Texas Democrats prepare for crowded, potentially competitive gubernatorial primary

Clockwise from top left: Dallas businessman Jeffrey Payne; Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez; former congressional candidate Tom Wakely; and Andrew White, son of former Texas Gov. Mark White. (Facebook photos via the Texas Tribune)

by Patrick Svitek | The Texas Tribune

Texas Democrats appear headed toward a less-than-common scenario in their decades-long bid to retake the governor's office: a crowded, potentially competitive primary.

With less than a week left in the filing period, six little-known Democrats have filed to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott next year, with two more prominent names expected to enter the race by the Monday deadline: Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White. An eight-way primary could be the party's most crowded nominating contest for governor since at least the 1980s.

While Valdez — the only current elected official among the eight candidates — would immediately secure frontrunner status if she runs, she faces no guarantee of the kind of cakewalk to her party's nomination that former state Sen. Wendy Davis enjoyed in 2014. White, who is set to announce his campaign Thursday in Houston, has been laying the groundwork for a serious bid, while some of the other contenders have been campaigning for months.

“I think that if Sheriff Valdez runs and if Mr. White also announces, then I think that the two of them would likely be the higher-profile candidates in the primary, and I think that voters in the Democratic primary in 2018 will have a lot of choices,” said state Rep. Chris Turner, the Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the party’s caucus in the House and served as Davis’ campaign manager. “I think that dynamic is good and hopefully makes for an interesting choice and conversations for Democrats in 2018 in the primary.”

“I expect we’ll have a competitive primary, and I think that’s a good thing — it’s healthy,” added Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, a liberal advocacy group.

Regardless of what the final Democratic primary field looks like, dislodging Abbott could require a herculean effort. He has over $40 million in the bank, and a number of top Texas Democrats — like former U.S. Housing Secretary Julián Castro — have already taken a pass on going up against him in 2018. Abbott's only primary opponent at the moment is a perennial candidate named Larry SECEDE Kilgore.

Much attention in recent days has centered on Valdez, who would have to step down as sheriff as soon as she announces a gubernatorial bid. There appeared to be a false start last week, when Dallas media reported Valdez had submitted her resignation, only for her office to deny it. Republicans pounced on the confusion, pressuring Dallas County to answer whether she violated the state Constitution’s “resign to run” provision.

If she gets in the race, Valdez would give Democrats a gubernatorial candidate with a compelling political profile: First elected in 2004, she was the first openly gay, Hispanic female sheriff in the country. She’s had speaking slots at the Texas Democratic Convention and the Democratic National Convention, where she gave a prime-time speech last year. And she has previously been to battle with Abbott over an issue that’s since become only more front and center in Texas politics: immigration enforcement.

Party leaders praise Valdez for her political chops. In an interview last month, state party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said she is “one of the best retail campaigners we have in our party, and ... if she decides to run, she will run a very strong campaign.”

White cuts a markedly different image. A Houston investor who has never been elected to office before, he is presenting himself as a conservative Democrat with business instincts.

As White has explored a run, he has faced questions about his commitment to abortion rights — to the point that Davis took to Facebook in October to warn friends that White is “anti-choice.” He admits to having conflicted feelings about the issue, and he has promised to meet with women’s health groups to learn more.

“We’re a party of a big — a broad — tent, and so there’s always been Democrats who have been elected who are pro-life,” Hinojosa said in the interview, noting that the decision is ultimately up to the voters. "Obviously in the platform of the Democratic Party, there’s a very strong pro-women’s health, pro-choice plank on that, but it’s not a disqualifier if someone is not, and so, you know, if he wants to run, he’s welcome into our party."

To some political observers, a Valdez-White primary, if it becomes truly competitive, could raise questions about Texas Democratic politics that could have implications far beyond the 2018 elections.

“Andrew White is the kind of candidate who represents the Texas Democratic Party of the past, but that’s not necessarily bad because the past meant winning,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “But the future of the Democratic Party is not going in the direction of moderation or Anglo candidates.”

If they enter the race, Valdez and White would top a field that already includes six candidates: former Balch Springs Mayor Cedric Davis; Houston electronics businessman Joe Mumbach, Dallas investment adviser Adrian Ocegueda, Dallas businessman Jeffrey Payne, former congressional candidate Tom Wakely and Grady Yarbrough, a perennial candidate who unexpectedly won the Democratic nomination for railroad commissioner last year.

Of those six candidates, Payne and Wakely appear to have been running the longest — both since July — and have been the most active on the campaign trail. Payne said he has been to multiple locations spread across 23 counties, with plans to stop in 140 counties before the primary. Wakely said he has traveled to 50 cities and towns — he’s on a “La Quinta tour,” visiting with Texans over free breakfast at the the hotel chain’s locations throughout the state.

In an interview Monday, Payne spoke warmly of the possibility that there would be two gay gubernatorial candidates — himself and Valdez — suggesting it would be a sign of progress for the LGBT community in Texas. But he made clear he sees himself with an advantage at this stage in the race, noting that he is “six months ahead of anyone who’s going to suddenly announce.”

“I think at this point for anyone to jump in,” Wakely said, “it’s going to be a pretty hard catch-up for these guys to get out and make trips to all these little small towns and cities and talk to people.”

Among candidates like Payne and Wakely, there’s not much love for the state party and its apparent efforts to recruit a candidate for governor with a higher profile.

“We know they’re looking for a more visible [candidate], but my whole thing has been the visible candidate they’ve had for 24 years — we’re at a quarter of a century now, and we’re not picking up any speed with it,” Payne said. “In fact, we had our worst loss four years ago, which was unfortunate. Wendy was a good candidate.”

Wakely — who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, last year — has been outspoken in calling for the party to take more seriously the black vote, which he believes will be key to winning in 2018. He is running as a ticket with Michael Cooper, an African-American candidate for lieutenant governor.

Disclosure: Progress Texas and the University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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