Texas Democrats rely on voters of color to be competitive. So why are their top statewide candidates mostly white?

Although some politicians of color have jumped into Democratic primaries, they dont have the political prominence of their Republican counterparts. The issue has caused some consternation among Democrats, who have seen Texas border communities move from reliably blue to battleground areas. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune, Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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For decades, Texas Democrats have banked on the growth of voters of color, particularly Black and Latino voters, as the key to their eventual success in a state long dominated by Republicans.

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But with less than a month left for candidates to file for statewide office in the 2022 elections, some in the party worry Democrats could see their appeal with those constituencies threatened by a Republican Party that is rapidly diversifying its own candidate pool.

The GOP slate for statewide office includes two high-profile Latinos: Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, who are both running for attorney general. It also includes two Black candidates who have previously held state or federal office: former Florida congressman Allen West and state Rep. James White, who are running for governor and agriculture commissioner, respectively.

By contrast, the Democrats’ most formidable candidates are white — Beto O’Rourke, who is running for governor, and Mike Collier, Matthew Dowd and Michelle Beckley, who are running for lieutenant governor.

Lee Merritt, a Black civil rights attorney from McKinney, and Rochelle Garza, a Latina former ACLU attorney from Brownsville, have jumped into the Democratic primary for attorney general; and Jinny Suh, an Asian American Austin lawyer, is running for land commissioner. But none of those Democrats have the political experience or fundraising prowess of their Republican counterparts.

The issue has caused consternation among some Democrats, particularly as they see South Texas and border communities, with large majorities of Latino voters, become a battleground for Republicans. Democrats lost a special election in San Antonio to Republican John Lujan earlier this month. Two weeks later, Rio Grande City Rep. Ryan Guillen, who’d served in the Texas House as a Democrat since 2003, switched his party affiliation to Republican. Both Lujan and Guillen are Latino.

“We need to look at that and need to do an introspection as to why there’s a lack of diversity at the top of the ticket,” said Odus Evbagharu, chair of the Harris County Democratic Party. “We need to do better. We’ve gotta cultivate our bench.”

Jamarr Brown, co-executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, downplayed the concerns, saying his party will have a competitive slate of candidates when the filing period closes in December. He pointed to Annise Parker, the openly gay former mayor of Houston, who is reportedly considering a run for land commissioner, as a candidate who can bring a different viewpoint to the race. Parker is also white.

“I’m not concerned as it relates to us having real diversity and us having candidates,” he said. “We will have diversity in gender, race and ethnicity. We will have diversity in industry and in experience.”

Candidate for Lt. Governor Mike Collier speaks at an event at Whitestone Brewery on Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021 in Cedar Park.

Candidate for Lt. Governor Mike Collier speaks at an event at Whitestone Brewery in Cedar Park on Oct. 31, 2021. Credit: Allie Goulding for The Texas Tribune

Political analyst Matthew Dowd at a Texas Tribune event in Austin with Tribune CEO Evan Smith on May 10, 2017. 

Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Matthew Dowd at a Texas Tribune event in Austin with Tribune CEO Evan Smith on May 10, 2017. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

State Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, speaks with other representatives on the opening day of the first special legislative session at the Texas Capitol on July 8, 2021.

State Rep. Michelle Beckley, D-Carrollton, now running for lieutenant governor, speaks with other representatives on the opening day of the first special legislative session at the Texas Capitol on July 8, 2021. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor Mike Collier (first), Matthew Dowd (next) and Michelle Beckley (last). Credit: Allie Goulding, Bob Daemmrich and Sophie Park for The Texas Tribune

Republicans compete for voters of color

Jeronimo Cortina, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said Republicans are making a play to be more competitive with voters of color as the state’s electorate grows more diverse. He pointed to Republicans opening up offices in heavily Latino areas like San Antonio.

“The Republican Party in Texas sees the writing on the wall and that is that demographic change is here,” he said. “Latinos are going to be the biggest chunk of the electorate in the next couple of decades, so either [Republicans] get on board or they’re going to lose them.”

A majority of the state’s top elected officials, who are all Republican, are white. But for years, statewide leaders like Gov. Greg Abbott and Bush have focused on expanding the Republican share of the Latino vote.

