Democrats in dis­ar­ray as Ab­bott files for re-elec­tion

Fail­ure to field strong can­di­date atop ticket could af­fect other races.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Jonathan Tilove

Gov. Greg Ab­bott filed pa­per­work Satur­day to place his name on the March pri­mary bal­lot for gov­er­nor as the month­long fil­ing pe­riod be­gan. The fil­ing, be­fore a large crowd in West Austin, had been ex­pected since Ab­bott an­nounced four months ago he was run­ning for re-elec­tion.

What was less known then, as now, is Ab­bott’s Demo­cratic op­po­nent.

So far three can­di­dates have said they are run­ning: Jef­frey Payne, a Dal­las busi­ness­man and for­mer In­ter­na­tional Mr. Leather who has never run for of­fice be­fore; Tom Wakely, a self-de­scribed “Bernie­crat with a Panama hat,” from San An­to­nio, who lost to U.S. Rep. La­mar Smith

by 20 points in 2016; and Garry Brown, who ran a dis­tant third for Travis County com­mis­sioner, Precinct 2, in the 2014 Demo­cratic pri­mary, and now serves as ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant to Wil­liamson County Com­mis­sioner Terry Cook.

Demo­cratic state part y Chair­man Gil­berto Hi­no­josa, who is of­fif­fi­cially neu­tral, is hop­ing that Dal­las County Sher­iffff Lupe Valdez will make good on her ex­pressed in­ter­est in the race, though she would be start­ing out both later and as a longer shot than Wendy Davis, the for­mer state sen­a­tor from Fort Worth who lost to Ab­bott by 20 points in 2014. Also, to run, Valdez would, un­der state law, have to sur­ren­der her job as sher­iffff with three years left in her term.

The st ate part y, mean­while, has given the cold shoul­der to Houston in­vestor An­drew White, a po­lit­i­cal neo­phyte but the son of for­mer Texas Gov. Mark White, who died in Au­gust. White wants to run as a prag­matic cen­trist and has in­di­cated he isn’t in fa­vor of abor­tion rights in all sit­u­a­tions, which had Davis last week leav­ing the door open a crack that she might run again if only to keep White from win­ning.

Some­time be­tween now and Dec. 11, the last day for fi­fil­ing, this will all sort it­self out.

But for now, Demo­cratic dis­ar­ray head­ing into the fi­fil­ing pe­riod is an in­aus­pi­cious sign for a party that has not won statewide of­fif­fice since 1994 — the long­est los­ing streak in the na­tion — un­der­min­ing the state party’s prospects in the 2018 midterm elec­tions. The Demo­cratic stum­bles in Texas come even as Democrats else­where are eye­ing 2018 as a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity, af­ter Tues­day’s sweep­ing Demo­cratic vic­to­ries in Vir­ginia, New Jersey and else­where and with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ap­proval rat­ings at his­toric lows.

“If we were Mon­tana or Wy­oming or North Dakota, maybe no one would no­tice, but we’re Texas,” Rice Univer­sit y politic al sci­en­tist Mark Jones said. “It will be a sad in­dict­ment of the Texas Demo­cratic Party if they are un­able to re­cruit a cred­i­ble can­di­date to run for gov­er­nor of the sec­ond-most pop­u­lous state in the coun­try.”

At stake is not just the very limited prospects of suc­cess for the Demo­cratic can­di­date for gov­er­nor or the other down-bal­lot statewide of­fif­fices.

More crit­i­cally, the fail­ure to mount a se­ri­ous race for gov­er­nor threat­ens to un­der­mine U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s promis­ing but long­shot bid to un­seat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz as well as un­der­mine other Democrats run­ning in at least three con­gres­sional districts seen as com­pet­i­tive — Repub­li­can U.S. Reps. John Cul­ber­son of Houston, Pete Ses­sions of Dal­las and Will Hurd of Helotes rep­re­sent districts won by Hil­lary Clin­ton in 2016 — and a fi­fist­ful of state leg­isla­tive seats.

“If Cul­ber­son and Ses­sions and Hurd all end up win­ning by some­where be­tween 1 and 3 or 4 per­cent of the vote, some Democrats will rue the day they failed to fi­field a top­tier, well-funded gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date,” Jones said.

