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Moderate Or Progressive? Democratic Governor Hopefuls Frame The Runoff Election

Christopher Connelly
Lupe Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, won 45 percent of the vote in the March primary election. Now, she's facing off with businessman Andrew White of Houston in Tuesday's runoff.

Texas Democrats will choose their nominee to run for governor in Tuesday's runoff election. None of the nine Democratic gubernatorial candidates who ran in the March primary won more than 50 percent of the vote. So the top two vote-getters are now facing off: Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, won 43 percent of the vote, and Andrew White, from Houston, got 27 percent.

White is new to politics, though he grew up around it: His father is former Texas Gov. Mark White, who held office in the ‘80s. White spent his career in the business sector, including energy industry services and border security companies. He says he’s running as a conservative Democrat with “common sense” values.

Lupe Valdez puts her personal story front and center in her campaign. She’s the daughter of migrant farm workers, the first in her family to go to college. She spent a career in the military and federal law enforcement. In 2004, she surprised many when she ran for sheriff and won, becoming Dallas’ first Hispanic, first woman and first lesbian sheriff. She stepped down to run for governor last fall.

For many observers, the race comes down as a battle between the more progressive and more centrist sides of the Democratic Party. The candidates have not shied away from that framework.

White says the Republican Party has gone so far to the right in Texas and elsewhere that it left behind its moderate core. He thinks that with his business background and moderate stances, he can win them over and win the election against Gov. Greg Abbott.

“Moderate Democrats are winning in red states all over the nation. And that’s not a poll — that’s an election,” White said at a debate in Austin. “It happened in Alabama, happened in Pennsylvania, happened all over Virginia. And it’s our turn next.”

Credit Christopher Connelly / KERA News
Andrew White is the son of former Texas Gov. Mark White.

Valdez says that strategy of appealing to the middle is a proven failure in Texas. Democrats have been doing it for years, she says, and they haven’t won any statewide office since 1994. She thinks Democrats and progressives are fired up right now and they want someone who’ll champion their values and who shares their outrage at Republican leadership.

“That’s what’s going to make the difference,” Valdez said. “We’re going to continue to work, to go out to the voters, register voters, and talk to voters, hear their concerns.”

It’s a perennial debate: Does a progressive candidate excite the Democratic base enough to outvote Republicans, or do Democrats win by attracting moderate Republican and independent voters?

On the issues, though, there’s little daylight between the candidates. Both say that the state should increase education spending. Both want to see more people get health insurance and better access to health care. Both say they support the Second Amendment but want to see some gun reforms. And both say they’d veto abortion restrictions passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, though White says he is personally opposed to abortions.

The winner of the race will face Gov. Abbott, who will be tough to beat. He’s an incumbent, a Republican in a reliably red state, and he’s got a boatload of campaign cash. At last count, Abbott had $41 million in his campaign war chest. Put together, Valdez and White had a little over $1 million in the bank. That includes a big chunk of money that White had loaned himself earlier in the campaign, and the tally was taken before they both bought advertisements ahead of the runoff.

For his part, Abbott seems to think Valdez will win. He came out a couple weeks ago with a video attacking her on immigration, abortion and health care. Think of this as a way to start setting the terms of the general election debate before the Democrats have even picked a candidate.