Latinos make up 39% of the state’s population, only slightly behind white Texans, who make up 40%, according to the U.S. Census. But while Latinos make up a majority of Democrats in the statehouse, a training ground for higher office, there are no major Latino candidates on the party’s statewide slate. Garza has never been on a Texas ballot. Her only experience raising money as a candidate was collecting $200,000 for a congressional race she suspended.

Part of the challenge, Brown said, is that it is difficult to recruit candidates of color to run for office when they are more likely to face economic challenges than white candidates. O’Rourke, the best performing Democrat in Texas in years, comes from a prominent political family in El Paso, and his father-in-law is a real estate investor worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“People of color and women are working-class people in this state,” Brown said. “Asking people to take time away from their jobs and businesses and families and to campaign in a large state with 254 counties and having the resources to cover that ground is challenging.”

Potential statewide candidates who are currently in office are unlikely to risk their hard-fought seats to launch an uphill battle for state office, particularly when Republican incumbents hold advantages of multiple millions of dollars from the start, Brown said. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a Latina, is seen as a rising star in the party but has resisted a statewide run. And San Antonio’s Julián and Joaquin Castro are perennially named among potential candidates but have also turned down opportunities.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, speaks with reporters on July 13, 2021.

State Rep. James White, R-Hillister, now a candidate for Texas commissioner of agriculture, speaks with reporters at the Capitol on July 13, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

The fundraising challenges are present for candidates of color on the Republican side, too.

“It’s supposed to be tough,” said White, a Black Republican running for agriculture commissioner against the GOP incumbent Sid Miller. “You can talk about how tough it is but at some point you just gotta get after it.”

Some on the Republican side, however, have found success tapping into the party’s network of donors. Bush, who comes from a storied political family, has raised multiple millions, and Guzman raised $1 million in the first 10 days of her campaign.

“You find a roadblock in front of me and I’m going to overcome it,” she said.

Democrat fundraising disparities

Evbagharu said candidates of color on the Democratic side rarely get the kind of backing from their party that white candidates do.

O’Rourke, he noted, has lost a statewide and national race, yet will lead the top of the ticket next year. O’Rourke raised about $80 million in 2018 in his race against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, however, he largely accomplished that with his own celebrity, and those funds did not flow to the rest of the Democratic slate.

That same year, the Democrat running for governor, Lupe Valdez, a Latina and former Dallas County sheriff, raised $1.9 million in a bid to defeat Abbott in 2018 where she lost by 13 percentage points. Valdez, like O’Rourke, was a first-time statewide candidate, but at one point in the campaign she trailed Abbott by 100-to-1 in the fundraising race. O’Rourke had run multiple congressional races and barnstormed all 254 of Texas’ counties for the Senate race.

This week, O’Rourke announced he had raised $2 million in the first 24 hours since launching his gubernatorial campaign, eclipsing Valdez’s total funds for her gubernatorial run.

Sharon Navarro, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said Valdez did not receive the support a top-of-the-ticket candidate would expect, which contributed to a floundering campaign.

“If you’re a minority and you’re a Democrat, the stereotype is that you’re branded a loser, whereas the Republicans will regroup and find the way to victory,” she said.

Valdez did not return a request for comment.

In 2014, Wendy Davis, who had gained national prominence for her filibuster of an abortion bill in the state Senate, lost the governor’s race to Abbott by 20 percentage points despite raising almost $40 million. She has since run again for congress and lost. Davis is white.

But the Democratic Party’s biggest flop was not for lack of money. In 2002, Democrats ran their so-called “Dream Team,” which included Tony Sanchez, a wealthy Latino oilman and banker who self-funded his campaign, and Ron Kirk, a Black former mayor of Dallas and Texas secretary of state.

Sanchez lost to then-Gov. Rick Perry by 18 percentage points, and Kirk lost to John Cornyn in the U.S. Senate race by 12. The best performing member of the “Dream Team” was John Sharp, a white conservative Democrat, who lost the lieutenant governor race to David Dewhurst by 6 percentage points.

That ticket’s catastrophic failure may have turned off donors from funding candidates of color for statewide office. But Navarro said the problem runs deeper than that: The state’s Democratic Party lacks structure and a message.