Trump beat Clin­ton by 9 points in Texas in 2016, less than half the mar­gin of the Davis de­ba­cle.

But the en­tire Repub­li­can statewide slate will be well- fi­fi­nanced in­cum­bents.

“They should be very strong,” said South­ern Methodist Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Cal Jill­son. “Trump is not go­ing to put a wob­ble in the Repub­li­can ticket statewide in Texas.”

Abor­tion views

Last Sun­day, at a Latino voter sum­mit on the Univer­sity of Texas cam­pus, Davis was asked by mod­er­a­tor Evan Smith, co-founder and CEO of the Texas Tribune, whether she would run for gov­er­nor in 2018.

“I’ve ruled it out 99 per­cent,” Davis replied. Smith asked why she was leav­ing that 1 per­cent chance she would run.

“Be­cause no one is step­ping for­ward,” Davis said.

The next day, at a news con­fer­ence with the Texas Free­dom Net work on the north steps of the Capitol, Davis fifine- tuned her an­swer on run­ning again.

“There’s only the ver y re­motest of chances that I would do that,” Davis said. “I’m wait­ing for some­one cred­i­ble to step for­ward so I can throw my full sup­port be­hind them.”

That “some­one cred­i­ble,” she made clear, does not in­clude White, who she has con­cluded is “anti-choice” on abor­tion.

“I’m dis­ap­pointed that he has ex­pressed the be­lief that that is not a de­ci­sion that should be left up to women,” Davis said.

In a po­si­tion state­ment posted last Sun­day, White wrote, “I want thi s to be clear: Roe v Wade is the law of the land, and I re­spect the law.”

But, Davis said, “Roe may not be the law of the land for very long, and it’s go­ing to be left to states to an­swer that ques­tion.”

“I know that ques­tion has been put to him — whether he would sign some of these anti-abor­tion bills that have been com­ing across the gov­er­nor’s desk in Texas — and the an­swer is ‘yes,’ and so that’s not about re­spect­ing in­di­vid­ual agency and au­ton­omy and lib­erty,” Davis told the Amer­i­can-States­man. “That’s about im­pos­ing one’s val­ues and per­spec­tives on the choices that are made by women in this state, and I just can’t get be­hind that.”

But White told the States­man on Thurs­day that he doesn’t know where Davis is get­ting her in­for­ma­tion.

Davis and his fa­ther were al­lies, but White said, “I’ve never spo­ken to her about this. I’ve never met her.”

In his pol­icy state­ment on abor­tion, White ex­presses con­flflict­ing feel­ings.

“I can’t un­der­stand when a hu­man life ac­tu­ally be­gins. It’s a mys­tery known only to God, and, as such my faith tells me to pro­tect the be­gin­ning of life. To me, that means work­ing on poli­cies to re­duce the de­mand for abor­tions,” he writes.

“Do I re­spect the rights of the mother? Yes. Do I re­spect that a woman’s body is pri­vate? Ab­so­lutely,” White writes. “So, does this mean at times my own views con­flflict with each other? Yes.”

Of Davis, White said, “This is an im­por­tant is­sue to her and a lot of other peo­ple, but to me it doesn’t make sense to take an ex­treme on either side and say that’s the only way to make progress. And you’re not go­ing to be elected gov­er­nor do­ing that, and we saw that four years ago.”

“I’m a cen­trist can­di­date so I rep­re­sent the views of the mid­dle. For some peo­ple that’s not ac­cept­able, it’s my way or the high­way, it’s us vs. them,” White said. “I’m very, very se­ri­ous about this. There’s a huge re­sponse to the ap­proach I’ve taken — let’s be less ex­treme. Let’s find ways we can make progress on is­sues, even the tough­est is­sues — and peo­ple are say­ing, ‘Fi­nally.’”

If the brush- off by the state party, and the brush- back by the 2014 nom­i­nee, were in­tended to dis­suade White from run­ning, it’s not work­ing.

He has made up his mind, he said. Now it’s just a mat­ter of pick­ing the date to de­clare.

“If Wendy Davis is 99 per­cent sure she’s not go­ing to run, then I’m 99 per­cent sure I am go­ing to run,” White said.

