AUSTIN, Texas — Texas hasn't elected a Democrat governor in 28 years but has never seen a candidate like Lupe Valdez: a trailblazing Hispanic female sheriff who is gay and grew up picking green beans as the daughter of migrant farmworkers.
But ahead of a May 22 runoff, an unsteady performance by Valdez has some Democrats convinced they've seen enough, including an LGBT rights group and young Latino activists. Both have bucked her barrier-breaking run and instead endorsed Andrew White, the son of a former Texas governor who is trying to woo voters he calls "reasonable Republicans."
Texas turning blue in 2018 may be a fantasy of only true believers, but even their patience is being tested by what Democrats see as two imperfect choices: Valdez, the former sheriff of Dallas County who at times has shown a lack of depth on policy, or White, a centrist who has never held office and personally opposes abortion, but says he wouldn't try imposing his beliefs on the law.
Neither is expected to seriously challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who is seeking a second term, and their low-wattage runoff for the top of the ticket has Democrats almost entirely focused on Beto O'Rourke, the congressman who is running to unseat incumbent Republican Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate.
"I'm kind of sad that they're not more dynamic than they are. I don't know that we have a prayer," said Kim Canseco, 61, who wore an O'Rourke shirt to a recent Austin town hall of Democratic candidates.
Valdez, 70, was sheriff of the seventh-largest jail system in the U.S. for 12 years. She would be the first Latina gubernatorial nominee in Texas history, four years after Wendy Davis lost by 20 points despite her a national celebrity profile and robust fundraising, a landslide that scared off bigger-name Democrats in Texas from running this time around.
Valdez has neither name recognition nor money. She calls herself a law-and-order candidate who spent three days in solitude at a monastery deciding whether to run. Both she and White have railed against Abbott, who was the only governor in the U.S. last year to call for a "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people that ultimately failed in the state Legislature.
But Valdez has flubbed questions on basic policy, including telling the Dallas Morning News editorial board that she didn't know whether Texas was spending $8 million or $8 billion on border security. It's about $800 million. And this week, she came under fire for her record with immigrants in custody in her Dallas jails.
When asked at a town hall to defend her cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, Valdez glossed over the question and seemed impatient with reporters when pressed afterward. Her answers disappointed young Latinos in the crowd, which included teenagers whose parents have been deported.
The forum was sponsored by a group of young Hispanic activists called Jolt, which was so dissatisfied with Valdez's responses that it endorsed White, despite their concerns about a company he owns called Geovox Security that makes border-security technology.
White has said he will divest from the company, whose website includes an article saying that its equipment in the United Kingdom prevented "would-be clandestine" immigrants from entering the country.
"We would have loved to endorse the first Latina candidate for governor," said Cristina Tzintzun, Jolt's executive director. "She had real power when she was the sheriff of Dallas to go in a different direction. But she chose to work hand-in-hand with ICE."
Valdez disputed that characterization and pointed to larger groups that have endorsed her, including Planned Parenthood, the Texas AFL-CIO and the political arm of Equality Texas, a statewide LGBT rights group.
"I have tried to do quite a bit in my position to help immigration," Valdez said. "But I can only stay within the law. I am a law-and-order candidate. I am a person that holds up law and order. I can't go against the law. And, if I did, it would hurt my county."
Matt Angle, a Democratic strategist who was an adviser to Davis during her run in 2014, said the campaign has clearly been a struggle but didn't think the Democrats' choices for governor are a drag on O'Rourke, who has outraised Cruz.
O'Rourke hasn't taken a side in the race for governor. "The real power and drive this year isn't coming from the top. It's coming from the grassroots up," O'Rourke said. "I'm not in the slightest concerned."