“There is no real long-term investment in cultivating generations of voters because it takes time and money,” Navarro said. “It isn’t enough to just simply register voters and expect them to vote Democrat. It isn’t enough to run a person of color without party structure or message.”

A shake-up 

It’s not just fundraising, critics say, it’s a lack of recruitment. Democrats, who are quick to campaign on issues of diversity, inclusion and equity, could be doing more to open doors for candidates of color.

Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt announces his campaign for Attorney General at a press conference held at the Texas Capitol on July 13, 2021.

Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt announces his campaign for attorney general at a press conference at the Texas Capitol on July 13, 2021. Credit: Sophie Park/The Texas Tribune

Merritt, the attorney general candidate, said he was not recruited to run. An attorney for the family of George Floyd, Merritt decided to run after advising Democratic politicians, including President Joe Biden, on criminal justice and police accountability issues.

“It’s a shortcoming of the Democratic Party,” he said. “It never crossed their mind that someone like me should be running for office.”

The party’s own analysis of the 2020 elections found shortcomings in its Black voter turnout. While Black turnout overperformed expectations and overwhelmingly supported Democrats, Republicans were more successful at growing Black voter turnout than Democrats, raising concerns.

“If we want to win [statewide], we’ve got to shake some stuff up,” Evbagharu said.

Part of that shake-up would include recruiting and training more candidates of color and providing them the funding to run successful campaigns, he said.

But Brown pushed back, saying the party actively recruits candidates and puts on training for potential candidates, as well as connecting campaigns with experienced political staff. They’ve also focused on registering more Democratic voters.

Evbagharu also said Democrats may need to take a page from Republicans, who often invest in candidates in close races for multiple cycles before claiming victory. For example, Monica De La Cruz, a Republican running for Congress in the Rio Grande Valley, lost her race against Democratic incumbent Vicente Gonzalez in 2020 by 3 percentage points.

Republicans framed that loss as a victory for the GOP because of the huge gains they saw, and they are continuing to fight for the district as part of their overall strategy to win elections in South Texas next year. As of September, she had raised nearly $1 million, on par with Gonzalez, and she was named to the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” program for candidates to watch.

“Policy over personality”

But challenges remain for candidates of color, regardless of party.

“Running for office isn’t easy,” said Garza, the Democratic attorney general candidate. “You need to have the grit and determination and belief in yourself to do it and then have the ability to get people on your side.”

She said she isn’t concerned about the Black and Latino candidates on the GOP ticket because their policies do not help voters in those communities.

“It’s not enough that folks on the Republican ticket are people of color. You need to show your work,” she said. “What do you stand for? And who do you stand for? What we’re seeing on the right is folks that stand for corporations and big interests and don’t stand up for the little guy, for everyday Texans.”

Navarro said Democrats will have to perfect their messaging on this point to be successful, not simply rely on voters of color to side with them. Earlier this month, Republicans in Virginia flipped the major statewide offices by making the election about wedge issues like so-called critical race theory and forcing Democrats on the defensive. Texas Republicans could do the same on issues like border and election security.

“Republicans have a better understanding of how to create the message and how to flip it for the audience,” Navarro said.

Jean Card, a Republican political analyst, said that strategy paid off in Virginia, where the GOP elected Winsome Sears, a Jamaican-born Black woman, as lieutenant governor and Jason Miyares, the son of a Cuban immigrant, as the state’s first Latino attorney general.

“What we saw here was policy over personality,” Card said. “That’s why they were so effective as candidates.”

White said he focuses his campaign talking points on his decade of experience at the statehouse, where he pushed for rural interests, and his knowledge of agriculture, which is relevant to the position he’s seeking.

“When you’re actually doing diversity — that means you’re talking to everybody, listening to everybody, being respectful of everyone’s point of view,” White said, “you don’t have to talk about it.”'

Disclosure: Texas Secretary of State, University of Texas at San Antonio and University of Houston have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Correction: A previous version of this story quoted political scientist Sharon Navarro saying the Democratic Party promised Lupe Valdez funding ahead of her 2018 campaign for governor. Party officials say they did not offer any funding promises.

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