The Democratic Nominee for Texas Governor Is a Lukewarm Win for Progressives

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 28: Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez delivers remarks on the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center, July 28, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton received the number of votes needed to secure the party's nomination. An estimated 50,000 people are expected in Philadelphia, including hundreds of protesters and members of the media. The four-day Democratic National Convention kicked off July 25. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Democratic nominee for Texas governor Lupe Valdez speaks at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on July 28, 2016.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Texas Democrats picked Lupe Valdez in the state’s gubernatorial primary runoff Tuesday night, making her the first Latina and first openly gay person to win a major party’s nomination for Texas governor. Valdez, a former Dallas County sheriff, beat opponent Andrew White, a businessman and son of a former Texas governor, by a comfortable 6.2 percentage points.

Valdez’s win looked less certain in recent months, as White outfundraised her in every period but the most recent one. By mid-May, her campaign said she had $258,000 in cash on hand, while White had $981,000, bolstered in large part by the $1 million he loaned his campaign in January. White also earned endorsements from the state’s two biggest newspapers. The Dallas Morning News offered a particularly harsh assessment, writing that Valdez had a “gross unfamiliarity with state issues…particularly an almost incoherent attempt to discuss state financing” and said outright that she didn’t know whether Texas spent $8 million or $8 billion on border control. The Austin Chronicle, an alt-weekly that gave its endorsement to Valdez, qualified it by saying, “We’re not impressed with either major Democratic candidate and call on the Texas Democratic Party to get their shit together.”

In an even more hurtful blow, the Houston GLBT Political Caucus and the Houston Stonewall Young Democrats endorsed White, a straight man from Houston, over Valdez, a lesbian. Though White promised to fight for LGBTQ rights in the governor’s office, he drew criticism for holding a leadership position in a church that argues against gay marriage and considers homosexuality a sin. (In April, White said he’d resigned from that position a few months earlier, but maintained his membership in the church.) The president of the Houston GLBT Political Caucus told the Austin American-Statesman that Valdez “did not reassure us that she would be able to, or even had knowledge of the position of the office” to successfully defend LGBTQ rights.

Still, Valdez earned endorsements from the AFL-CIO, the Victory Fund—a PAC devoted to electing pro-choice LGBTQ candidates—Planned Parenthood Texas, and high-profile Democrats, including former Rep. Gabby Giffords and Rep. Joaquin Castro. White’s position on women’s health care in a state famous for its escalating attacks on abortion rights may have pushed voters and more progressive organizations Valdez’s way. He identifies as “pro-life,” but said he would veto any anti-choice bills, calling abortion “a choice that [my wife and I] wouldn’t take away from somebody else.” In a debate this month, Valdez strove to draw a distinction between her position on abortion rights and his. By saying that he and his wife “respect life,” White suggests that he believes women who seek abortion care do not, Valdez said. “You owe an apology to these women,” she continued. White called the response “theatrical” and said that outgoing Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards has made “room in her movement for people with this perspective.”

Richards, a fellow child of a former Texas governor, promptly came after White on Twitter. “Rule #1. Don’t speak for someone else, especially a woman you’ve never met or talked to, like me. Rule #2. That’s also why women don’t like politicians telling us what to do with our bodies,” she tweeted. White claimed they had met once—“a long time ago”—and said he was just agreeing with a statement she’d made on MSNBC.

In the end, Texas Democrats opted for the more progressive platform over the centrist one, the child of migrant farmworkers over the legacy politician, the woman who fought homophobia and racism when she became sheriff in 2004 over the man who has touted his place in the mainstream and his ability to appeal to Republicans. Valdez’s backstory and perseverance in the face of structural obstacles could rally Democrats to the polls in November, especially if current Gov. Greg Abbott continues to enrage them with his single-minded obsession with restrictions on abortion rights and where transgender people can relieve themselves. Latino voters might be expected to back Valdez because of her background, but at least one Latino voting organization—Jolt, a millennial-focused group—endorsed White in the primary, citing Valdez’s unsatisfactory answers on questions of immigrant rights. (In 2015, Valdez said she would not comply with federal agencies’ requests to detain immigrants who’d allegedly committed minor offenses, but she did cooperate with the federal government to a certain extent.) And the Latino vote is far from a political monolith: Abbott won 44 percent of the demographic in 2014.

Valdez would have faced a trying general election even with the full support of her base. Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic governor since 1990, nor one to any statewide office since 1994, and Abbott had already raised more than $43 million for his re-election campaign a few months ago. When national progressive celebrity Wendy Davis ran against him in 2014, she lost by more than 20 points, despite the fact that she’d raised almost $40 million herself. Then again, that was the kind of GOP wave election Democrats hope to mimic in this post-Trump cycle. To get Valdez from a losing-steam runoff win to the governor’s office, that wave will have to be a tsunami.