Three days before she secured the Democratic nomination for governor on May 22, Guadalupe “Lupe” Valdez greeted a small crowd at the Blue Star Brewing Company, an upscale pub on the banks of the San Antonio River. A few months had passed since Valdez had traded in the blue uniform of Dallas County sheriff for business-casual campaign attire. Valdez glowed with pride as she worked the room. Almost everyone towered over her, but the mostly Hispanic audience appeared deferential.
Valdez told her audience, including former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, that she grew up just west of downtown, in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. As the daughter of migrant farmworkers, she had trekked the unpaved streets to catch a bus that took her across town, where she attended the then more affluent Thomas Jefferson High School. It was the beginning of a journey to a college degree at Southern Nazarene University, in Oklahoma; service in the U.S. Army Reserve; work as a U.S. Customs agent; and, ultimately, Dallas County sheriff. Now she was about to make history as the first openly gay and first Latina gubernatorial nominee of a major political party in Texas.
Of course, many hope that she’ll make another kind of history: that she’ll inspire Hispanic nonvoters—the “sleeping giant” of Texas politics—to go to the polls and end the Democrats’ decades-long losing streak in statewide elections. Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said this scenario played out in Valdez’s 2004 election victory for sheriff, in what was once solidly Republican Dallas County. “She . . . upset the entire political establishment that thought that a Democrat could never win in Dallas County,” he said.
Despite those hopes, Valdez will almost certainly lose to Greg Abbott in November. Yet if she inspires Hispanic voters to turn out, she could help Democratic candidates in tight down-ballot races and make a big difference in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Texas House.
That scenario assumes that Valdez can significantly increase Hispanic turnout. But not everyone is certain she can. “I see the value of having Lupe Valdez running for governor,” Castro said at the Blue Star pub. “She’s a great candidate, and her experience as Dallas County sheriff, her life experience, and the issues that she is addressing speak to a lot of Texans. Whether having her at the top of the ticket would impact the Latino vote . . . that’s hard to tell.”
Valdez, after all, has significant deficiencies as a candidate. She’s unpolished as a speaker and has demonstrated little command of statewide issues. She’s also underfunded—her latest campaign finance report showed she had a little more than $115,000 cash on hand, compared to Abbott’s $43 million. That has forced her to forgo campaign fundamentals such as an internal vetting process, in which the campaign looks for skeletons in its own candidate’s closet. Two days after Valdez won the Democratic runoff, for example, the Houston Chronicle revealed that she owed more than $12,000 in unpaid property taxes. A vetting would have prepared her better to respond when a Chronicle reporter asked about it; instead, a campaign spokesman tried to blame Abbott for allowing property taxes to rise.
In short, Valdez may not be the transformational figure many Democrats hope for. In the March 6 primary, Democrats turned out a million voters—their best primary showing since 1994—30 percent of whom had Hispanic surnames. But that high turnout seems to have been in spite of Valdez’s presence on the ballot. In several South Texas counties, thousands of voters cast ballots in the U.S. Senate contest and various local races but skipped voting for governor entirely. In Hidalgo County, Valdez failed to capture even half the voters with Hispanic surnames. One prominent South Texas Democrat told me that when Valdez campaigned in the area, her lack of knowledge of state issues turned off a lot of local voters. “We’re not blind,” he said. He also admitted that many conservative Hispanics just would not vote for a lesbian.
If those responses portend what will happen in November, the Democrats should start girding for disappointment—something they have a lot of experience with. For at least two decades the party has tried to awaken the dormant Hispanic vote. Laredo oilman Tony Sanchez invested $60 million of his own money in a 2002 Democratic race for governor and lost by 18 points. In the 2016 presidential election, though Latino turnout increased by more than 375,000 ballots, non-Hispanic whites cast
57 percent of the votes, overwhelmingly for Trump, according to network exit polls.
Things may be worse for the Democrats this year. Abbott has done well with Hispanics—his wife, Cecilia, is Mexican American, and on Election Day four years ago, exit polls showed that he received 44 percent of the Hispanic vote.
But despite Abbott’s strength and despite Valdez’s apparent weakness in South Texas, she is expected to boost a few key down-ballot races. National Democrats hope to retake control of the U.S. House this year. In order to do so, they want to flip at least three seats now held by Texas Republicans—and the hope is that Valdez can help deliver two of them. One, the Thirty-second District, in Dallas County, is currently represented by Republican Pete Sessions, who has accrued considerable power over the course of two decades in office; he’s currently the chairman of the House Rules Committee. That sort of influence usually makes it hard to unseat an incumbent. But Dallas County has trended Democratic in recent years; Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump there in 2016 and Valdez has consistently done well there; she will likely spur turnout from local Hispanics and the LGBT community.
In the last election the Democrats didn’t bother to field a candidate against Sessions. They’ve rectified that this year, putting up former NFL player Colin Allred, who is hoping that the area’s influx of young people and affluent minorities who have moved north in the county will put him over the top in November.
The other congressional seat that the Democrats believe is in play—and that they’re counting on Valdez to help out with—is the majority Hispanic Twenty-third District, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso and has changed parties at least three times in past elections. Incumbent Will Hurd, a moderate Republican, won in 2016 by just 3,051 votes. Even a small boost in the Hispanic turnout by Valdez could help Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones, a gay Air Force veteran, unseat him.
The third seat on the Democratic menu is the Seventh Congressional District, in Houston, where Clinton won. But this is one of the wealthiest districts in Texas, with affluent whites making up 47 percent of the population. Valdez’s candidacy is unlikely to have much impact.
With contested congressional seats comes big campaign cash, which often manifests itself in “wall-to-wall” television advertising. That prospect has Republicans worried that they might suffer collateral damage in races for the Texas House. Sessions’s congressional district, for instance, overlaps five Texas House districts that are currently represented by Republicans. When the Democrats flood the area with anti-Sessions ads, those incumbents might take a hit on Election Day too. If the Democrats turn all five of those seats and five more across the state that they have their eyes on, the Democrats would go from a 94–55 disadvantage in the state House to, most likely, a narrower 85–65 deficit.
Under that scenario, they could have a great deal of influence on the race to replace Republican House Speaker Joe Straus, who is retiring. Though the Democrats have been Straus’s main source of support, for the past few sessions he’s needed the backing of a significant number of Republicans as well. That has forced him, at times, to cater to his party’s far right. Last year he had little choice but to allow Senate Bill 4—the sanctuary cities bill—to come to the floor for a vote and passage. If Straus’s successor can count on ten more Democratic votes, he or she won’t be so easily cowed.
At her Blue Star Brewing event, Valdez turned the sanctuary cities bill into a major talking point, emphasizing her belief that Republicans only control Texas because many people—especially Hispanics—don’t vote. “Texas is not a red state,” Valdez intoned. “It’s a nonvoting state.”
Perhaps. But this is still Texas; even if Valdez manages to help a few of her Democratic colleagues, that doesn’t mean she’ll be able to help herself. There was tremendous enthusiasm for Wendy Davis four years ago too, and she was crushed by Greg Abbott by 20 points. Democratic enthusiasm this election cycle is, arguably, even greater, thanks to anti-Trump fervor. But to capitalize on that, Valdez will have to pull off something that no other Democrat has done: awaken the sleeping giant of Hispanic voters. And right now the giant seems content to catch a few more z’s.