Lupe Valdez and Andrew White held their one and only debate Friday night in the campaign to earn the Democratic nomination to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott in November.
Each of the candidates held their own, which was welcome news for supporters of Valdez, the front-runner whose sometimes shaky performances in answering questions on the campaign trail had raised doubts about whether she was well-versed and sure-footed enough to be the party’s standard-bearer in the fall or serve as governor if she prevailed.
“There were no knockouts in the debate,” University of Houston political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said. “It’s a split decision, but White wins on points. He showed competency, honesty and likability, but it’s likely too little too late to convince many progressive Democrats to support him or expand the pool of moderates to show up and vote.”
“Expectations were very low for Sheriff Valdez, but she had a strong performance and shushed critics who claim she’s not well-versed on policy matters,” Rottinghaus said.
Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, led White, a Houston entrepreneur, 43 percent to 27 percent in the March 6 primary. The runoff is May 22, and early voting begins Monday.
“While Valdez’s debate performance was far from spectacular, it was sufficiently competent to not raise serious doubts among her supporters and provide White with a game-changing moment,” Rice University political scientist Mark Jones said.
Asked by reporters after the debate why he thought he was the better candidate to take on Abbott, White said, “Here’s the data: Received the endorsement from every major newspaper in the state. Raised 10 times as much money as Lupe has. You’re going to have to raise money. I’ve proven I can do that. I’ve got the fight. We all know who Greg Abbott wants to run against. On Twitter, in tweet after tweet after tweet, he wants to run against Lupe Valdez.”
The Abbott campaign has treated Valdez as the presumptive nominee, most clearly evidenced by its launch Thursday of a new website — lupevaldez.org — seeking to do to her what the Abbott campaign did to the party’s 2014 nominee, state Sen. Wendy Davis, defining her early on as “too liberal for Texas.”
Offering a question from the audience at the debate, which was held at St. James’ Episcopal Church in East Austin, the moderator, Dallas Morning News political reporter Gromer Jeffers, asked Valdez, “Why do you think you’ve lost the endorsement of every major newspaper in the state and how do you respond to their concerns that you won’t be able to stand up to the pressure Greg Abbott will put on you?”
Valdez cited her endorsements from, among others, the AFL-CIO, Planned Parenthood, the Castro brothers — U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro, D-San Antonio, and his twin brother, Julián, the former San Antonio mayor who is contemplating a run for president — 22 Democratic state representatives and three Democratic state senators.
“It’s not important, it’s not as important, to be able to verbalize, it’s more important to be able to act,” Valdez said.
Jeffers pressed on, asking Valdez about “the criticism of some newspapers, and quite frankly some Democrats, that you are not as sharp on the issue as Andrew White.”
‘It’s not that I’m not as sharp, because I am just as sharp,” Valdez said. “The problem may be that I don’t talk newspaper language. I talk people language.”
After the debate, White suggested that voters watch the Facebook Live of an interview earlier in the week with Valdez by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial board.
“It’s a 30-minute spectacle,” said White, who also appeared before the board.
After the interviews with White and Valdez, the Star-Telegram editorialized that, “In a head-to-head debate with Gov. Greg Abbott, White could hold his own. He’s in command of the issues and decisive about what he believes.”
But, they wrote, “Throughout the conversation Valdez seemed to search for answers and what she came up with was often simplistic.”
Also Friday, the Austin Chronicle, noting that it had “tepidly endorsed Lupe Valdez in the primary,” withdrew its endorsement — while not backing White — noting her “tenuous grasp of policy.”
The Chronicle wrote that it had “previously advised the candidate to brush up on her institutional knowledge. Unfortunately, those shortcomings have persisted in a way that has made it unwise to invest in her candidacy.”