“I’m in back-to-back to back-to-back-to-back meet­ings with peo­ple, and I’m build­ing the con­nec­tions and the re­la­tion­ships and the mes­sage that I think will win this nom­i­na­tion,” White said. “If it’s a race, I’m not go­ing to back down.”

White wants to talk to Davis di­rectly: “I lit­er­ally just texted her and said, ‘Let’s get to­gether soon.’ And she replied. She said she would schedule a phone c all or meet­ing in per­son.”

“White might not be the right can­di­date,” Jill­son said. “He’s prob­a­bly not the right can­di­date as a fi­first- time can­di­date.”

But, Jill­son said, black­balling White on abor­tion “is the wrong rea­son” to dis­qual­ify him.

“In a red state, you’ve got to be much more open than that,” Jill­son said. “You have to think in terms of a ticket that can be at­trac­tive to dif­fer­ent kinds of peo­ple for dif­fer­ent kinds of rea­sons, and if there is a pro-choice lit­mus test in the Texas Demo­cratic Party, that is yet one more piece of ev­i­dence that they will be a long time get­ting back to com­pet­i­tive sta­tus.”

Jones said that White’s mid­dle ground on abor­tion is the me­dian po­si­tion for Texas vot­ers. And, he asks, “Should the per­son who set Demo­cratic efffffffffff­forts to turn Texas blue back a half-dozen years re­ally be serv­ing as the ar­biter of who runs and who doesn’t run for gov­er­nor of Texas?”

But Davis said Demo - crats pick­ing a can­di­date who isn’t solid on abor­tion rights would be a self-de­feat­ing mis­take.

“You can­not win a gen­eral elec­tion in this state with­out bring­ing the base along with you, lock, stock and bar­rel,” said Davis, who added that she is help­ing the state Demo­cratic Party fifind the right can­di­date.

“I don’t want it to be me,” she said. “The prob­lem is I don’t suf­fer any ro­man­tic no­tion about what it means to run statewide. I know how hard it is. I know what it takes out of you per­son­ally and what it takes from your fam­ily. I gave it ev­ery­thing I had in 2014. It’s hard to fifind that again.”

En­ter Lupe Valdez?

Within hours of those re­marks Mon­day, Valdez, the Demo­cratic sher­iff of Dal­las County who raised her profi­file two years ago by spar­ring with Ab­bott over “sanc­tu­ary cities” poli­cies, told the Texas Tribune that she was “in the ex­ploratory process” of con­sid­er­ing a bid for gov­er­nor.

“I’ve been ap­proached, and I’m lis­ten­ing,” Valdez said.

But, in short or­der, her of­fice said that Valdez “is cur­rently fo­cused on her job as sher­iffffffffffff,” and that, “at this point, there is no new in­for­ma­tion to add,” and that she wasn’t do­ing any more in­ter­views on the mat­ter.

“Peo­ple have been talk­ing, and Sher­iffff Valdez is lis­ten­ing as she al­ways does,” Melinda Urbina, a spokes­woman for the sher­iff, said in a brief state­ment.

But Hi­no­josa, the Demo­cratic Party chair man, retweeted the Tribune’s orig­i­nal news about Valdez’s in­ter­est, adding, “And Sher­iffff Valdez knows how to win. She busted a ma­jor hole in the Dal­las Co. Repub­li­can wall in 2004 and to­day Dal­las Co. is deep BLUE!”

“We have to re­mem­ber that Lupe Valdez is the sher­iffff of Dal­las County, which con­tains the fi­fifth- largest city in Amer­ica,” Hi­no­josa told the States­man.

“She got elected in 2004, beat­ing an in­cum­bent Repub- li­can sher­iffff when there was not a sin­gle coun­ty­wide Demo­cratic elected of­fif­fi­cial and hadn’t been for 20 years,” Hi­no­josa said. “She is re­ally lean­ing heav­ily, as I un­der­stand it, to­ward run­ning and will be a great can­di­date, es­pe­cially be­cause she un­der­stands the law and or­der is­sue re­ally well and has a track record of suc­cess as a sher­iffff and is an His­panic woman who has, I be­lieve, a huge amount of sup­port across the state of Texas.”

Valdez also would be the fi­first openly gay per­son elected gov­er­nor in the United States — as would Payne if he were to win the nom­i­na­tion and beat Ab­bott.

