- Jonathan Tilove American-Statesman Staff
Gov. Greg Abbott filed paperwork Saturday to place his name on the March primary ballot for governor as the monthlong filing period began. The filing, before a large crowd in West Austin, had been expected since Abbott announced four months ago he was running for re-election.
What was less known then, as now, is Abbott’s Democratic opponent.
So far three candidates have said they are running: Jeffrey Payne, a Dallas businessman and former International Mr. Leather who has never run for office before; Tom Wakely, a self-described “Berniecrat with a Panama hat,” from San Antonio, who lost to U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith by 20 points in 2016; and Garry Brown, who ran a distant third for Travis County commissioner, Precinct 2, in the 2014 Democratic primary, and now serves as executive assistant to Williamson County Commissioner Terry Cook.
Democratic state party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who is officially neutral, is hoping that Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez will make good on her expressed interest in the race, though she would be starting out both later and as a longer shot than Wendy Davis, the former state senator from Fort Worth who lost to Abbott by 20 points in 2014. Also, to run, Valdez would, under state law, have to surrender her job as sheriff with three years left in her term.
The state party, meanwhile, has given the cold shoulder to Houston investor Andrew White, a political neophyte but the son of former Texas Gov. Mark White, who died in August. White wants to run as a pragmatic centrist and has indicated he isn’t in favor of abortion rights in all situations, which had Davis last week leaving the door open a crack that she might run again if only to keep White from winning.
Sometime between now and Dec. 11, the last day for filing, this will all sort itself out.
But for now, Democratic disarray heading into the filing period is an inauspicious sign for a party that has not won statewide office since 1994 — the longest losing streak in the nation — undermining the state party’s prospects in the 2018 midterm elections. The Democratic stumbles in Texas come even as Democrats elsewhere are eyeing 2018 as a tremendous opportunity, after Tuesday’s sweeping Democratic victories in Virginia, New Jersey and elsewhere and with President Donald Trump’s approval ratings at historic lows.
“If we were Montana or Wyoming or North Dakota, maybe no one would notice, but we’re Texas,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said. “It will be a sad indictment of the Texas Democratic Party if they are unable to recruit a credible candidate to run for governor of the second-most populous state in the country.”
At stake is not just the very limited prospects of success for the Democratic candidate for governor or the other down-ballot statewide offices.
More critically, the failure to mount a serious race for governor threatens to undermine U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s promising but long-shot bid to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz as well as undermine other Democrats running in at least three congressional districts seen as competitive — Republican U.S. Reps. John Culberson of Houston, Pete Sessions of Dallas and Will Hurd of Helotes represent districts won by Hillary Clinton in 2016 — and a fistful of state legislative seats.
“If Culberson and Sessions and Hurd all end up winning by somewhere between 1 and 3 or 4 percent of the vote, some Democrats will rue the day they failed to field a top-tier, well-funded gubernatorial candidate,” Jones said.
Trump beat Clinton by 9 points in Texas in 2016, less than half the margin of the Davis debacle.
But the entire Republican statewide slate will be well-financed incumbents.
“They should be very strong,” said Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson. “Trump is not going to put a wobble in the Republican ticket statewide in Texas.”
Last Sunday, at a Latino voter summit on the University of Texas campus, Davis was asked by moderator Evan Smith, co-founder and CEO of the Texas Tribune, whether she would run for governor in 2018.
“I’ve ruled it out 99 percent,” Davis replied. Smith asked why she was leaving that 1 percent chance she would run.
“Because no one is stepping forward,” Davis said.
The next day, at a news conference with the Texas Freedom Network on the north steps of the Capitol, Davis fine-tuned her answer on running again.
“There’s only the very remotest of chances that I would do that,” Davis said. “I’m waiting for someone credible to step forward so I can throw my full support behind them.”
That “someone credible,” she made clear, does not include White, who she has concluded is “anti-choice” on abortion.
