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Texas Democrats prepare for crowded, potentially competitive gubernatorial primary

By The Texas Tribune
Dec. 6, 2017 at 11:05 p.m.

Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez  announces her run as a Democratic candidate for governor Wednesday at the Texas Democratic Party headquarters in Austin.

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.

On Wednesday morning, Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez announced she was entering the race. Andrew White, the son of late Gov. Mark White, also is expected to make his bid official this week. An eight-way primary could be the party's most crowded nominating contest for governor since at least the 1980s.

While Valdez — the only elected official among the eight candidates — immediately secures frontrunner status, 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 today 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," state Rep. Chris Turner, the Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs the party's caucus in the House, said before Valdez announced her candidacy. "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 — already have 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.

Valdez gives 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 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, 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."

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 hotel chain's locations throughout the state.

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