Hi­no­josa said that while Valdez would for­feit her of­fif­fice as soon as she an­nounced, she might be able to con­tinue to serve un­til the Dal­las County Com­mis­sion­ers Court chose a suc­ces­sor.

Jill­son, who has seen Valdez with some fre­quency over the years, said, “She’s solid, but by no means gal­va­niz­ing ... very ret­i­cent, un­der­stated, quiet,” and more suited to speak­ing to Ro­tary Clubs than rallies, though she did have a cov­eted speak­ing role at the 2016 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion.

Jill­son also could think of no ex­am­ple of a sher­iffff ever be­ing elected Texas gov­er­nor.

“It’s just a hell of a jump,” he said.

Down-bal­lot fo­cus

In 1994, Land Com­mis­sioner Garry Mauro was one of the last class of Demo­cratic can­di­dates elected statewide, along with Lt. Gov. Bob Bul­lock, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Dan Morales and Comptroller John Sharp. Gov. Ann Richards lost that year to Ge­orge W. Bush. Four years later, Bush, lay­ing the ground­work for his 2000 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, crushed gu­ber­na­to­rial ri­val Mauro by 37 points and led Repub­li­cans to a his­toric sweep of all the statewide of­fices, though Sharp lost to Rick Perry for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor by less than 2 points.

Sur­vey­ing the scene now, Mauro thinks it might be smarter for Texas Democrats to pass on se­ri­ously chal­leng­ing Ab­bott with his more than $40 mil­lion in the bank and strong poll num­bers, and fo­cus on down-bal­lot, and riper statewide tar­gets with higher neg­a­tives, such as Lt. Gov. Dan Pa­trick and Cruz. Also, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ken Pax­ton is un­der in­dic tment for se­cu­ri­ties fraud. Agri­cul­ture Com­mis­sioner Sid Miller is a cease­less source of in­flflam­ma­tory so­cial me­dia posts.

“In an ideal cir­cum­stance, we would be run­ning a strong, ca­pa­ble and funded can­di­date against Greg Ab­bott. The ab­sence of that doesn’t pro­hibit us from be­ing suc­cess­ful in down-bal­lot and other races,” said Demo­cratic strate­gist Matt An­gle, who is based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and since 2005 has di­rected the Lone Star Pro­jec t to chal­lenge GOP dom­i­nance of Texas pol­i­tics.

Mike Col­lier, a for­mer Repub­li­can who switched par­ties and was the Demo­cratic nom­i­nee for comptroller in 2014, los­ing to Glenn He­gar by just about the same mar­gin by which Davis lost to Ab­bott, is run­ning for lieu­tenant gov­er­nor. Austin at­tor­ney Justin Nel­son an­nounced last week he plans a Demo­cratic run for at­tor­ney gen­eral. Kim Ol­son, a farmer and re­tired Air Force colonel who was part of the fi­first gen­er­a­tion of fe­male mil­i­tary pi­lots, fi­filed pa­per­work Satur­day for a Demo­cratic run for agri­cul­ture com­mis­sioner. O’Rourke, from El Paso, is the only Demo­crat run­ning for statewide of­fif­fice so far who has won a po­lit­i­cal race be­fore.

Jim Henson, di­rec­tor of the Texas Pol­i­tics Project at the Univer­sity of Texas, said Texas Democrats might ben­e­fit from the in­vig­o­ra­tion of a pri­mary con­test for gov­er­nor.

In t he end, some­one’s name will ap­pear op­po­site Greg Ab­bott’s on the 2018 bal­lot, and, Hi­no­josa said, if it’s Lupe Valdez, with the likes of Col­lier, Nel­son, Ol­son and a few other blanks fi­filled in, “We’ll have one of the strong­est Demo­cratic tick­ets in 25 years.”

MARK MAT­SON / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Demo­crat Wendy Davis (right), ex-state sen­a­tor and pos­si­ble gu­ber­na­to­rial can­di­date, speaks at an event with the Texas Free­dom Net­work at the Capitol last week.

MARK MAT­SON / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN

Wendy Davis said she has ruled out run­ning “99 per­cent,” leav­ing the door open a crack “be­cause no one is step­ping for­ward.” Davis lost the gu­ber­na­to­rial race to Greg Ab­bott by 20 points in 2014.

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