas.
Education is emerging as a key issue
White often points to the state’s low rankings in education quality; Education Week listed it 40th overall among states for factors including school funding, student achievement on test scores, and how well schools prepared students for the future (in past years, the rating was lower).
“Texas has one of the best economies in the nation, and our schools are among the worst in the nation,” White said. “Something doesn’t make sense because we’re Texas and our economy is doing well.”
The state’s special education system has shut out many students and families that need services, as a 2016 Houston Chronicle investigation found that state officials had arbitrarily decided that 8.5 percent of public school students should get special education services — no more. Since the 2004 decision, many families across the state have been denied services.
With teachers striking or considering strikes in states including West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, lack of education funding and low teacher pay is becoming an issue in multiple conservative states.
Valdez and White both hammer on the point that while Republicans in state government have denied Medicaid expansion funding for residents, they’re more than willing to spend money on enhanced border security, to the tune of $800 million over the next two years.
“All we’ve got is boys and their toys,” Valdez said. “We have to fight wisely, not by spending. You can’t just throw money at it and expect to solve the problem.”
And then there’s the issue of guns. A recent deadly school shooting at Santa Fe High School near Houston has prompted White to call on Abbott to convene a special session on school safety, asking state leaders to divert hundreds of millions of dollars meant to amp up border security to the state’s schools instead.
“People are fed up, and they’re sick of it,” White said of Abbott’s leadership. “My message is bringing sanity and reason back to state government.”
Valdez echoed her Democratic opponent and said she was optimistic the governor’s mansion could ultimately flip.
“What we’ve seen is an energy and excitement I haven’t seen in a while,” she said. “I wouldn’t be in this race if I didn’t think we had a chance.”