“I’m disappointed that he has expressed the belief that that is not a decision that should be left up to women,” Davis said.
In a position statement posted last Sunday, White wrote, “I want this to be clear: Roe v Wade is the law of the land, and I respect the law.”
But, Davis said, “Roe may not be the law of the land for very long, and it’s going to be left to states to answer that question.”
“I know that question has been put to him — whether he would sign some of these anti-abortion bills that have been coming across the governor’s desk in Texas — and the answer is `yes,’ and so that’s not about respecting individual agency and autonomy and liberty,” Davis told the American-Statesman. “That’s about imposing one’s values and perspectives on the choices that are made by women in this state, and I just can’t get behind that.”
But White told the Statesman on Thursday that he doesn’t know where Davis is getting her information.
Davis and his father were allies, but White said, “I’ve never spoken to her about this. I’ve never met her.”
In his policy statement on abortion, White expresses conflicting feelings.
“I can’t understand when a human life actually begins. It’s a mystery known only to God, and, as such my faith tells me to protect the beginning of life. To me, that means working on policies to reduce the demand for abortions,” he writes.
“Do I respect the rights of the mother? Yes. Do I respect that a woman’s body is private? Absolutely,” White writes. “So, does this mean at times my own views conflict with each other? Yes.”
Of Davis, White said, “This is an important issue to her and a lot of other people, but to me it doesn’t make sense to take an extreme on either side and say that’s the only way to make progress. And you’re not going to be elected governor doing that, and we saw that four years ago.”
“I’m a centrist candidate so I represent the views of the middle. For some people that’s not acceptable, it’s my way or the highway, it’s us vs. them,” White said. “I’m very, very serious about this. There’s a huge response to the approach I’ve taken — let’s be less extreme. Let’s find ways we can make progress on issues, even the toughest issues — and people are saying, `Finally.’”
If the brush-off by the state party, and the brush-back by the 2014 nominee, were intended to dissuade White from running, it’s not working.
He’s made up his mind, he said. Now it’s just a matter of picking the date to declare.
“If Wendy Davis is 99 percent sure she’s not going to run, then I’m 99 percent sure I am going to run,” White said.
“I’m in back-to-back to back-to-back-to-back meetings with people, and I’m building the connections and the relationships and the message that I think will win this nomination,” White said. “If it’s a race, I’m not going to back down.”
White wants to talk to Davis directly: “I literally just texted her and said, `Let’s get together soon.’ And she replied. She said she would schedule a phone call or meeting in person.”
“White might not be the right candidate,” Jillson said. “He’s probably not the right candidate as a first-time candidate.”
But, Jillson said, blackballing White on abortion “is the wrong reason” to disqualify him.
“In a red state, you’ve got to be much more open than that,” Jillson said. “You have to think in terms of a ticket that can be attractive to different kinds of people for different kinds of reasons, and if there is a pro-choice litmus test in the Texas Democratic Party, that is yet one more piece of evidence that they will be a long time getting back to competitive status.”
Jones said that White’s middle ground on abortion is the median position for Texas voters. And, he asks, “Should the person who set Democratic efforts to turn Texas blue back a half-dozen years really be serving as the arbiter of who runs and who doesn’t run for governor of Texas?”
But Davis said Democrats picking a candidate who isn’t solid on abortion rights would be a self-defeating mistake.
“You cannot win a general election in this state without bringing the base along with you, lock, stock and barrel,” said Davis, who added that she is helping the state Democratic Party find the right candidate.
“I don’t want it to be me,” she said. “The problem is I don’t suffer any romantic notion about what it means to run statewide. I know how hard it is. I know what it takes out of you personally and what it takes from your family. I gave it everything I had in 2014. It’s hard to find that again.”
Enter Lupe Valdez?
Within hours of those remarks on Monday, Valdez, the Democratic sheriff of Dallas County who raised her profile two years ago by sparring with Abbott over “sanctuary cities” policies, told the Texas Tribune that she was “in the exploratory process” of considering a bid for governor.
