While the major news media is covering Sen. John Cornyn’s (R) strong win in Tuesday night’s Texas primary, a different story lies beneath the surface in the Lone Star state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.
State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Ft. Worth) easily won her party’s nomination for governor attracting 78.4 percent of the vote, but she did lose 25 counties to an opponent, Reynaldo “Ray” Madrigal, who was virtually a candidate in absentia. Though losing 25 of 237 counties is an insignificant number in and of itself, the location of her under-performing entities is what could pose her an additional general election problem.
It is clear that Sen. Davis begins this race as an underdog to Attorney General Greg Abbott, who captured 91.5 percent of the Republican primary vote. Texas hasn’t elected a Democrat to any statewide office since 1990. It hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter carried the state in 1976. Lloyd Bentsen is the last Democratic US senator voted into office, back in 1988. And, the first post-primary poll – Rasmussen Reports (March 3-4; 500 likely Texas general election voters) – projects Davis to be facing an immediate 12-point deficit, 41-53 percent.
But her apparent underlying problem is found in heavily Hispanic South Texas. Of the 25 counties she lost to Madrigal, 24 of them are located in the Rio Grande Valley, or along the Rio Grande River heading toward El Paso. Fifteen of the 25 feature Hispanic figures that exceed 75 percent of the total population. In two other counties, Cameron, which houses the city of Brownsville, and Val Verde, Madrigal attracted 46 and 48 percent, respectively. Both of those counties are also more than 75 percent Hispanic.
It doesn’t appear coincidental that she lost so many counties in the most heavily Hispanic regions of Texas. It turns out that the Texas Right to Life organization conducted a Spanish language mail campaign that attacked Davis over her position on the abortion issue, generally appealing to the Hispanic community’s Catholic predisposition.
You will remember that Davis came to national notoriety by filibustering legislation that restricted late-term abortions. Her efforts temporarily stopped the bill, but it was later passed in special session.
The fact that Madrigal won two dozen Rio Grande Valley counties while the Ft. Worth area senator was simultaneously carrying three-quarters of the Democratic vote throughout the rest of the state suggests that the social issue has legs in this geographic region.
It is clear that Davis will carry South Texas in the general election against Republican Abbott, but her primary election performance suggests that her margin of victory has the potential of being below the Democratic base point. If she is to have any chance of scoring a statewide upset victory, she will have to maximize her percentage in all Democratic strongholds. Tuesday’s primary results tell us that Wendy Davis still has more work to do in South Texas before she has a realistic ability to position herself for a potential win.