The contest for the Texas Democratic gubernatorial nomination this year felt like the novel Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. The party with the longest statewide losing streak in America—not having won an election since 1994—at first could not even recruit a major political name or millionaire to run for the state’s top elected spot. Then there was incumbent Republican Greg Abbott with more than $40 million in the bank and an agenda built largely around winning re-election, plus the fact his special session followed quickly by the impact of Hurricane Harvey gave him an aura of strong leadership.
But finally the Democrats had a crowded field, although no one in the running had statewide name identification. Lupe Valdez quickly became the party activist’s checklist candidate: a Hispanic woman who had pulled herself up from poverty through service in law enforcement; and a lesbian who had defied the odds to win election as the Dallas County sheriff in 2004 when the county was still Republican. Out of Houston came centrist candidate Andrew White, an investor with the perpetual asterisk by his name that he is the son of former governor Mark White. Andrew White captured some national attention during Hurricane Harvey by driving his boat through flooded streets for five days rescuing stranded people. Now, on Tuesday, White and Valdez will count the votes in the runoff election to see who will become the party’s nominee to challenge Abbott in November.
While the top of the ticket gets the attention, the undercard probably is more meaningful. Conventional wisdom is that neither Valdez nor White can defeat Abbott. However, there are races for Congress and for the Texas Legislature where Democrats can make a difference, forcing Republicans in the unique position of playing defense. Topping my list of interesting contest to watch this election day are:
- The San Antonio fight to replace retiring Representative Joe Straus in the Texas House. You might recognize Straus’s name as the House speaker. The outcome of the District 121 race won’t pick the next speaker, but it will decide whether the district is held by another moderate Republican or someone further right who is being promoted by Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life, two ultra-conservative groups who have targeted Straus since he became speaker. The Republican runoff is between Matt Beebe, who twice lost primary challenges to Straus in past elections, and Steve Allison, an attorney who has Straus’s backing. Beebe and Allison were close in the primary. The low turnout might favor Beebe since activists are the most likely to vote. If he wins, look for the tea party-istas to claim they gave Straus one last kick in the butt on his way out the door.
- In the San Antonio-to-Austin axis, both parties have runoffs to set up the general election fight to see who will replace retiring Republican U.S. Representative Lamar Smith. On the Republican side, former Ted Cruz chief of staff Chip Roy is facing Boerne businessman Matt McCall. Roy is favored and got my favorite newspaper headline of the campaign: “Chip Roy’s plan to get Washington out of the way includes going there himself.” On the Democratic side, Army veteran and tech businessman Joseph Kopser is facing off against Mary Street Wilson, a math teacher who surprised everyone by making the runoff.
- The Democrats also have one of the wildest fights in Texas in the Houston runoff to decide who challenges incumbent Republican Congressman John Culberson. Attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher has the backing of the Democratic Party establishment, but activist Laura Moser has the support of the reform-minded followers of former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee created backlash sympathy by attacking Moser’s credentials in the primary. The Democratic nominee in this race may be significant because Culberson holds a district that was carried by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016 even as Republican Donald Trump carried Texas.
- Speaking of districts carried by Clinton, Congressional District 23 is the most competitive in Texas. It stretches from San Antonio on the east to El Paso on the west, with 800 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border in between. Republican incumbent Will Hurd already has his party’s nomination for reelection. On the Democratic side, women’s movement candidate Gina Ortiz Jones is in a runoff with another Bernie Sanders follower, Rick Trevino. In the past couple of election cycles, this has been the most expensive congressional race in Texas and has flipped a couple of times between Republican and Democrat. Don’t expect anything less this year.
- The third district carried by Clinton is the one in Dallas held by Republican incumbent Pete Sessions, who is in the strongest position of Republicans whose district went blue in the 2016 presidential election. Although Clinton carried his district, unopposed Sessions received about 30,000 more votes than Clinton. Democrats believe the lack of an opponent for Sessions in that election was a missed opportunity. Two former Obama Administration officials—Colin Allred and Lillian Salerno—are in a runoff to see who will have the opportunity this year.
- The retirement of Republican Jeb Hensarling from his District 5 seat in Dallas created an open election. The GOP runoff is between state Representative Lance Gooden and political consultant Bunni Pounds. Attorney Dan Wood is the Democratic nominee.
- In Houston, the retirement of Republican Ted Poe opened up his District 2 seat. Todd Litton is the Democratic nominee in the heavily Republican district. The Republican runoff is between state Representative Kevin Roberts and former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw.
- Two incumbent Republicans left open seats behind as they were felled by sex scandals. Sixth District Republican Joe Barton had more than thirty years in Congress, and he saw his reputation evaporate when it was revealed that he had sexted video of himself masturbating to a female friend. Meanwhile, Corpus Christi Republican Blake Farenthold originally announced he would not seek re-election after revelations that taxpayers picked up the tab on an $84,000 sexual harassment settlement for him. Then Farenthold abruptly resigned before his term ended.
- Both parties have runoffs for Barton’s seat. On the Republican side, retired navy pilot J.K. “Jake” Ellzey faces former Barton chief of staff Ron Wright, while Democrats Jana Lynne Sanchez and Ruby Faye Woolridge are tussling for their party’s nomination.
- In Farenthold’s 27th District, former state Water Board Commission Chairman Beck Bruun and Republican activist Michael Cloud are in a runoff to replace Farenthold in Congress once his current term expires, as are Democrats Eric Holguin and Raul “Roy” Barrera. Abbott has called a June 30 special election to fill Farenthold’s unexpired term, and nine candidates have filed, including all four who are in the runoffs.
- There also are a couple of Democratic runoffs for some long-shot challenges to Republican congressional incumbents. Hoping for a change to take on 25th District incumbent Roger Williams, criminal defense attorney Chris Perri and healthcare advocate Julie Oliver are in a Democratic runoff in the Austin area. Also in the Austin area, Democratic physician Christine Eady Mann is in a runoff with former Air Force helicopter pilot M.J. Hegar for a chance to take on incumbent Republican John Carter in the 21st District.
To keep up with these races and others, go to the Texas Secretary of State website for unofficial but constantly updated results.