By The Dallas Morning News
Every few decades, a political party reaches a moment when it has the opportunity to redefine itself. The upcoming runoff for Texas governor between former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Houston businessman Andrew White could represent one of those moments within Texas’ Democratic Party.
Valdez has all the traditional Democrat demographics in her favor. She’s a liberal, Hispanic and a lesbian, a combination that shattered barriers as Dallas County sheriff and offers a compelling narrative to core constituencies. It was a strong enough narrative for her to get 42.9 percent of the vote in a nine-person primary field and to amass a 15 percentage point advantage over second-place finisher White, who campaigned as a conservative, business-oriented “common sense” Democrat and whose father was former Gov. Mark White.
Therein lies the challenge for Democratic voters in the runoff — whether to double down on a traditional orthodoxy that has proved successful in primary contests but has failed in statewide elections since 1994 or to embrace a new approach that some hope will attract crossover voters and independents. Four years ago, former state Sen. Wendy Davis carried an even more impressive portfolio of Democratic orthodoxy than Valdez into the general election only to lose by a massive 20 percentage points to Republican Greg Abbott.
The dilemma here is whether a party plays to its base, or seeks to build a margin of victory by also pulling in non-ideological voters. The latter has examples of success on both sides. In Texas, George W. Bush broadened the base of the Republican party in 1994 to beat Gov. Ann Richards. State Democrats have yet to recover from the defeat. Nationally, Bill Clinton — powered by the ideas of Al From and the Democratic Leadership Council — won the presidency in 1992 with a centrist message of “it’s the economy stupid.” Democrats went on to hold the White House for 16 of the past 25 years.
Texas Democrats now face consequential decisions that pit ideology against Texas’ changing demographics and recent statewide political trends. Valdez invigorated Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic in the state, while White struggled in a crowded field to connect with Democratic voters, many of whom expressed suspicion about his self-description as a conservative Democrat. Both candidates are very long shots against Abbott in the fall. However, the challenge for Democratic voters in the runoff is to decide how best to build a party that can compete with Republicans who are so confident in their ability to run the tables that they run the risk of playing too much to their base.
Texans need a healthy two-party system that doesn’t leave behind the political middle. This runoff could be the start of an overdue debate among Democrats.