Dallas Co. Sheriff Lupe Valdez running for Texas governor

Texas' first Hispanic female sheriff announced Wednesday she is running for governor in 2018, making her the biggest Democrat in the race to challenge Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.

Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, who is stepping down as sheriff after 12 years to launch her campaign, starts out as an underdog. Texas hasn't elected a Democratic governor since 1990 and Abbott coasted to a 20-point win just three years ago against Wendy Davis, whose defense of abortion rights catapulted her to national political stardom.

In Valdez, 70, Democrats are now putting up a far different candidate: a one-time migrant worker and Army veteran with more than 40 years in law enforcement. She was Texas' first openly gay sheriff and has publicly clashed with Abbott over her handling of federal immigration detainers in the nation's seventh-largest jail system.

Several other lesser-known Democrats, including the son of a former Texas governor in the 1980s, are also running. But the true Democratic heavyweights took a pass, including Julian Castro, who was President Barack Obama's housing secretary and is a former mayor of San Antonio.

Texas Democrats have faced uncomfortable questions for months about whether they can field a credible gubernatorial candidate. Valdez, a former U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent, downplayed how much money she would need to mount a serious campaign in a Texas, where the size makes statewide campaigns an expensive undertaking.

"Texas and businesses are begging for a return of common sense, smart investments and just plain sanity," said Valdez, who announced her candidacy at Texas Democratic headquarters in Austin. “Good government is about finding solutions to real problems, not putting a spin on lies and creating fear. We're here to make people's lives better.”

St. Edward University Professor of Political Science Brian Smith says Valdez has a lot to go up against.

“Name recognition. Not a lot of people know who she is outside of the Dallas area, and you're going to have to win a state as large as Texas,” the professor said. “Second thing is money. To run an election in Texas for state office, they talk about a million dollars a week.”

Valdez was among about 40 female sheriffs in the U.S., a number that amounts to only about 1 percent of the total sheriff population, according to the National Sheriffs Association.

Abbott, who is facing re-election for the first time, approaches next year's midterm elections in a better position than few other incumbent governors in the U.S. He has no serious GOP primary challenger and already has more than $40 million in campaign funds socked away.

He remains popular among social conservatives who drive Texas politics and is steering the state through the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which could become the costliest national disaster cleanup in U.S. history. He has pressed the White House for billions of dollars in additional recovery aid, and state leaders drew high marks in a recent survey of Harvey-affected residents by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Abbott's campaign released a statement Wednesday afternoon saying, “Regardless of who Texas Democrats ultimately nominate for governor, our campaign will be prepared to run on Governor Abbott's record and policies that have led to more jobs created in Texas in the past year than any other state."

His campaign also released a statement about the Dallas Police Association's political arm endorsing him Wednesday for re-election.

Democrats are likely to target two of Abbott's most divisive pursuits: his "sanctuary cities" ban signed in May; and a so-called bathroom bill targeting transgender people, which failed to pass amid backlash from big corporations such as Amazon and Google.

The new "sanctuary cities" law, known as SB4, is Abbott's toughest crackdown on immigration and was partly fueled by Valdez's decision in 2015 that Dallas jails would stop automatically honoring federal immigration detainers for minor offenses. At the time, Abbott responded by threatening to pull $250 million in criminal justice grants to counties that followed Valdez's lead, though Dallas never lost any funds.

Sheriff Valdez says she'll stay on in Dallas until someone steps into her role as sheriff. A replacement has not been named yet.

Ann Richards was the state's last Democratic governor and 1994 was the last time Democrats won any statewide office in Texas - the longest losing streak of its kind in the nation.