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Democrats Valdez, White Head Into Runoff For Governor, But Beating Abbott Will Be Tough

As returns rolled in Tuesday night for Texas’s 2018 party primaries, dozens of campaigns came to an end, including — to no one's surprise — those of the two Republicans challenging Gov. Greg Abbott.

With more than 90 percent of the vote, the governor easily claimed his spot on the general election ballot.

But what we don’t know yet is who will face off against Abbott in November. In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez snagged nearly 43 percent of the vote, while Houston businessman Andrew White got 27 percent.

Now, they start their sprint towards the May runoffs.

Lupe Valdez in Dallas

Lupe Valdez partied with candidates all up and down the ballot at an unpretentious billiards hall in Old East Dallas Tuesday night, celebrating victories as election results poured in.

Valdez said she was humbled and thanked her supporters and her campaign staff — even thanked the people she’s been running against for the last three months.

From a list of nine, the race has been whittled down to two, with Valdez in the lead.

"It’s nice to be in the lead, but it’s better to win," she said.

Talking to the crowd, Valdez said her campaign is ensuring opportunities for everyone in Texas.

"I’ve been blessed to live a life of service and hard work," she said.

The eighth child of migrant farm workers, Valdez says she was the beneficiary of strong public schools. She worked her way through college, joined the Army and spent a career in federal law enforcement before being elected Dallas County Sheriff in 2004. She was the first Latina, first woman and first lesbian to hold that position.

"I want to fight to provide that same type of opportunity for the people of Texas no matter where they come from or where they’re going."

Dallas County Democratic Chairwoman Carol Donovan said Valdez has a strong Democratic record and appeals to the grassroots. Plus, she’s charismatic.

"I have never met anyone that loves campaigning as much as Lupe Valdez," Donovan said.

But she’s got big hurdles to overcome, according to Cal Jillson at Southern Methodist University.

"She came out of the gate very, very slowly."

Jillson said she fumbled the campaign rollout, flubbed important interviews and struggled with fundraising.

The Democratic Party of Texas and the Texas Democrat base want Lupe Valdez to be their nominee, but she could talk them out of that.

If, Jillson said, she can’t build the campaign operation she needs to win, then voters are likely to find Andrew White very appealing.

Andrew White in Houston

Andrew White told supporters in Houston Tuesday night that his moderate platform is what Texans need to address major problems in the state.

"When I’m governor, we’ll change the direction our state is heading, completely. I’ll use a personal approach, not a political one.”

Claire Curtin of Houston said she’s tired of the extreme positions both parties have taken lately, and she’ll vote for White in May.

“It’s sort of Texas the way it used to be — a little more moderation. We’re free thinkers, and it’s not necessarily which side of the aisle you sit, but who’s going to do the best job.”

Appealing to people like Curtin — and even moderate Republicans — is a big part of White’s strategy. That’s according to Mark Jones, head of the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. Though, Jones said, in the runoff, that could put White at a disadvantage with more progressive Democrats.

"They want to see a 100 percent, hardcore, pro-choice candidate, not somebody who has a more nuanced position on abortion. They want to see someone who's going to appeal to Latinos and fight for LGBTQ rights in a way that Lupe Valdez will."

This may be Andrew's first foray into politics, but the White name is a familiar one in Texas. His father, the late Mark White, was governor from 1983 to 1987. Mark White also served as attorney general and secretary of state.

Joy Saxton says she’s known the candidate since he was a 9-year-old boy running around the governor’s mansion.

"I don’t think he’s doing this because his dad did that. I think he really felt a calling to do it," she said.

While both candidates prepare to battle in the Democratic runoff, Jones thinks that’s where the real competition will end.

“I think if you’re a Democrat, you could say that Lupe Valdez and Andrew White would be successful, if Greg Abbott’s margin of victory is in the low teens — maybe 13 percent, 14 percent."

A grim prognosis for Texas Democrats, but, there’s always next time.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.