Texas is the Big Enchilada in Southern politics and on March 16 the Lone Star State will hold the nation’s first primaries of the 2018 season. The filing deadline has passed and while a large number of contenders have signed up to run for either governor or US Senator, only one contest – for governor on the Democratic side – is likely to provide a competitive primary race.
Two Republican incumbents are up for reelection in 2018, Gov. Greg Abbot and US Sen. Ted Cruz. Neither has significant opposition in the Republican Primary. Five Republican candidates are challenging Cruz in the primary. None of them has the heft to win a major primary, or the money to buy it. “They are hoping lightning strikes,” says Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Houston-based Quorum report, who notes that Cruz is unpopular with some voters.
In the GOP’s gubernatorial primary, incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has only token opposition from Larry Kilgore, a perennial candidate and secession advocate. “He was not a good governor till Hurricane Harvey,” says Kronberg. Until recently, Abbot was criticized for governing with a passive, but noncontroversial style. But he got high marks for his efforts to provide relief for those suffering from Harvey’s widespread damage. He also developed some backbone in dealing with the legislature. On the campaign side, Abbott has a war chest of some $41 million, giving him a major head start against any Democrat.
Some Republican statewide candidates for down-ballot races might be vulnerable, but the popularity of Abbott – and probably Cruz as well – will work in favor of the GOP at all levels. Texas has not elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than 20 years.
In the Democratic Primary, in the US Senate contest, US Rep. Beto O’Rourke is a prohibitive favorite over two political unknowns. He is an interesting, intelligent and energetic candidate. He is also – despite his Irish name – Hispanic who speaks fluent Spanish. Cruz, whose Spanish is more problematic, will be the favorite next November, but O’Rourke will get a lot of favorable attention.
In the Democrats’ gubernatorial primary, there are eight candidates, but only two have significant strength: Lupe Valdez, the sheriff of Dallas County, and Andrew White, an entrepreneur and a centrist Democrat, who is the son of the late Gov. Mark White (D).
Valdez is in her fourth term as sheriff of Dallas County. She delivered her announcement speech switching back and forth between English and Spanish. She stressed economic fairness, contending that opportunity “is out of reach for far too many.” Her appeal to Hispanic voters should be aided, at least in the primary, by a confrontation she had with
Gov. Abbott in 2015 over her sheriff department’s lack of cooperation with federal immigration laws, which ultimately led to state legislation banning “sanctuary cities,” which Abbott signed. Valdez’s opposition to immigration enforcement “is not going to sell outside urban centers,” says a former Texas journalist.
Valdez was the first openly lesbian Latina elected sheriff in the nation. She is popular with many party liberals, plus she is a Latina. Both demographics have increased in the past few years.
If Valdez wins the nomination, she can mount a very contentious campaign, drawing sharp lines between her own views and those of Abbott. One side-effect of a Valdez candidacy is that it would drive turnout in Dallas County, which could swing some legislative seats to the Democrats.
The other strong candidate for governor in the Democratic Primary is Andrew White, 45, a Houston businessman who has never run for office. In his speech announcing his candidacy, he called himself “a common sense Democrat” adding, “If winning in November is important to you, then I’m your candidate.” He also accused Abbott of being controlled by the extremists in the Republican Party. In an interview with a Texas Monthly reporter, he said he is “deeply, personally pro-life,” but added that abortion is legal and “We must all work to keep it safe and make it rare.”
The problem for White is that the Democratic Primary electorate has shifted substantially to the left. “It’s like Bernie Sanders on steroids,” says the ex-journalist. Liberals have already attacked him for not being firmly pro-choice. But if White is the nominee and gets major financial backing, he could mount a significant campaign. For starters, he has name ID from his father, who served as governor from 1983 through 1987. Andrew White would also benefit from a more centrist stance that would play better with a broader section of the Texas electorate in the General Election.
The other six Democratic contenders include at least one perennial candidate, International Mr. Leather of 2009, a former mayor of Balch Springs, a hospice chaplain, a financial analyst and a businessman, neither with name ID or a record in politics. In sum, at this point, none of the candidates, other than Valdez and White, appear to have a chance of winning the primary.
In the General Election, whether Valdez or White is the nominee, Abbott is heavily favored. The problem the Democrats will have is that there are only a few urban and some suburban counties where they are strong. Democratic candidates are likely to be overwhelmed by the largely Republican votes from medium size cities and small towns, as well as from rural counties, across the state.
Moreover, Abbott is “probably the most popular officeholder in Texas,” says Kronberg. A private Democratic poll taken last summer and reported in the Texas Monthly, showed Abbott’s job approval rating was 61% and his negatives were only 30%, making him, as Kronberg noted, “the most popular officeholder in Texas.” The poll, of 1,000 likely
registered voters, showed Abbott would receive 49% of the vote to 38% for a yet-to-be-named Democrat. This was what the Democratic nominee, liberal state Senator Wendy Davis, received in 2014 against Abbott.
While Gov. Abbott and Sen. Cruz look invulnerable at this early stage, in today’s volatile politics, almost anything can happen. Stay tuned.