AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — High stakes over Hispanic voters shifted the governor’s race Thursday to the Texas-Mexico border, where Democrats defended Wendy Davis’ humbling losses in party strongholds to an obscure primary challenger who barely campaigned.
Republican Greg Abbott, who still fared worse than Davis in border counties despite her lackluster numbers, wouldn’t comment on his rival. He instead announced a goal this November to break the record for Hispanic support by a Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate, widely considered to have been set by George W. Bush in 1998.
Bush captured as much as 49 percent of the Hispanic vote that year, according to some exit polling, though other polling put the figure lower.
“We’re going to be more competitive than ever,” Abbott said Thursday.
Davis, a national Democratic star backed by a muscular organizing team, coasted to the gubernatorial nomination Tuesday night with 79 percent of the statewide vote. But she lost several border counties to Ray Madrigal, a Corpus Christi municipal judge who never reported spending or raising any money.
It was an uncomfortable showing for Davis, who’s raised at least $16 million and is the face of a Texas Democratic Party that is banking on a fast-growing Hispanic population to end two decades of Republican domination in Texas.
Davis says she’ll work to win over South Texas voters but hasn’t tried explaining her poor performance along the border.
Abbott on Thursday made the first stop in the general election phase of the campaign Hidalgo County, where Davis lost by nearly 2,000 votes.
“I can’t really play pundit,” Abbott said when asked about Davis’ performance. “What I can tell you is what I see being here, which is a growing connection to the community.”
Abbott did even worse in Hidalgo County than did Davis, who got three times as many votes there as the longtime Texas attorney general. Hidalgo County hasn’t favored a Republican for governor since George W. Bush in 1998, and four years ago, Gov. Rick Perry lost 2-to-1 to Democratic challenger Bill White.
Abbott said the Texas GOP would reach out to Hispanics like never before this election year. But top Republicans have already been on the defensive: Democrats slammed Abbott’s reference to “Third World countries” while describing a rash of corruption cases in the Rio Grande Valley, and Sen. Dan Patrick, who’s in a runoff for lieutenant governor, has decried an “invasion” of immigrants coming across the Texas border.
Davis, the first female nominee for Texas governor since Ann Richards, said voters will see that contrast.
“I’ve been to the border region of this state several times, multiple times actually, in the campaign, and I intend to be there multiple times in the future,” Davis said. “I also intend to be there if I have the privilege of being elected to governor after I win, and I think that’s one of the most important things to keep in mind.”
Some have posited that Madrigal’s surname might have given him a boost among voters in heavily Hispanic counties. Kelly Rivera Salazar, chairwoman of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party, acknowledged it was disappointing that Davis didn’t pull a majority.
“It was probably more of the Hispanic influence that hurt her a little bit,” said Rivera Salazar, adding that Davis was a new face to voters there.
Jerry Polinard, a political science professor at the University of Texas Pan-America, said Davis shouldn’t panic. He said voters were focused on local races and that, regardless of who they picked in the primary, they’ll deliver the county to Davis come November.
“I don’t think she can dismiss it and I think there is cause to be concerned,” Polinard said. “But I think some of the statements have exaggerated the impact.”
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