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Analysis: A Texas governor’s debate can only be a game-changer if it has an audience

Andrew White is finally getting his debate with Lupe Valdez tonight in Austin. In a low-profile race for the Democratic nomination for governor of Texas, that could make a difference — if, that is, people watch.

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When a political party is viable, the runoff debates between its candidates for the state’s top elected job are big events.

That’s the bar for tonight’s one and only debate between Lupe Valdez of Dallas and Andrew White of Houston, who finished first and second in March’s Democratic primary for governor of Texas. If you were hoping to catch it on TV tonight, you’re likely to be disappointed. Outside of the Austin and San Antonio markets, it’s only going to be available via livestream online.

The winner of their May 22 runoff will face incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in the November general election.

This runoff has all the makings of a low-interest election. There’s only one statewide race in either of the major-party primaries: the one between the Democratic gubernatorial wannabes. The rest of the races are regional and local, for everything from county offices here and there to congressional races higher on the ballot. Aside from the local hotspots, most Texans aren’t getting strong prompts from the candidates seeking their votes.

White and Valdez don’t have the money that big races usually attract. And runoffs for governor are relatively rare things in Texas: The last one was in 1990, when state Treasurer Ann Richards beat Attorney General Jim Mattox for the Democratic nomination. That one was an expensive, well-documented, high-interest election — one that featured two experienced statewide elected officials with the political and financial organization to hold public attention and drive turnout.

This year’s runoff is a faint echo of that. Neither candidate has been on the statewide ballot before this year. Valdez was elected Dallas County sheriff four times; White has never run for office. Neither has the money it would take to run statewide ads for enough time to leave an impression on voters and, unlike Mattox and Richards, they don’t have the benefit of running on the frontline of a vibrant political party.

Abbott’s advantages are huge. He’s been in statewide office for more than 20 years, as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court, as attorney general and now as governor. He’s got more than $40 million in his political accounts. More voters than not have a favorable impression of him, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

That’s left him with little competition so far this cycle, and with plenty of time to jack around with the Democrats. Abbott’s prologue to the Democratic debate came Thursday in the form of a new website attacking Valdez for her support from Planned Parenthood and other reproductive rights advocates. That’s an issue that separated him and Wendy Davis, his 2014 Democratic opponent, tagged by Abbott’s advisors as “Abortion Barbie” after her famous filibuster against an anti-abortion bill in the Texas Senate.

But it’s also an issue that has splintered Democratic activists in this year’s race for governor. White has said he is personally pro-life but that he also believes women should be able to decide for themselves whether to continue their pregnancies. Some Democrats accepted that, while others — Davis among themturned against him.

It’s a rare instance where Davis and Abbott are on the same side: Neither wants White to be the Democratic nominee.

It’s almost like Abbott is trying to help Valdez win, pressing her on an issue that’s important in her primary. The governor, who’d like to spend the rest of the election year talking about immigration and border security, has been raising Valdez’s profile since the primaries, bringing her into focus as his Democratic target while scarcely acknowledging White.

Why is that important? Abbott, purely by virtue of his incumbency and his campaign resources, has more people listening to him than either of the Democrats do. At this point in the Democratic runoff, the candidate whose name is most familiar to the voters will have an edge. He’s helping Valdez get across the line.

White, in particular, has been hoping to get onto a debate stage before runoff voting begins on Monday. His campaign believes he’ll compare favorably against the front-runner. Her campaign probably wouldn’t have agreed to this if they thought that was right.

Or maybe — and this is a long tradition in politics — they think Texas Democrats will be doing something other than hunting around for a livestream of a primary runoff debate on a Friday night in May.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin and Planned Parenthood and 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.

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