“I’ve been approached and I’m listening,” Valdez said.
But, in short order, her office said that Valdez “is currently focused on her job as sheriff,” and that, “at this point, there is no new information to add,” and that she wasn’t doing any more interviews on the matter.
“People have been talking and Sheriff Valdez is listening as she always does,” Melinda Urbina, a spokeswoman for the sheriff, said in a brief statement.
But Hinojosa, the Democratic Party chairman, retweeted the Tribune’s original news about Valdez’s interest, adding, “And Sheriff Valdez knows how to win. She busted a major hole in the Dallas Co. Republican wall in 2004 and today Dallas Co. is deep BLUE!”
“We have to remember that Lupe Valdez is the sheriff of Dallas County, which contains the fifth-largest city in America,” Hinojosa told the Statesman.
“She got elected in 2004, beating an incumbent Republican sheriff when there was not a single countywide Democratic elected official and hadn’t been for 20 years,” Hinojosa said. “She is really leaning heavily, as I understand it, toward running and will be a great candidate, especially because she understands the law and order issue really well and has a track record of success as a sheriff and is an Hispanic woman who has, I believe, a huge amount of support across the state of Texas.”
Valdez also would be the first openly gay person elected governor in the United States — as would Payne if he were to win the nomination and beat Abbott.
Hinojosa said that while Valdez would forfeit her office as soon as she announced, she might be able to continue to serve until the Dallas County Commissioners Court chose a successor.
Jillson, who has seen Valdez with some frequency over the years, said, “She’s solid, but by no means galvanizing … very reticent, understated, quiet,” and more suited to speaking to Rotary Clubs than rallies, though she did have a coveted speaking role at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
Jillson also could think of no example of a sheriff ever being elected Texas governor.
“It’s just a hell of a jump,” he said.
In 1994, Land Commissioner Garry Mauro was one of the last class of Democratic candidates elected statewide, along with Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Attorney General Dan Morales and Comptroller John Sharp. Gov. Ann Richards lost that year to George W. Bush. Four years later, Bush, laying the groundwork for his 2000 presidential campaign, crushed gubernatorial rival Mauro by 37 points and led Republicans to a historic sweep of all the statewide offices, though Sharp lost to Rick Perry for lieutenant governor by less than 2 points.
Surveying the scene now, Mauro thinks it might be smarter for Texas Democrats to pass on seriously challenging Abbott with his more than $40 million in the bank and strong poll numbers, and focus on down-ballot, and riper statewide targets with higher negatives, such as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Cruz. Also, Attorney General Ken Paxton is under indictment for securities fraud. Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is a ceaseless source of inflammatory social media posts.
“In an ideal circumstance, we would be running a strong, capable and funded candidate against Greg Abbott. The absence of that doesn’t prohibit us from being successful in down-ballot and other races,” said Democratic strategist Matt Angle, who is based in Washington, D.C., and since 2005 has directed the Lone Star Project to challenge GOP dominance of Texas politics.
Mike Collier, a former Republican who switched parties and was the Democratic nominee for comptroller in 2014, losing to Glenn Hegar by just about the same margin by which Davis lost to Abbott, is running for lieutenant governor. Austin attorney Justin Nelson announced last week he plans a Democratic run for attorney general. Kim Olson, a farmer and retired Air Force colonel who was part of the first generation of female military pilots, filed paperwork Saturday for a Democratic run for agriculture commissioner. O’Rourke, from El Paso, is the only Democrat running for statewide office so far who has won a political race before.
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, said Texas Democrats might benefit from the invigoration of a primary contest for governor.
In the end, someone’s name will appear opposite Greg Abbott’s on the 2018 ballot, and, Hinojosa said, if it’s Lupe Valdez, with the likes of Collier, Nelson, Olson and a few other blanks filled in, “We’ll have one of the strongest Democratic tickets in 25 years.”