Guadalupe “Lupe” Valdez announced on Sunday her bid to become the next governor of Texas. Valdez announced that she will leave her job as sheriff of Dallas county, where the Democrat has served for four terms. A lesbian of Mexican ancestry, she is credited with being the frontrunner in a crowded field of Democrats. With support from LGBTQ and Latino activists, she hopes to capitalize on what the Los Angeles Times calls a “backlash against Trump.” 

The former investigator for the Department of Homeland Security ran her first campaign for sheriff in 2004. Democrats and others thought she had little chance to win the race in a county that did not have a single Democrat seated in a countywide position for the previous 20 years. Valdez won by a narrow 51 to 49 percent. Apparently emboldened by her victory, more Democrats won electoral victories in 2006. In 2008, Valdez was reelected by a 59 to 37 percent margin. She credited getting out the vote among minority voters.

Getting out the vote

Officials in the Democratic Party claim that it is because Latino voters have not yet turned out sufficiently on Election Day that Texas remains a red state. Observers believe that if Valdez can increase voter registration and turnout among Latinos and can shift the Latino vote to the Democrats into the 65 to 75 percent range (as it is in California and Arizona), Valdez will have a fighting chance to defeat incumbent Gov. Gregg Abbot (R). She will have to convince middle-of-the-road voters of either party to go her way, rather than voting for Andrew White (45 -- a Houston businessman and son of the late Gov. Mark White (D). 

Immigration is an area where Valdez has clashed with Abbott. In 2015, Valdez refused to honor detainer requests from federal immigration authorities unless the inmates in question were charged with violent crime. When Abbott threatened to cut funding, Valdez backed off. Since then, Texas has passed a law that would punish local officials who refuse federal immigration detainers with jail time and fines of more than $25,000. A federal judge prevented most of the law from taking effect last summer. The issue remains contentious in court. 

By getting out the Latino vote in the gubernatorial race, Valdez could even manage a victory of sorts even if she is defeated by Abbott. Some Republicans fear that Latino Republicans, ostensibly offended by President Trump’s stance on immigration, might be persuaded to vote Democrat. Even if Valdez is defeated, her work at increasing the number of Latinos pulling the lever for Democrats could mean a successful gubernatorial bid in 2022 for either of the two Latino wunderkinder of Texas: Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio or twin brother Julian Castro, who is a former mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Latino voters

In 2016, almost 30 percent more Latinos went to the polls in 2016 than in 2012, thereby signalling to observers that by reducing the voter participation gap with other Texans, Latino are making the Lone Star State more competitive for Republicans. Between 2012 and 2016, non-Latino voters increased by a more modest 9.2 percent between presidential elections. According to the Texas Legislative Council, the percentage of registered Latinos who went to the polls increased from 47.2 percent in 2012 to 49.8 percent in 2016. Despite moving the needle, the Latino turnout rate remains well below the rate for non-Latino voters, which was 62.9 percent in 2016. That represented a decrease from 2012 when turnout was 65.4 percent among non-Latino voters. The share of the Texan electorate with a Spanish surname increased from 17.2 percent in 2012 to 19.4 percent in 2016. Latinos make up 38 percent of the Texas population, but historically vote at lower rates than Latinos in other states and other groups in Texas. 

The Houston Chronicle pointed out the challenge for Democrats and those advocating for voter registration. In a January 4 op-ed, the newspaper reported that Texas had the third-lowest turnout in the 2016 presidential election. That year, Latinos made up only about 24 percent of the electorate even while the constituted 34 percent of the eligible voting age population that year. And according to exit polls in the 2010 and 2014 mid-term elections, only 17 percent of Texas voters were Latino.

According to the Houston Chronicle, the “low Hispanic turnout is no accident,” while blaming the “Republican-controlled Legislature in Texas.” The newspaper claimed that voter identification are “overly restrictive” and that “gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts suppress voter turnout.”

The paper said that in the past, some Republicans have reached out to Latino voters. Both Gov. Greg Abbott and former governor George W. Bush, both Republicans, campaigned strongly for Latino votes. One area where the GOP might have success is in heralding the record low unemployment rate among Latinos: just 4.7 percent in November.

According to the progressive Latino Victory Project, 27 percent of Latino voters in Texas in 2016 were first-time voters. The Latino Victory Project is seeking to engage the Democrat party in Texas and nationally to target first-time Latino voters and produce candidates who “look like them,” said Cristobal J. Alex, who leads the group. Alex managed minority voter outreach and mobilization for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. He also worked for Open Society Foundations, which is funded by billionaire George Soros, to administer $60 million to increase political participation in minority communities. While the Democrat party has been accused in the past of taking Latino voters for granted in the past, organizers like Alex can be expected to actively boost Latino voter participation for the coming gubernatorial race in Texas, and the mid-term elections that will decide U.S. House and Senate races.

With the experience Democrats gained in putting a Democrat in what had been a safely Republican seat in Alabama for the U.S. Senate, the prospect of a political gain in Texas may become all the more clear for them. Getting Latinos to register and go to the polls this year in Texas may be a long game, but it is one with much at stake for both Republicans and Democrats. Should Latinos be persuaded to support the Democrats for future gubernatorial contests, they can also affect presidential races through popular vote tallies and the Electoral College.
 

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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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