By Hastings Wyman –
The Lone Star State held the first primaries of the 2018 political season last week. “Don’t make too much of these primaries,” says University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray. “Not that many people vote.” Nevertheless, for the record, the Republican turnout was 1.5 million, Democratic turnout 1 million. And in those numbers, there were some harbingers of things to come.
The returns made clear that Trumpian politics are well and strong in the nation’s second largest state, with not just solid, but overwhelming victories for conservative incumbents in the races for US Senator, governor and lieutenant governor. On the Democratic side, the results indicate a shift to the left, but the Democratic turnout was not strong enough to give the Texas GOP statewide problems in November.
Reports of the early voting gave Democrats, in Texas and in Washington, the belief that resistance to President Trump was getting strong in a very Red state. But the final returns poured cold water on that hope. “A lot of national reporters were looking at the early voting turnouts from the Secretary of State’s office, which were from the 15 largest counties,” says a longtime Texas journalist. “The rural votes weren’t taken into account. When the rural vote came in, it went back to the same old pattern.” Says Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Houston-based Quorum Report, “Democratic turnout was front-loaded, so it was not anything spectacular.” Murray says that local candidates drive the turnout. “Statewide, Democrats didn’t spend much money.” In rural counties, adds Murray, “Democrats virtually collapsed in the court houses.”
Democrats did well with the urban vote, however, and the trend must be worrisome for the GOP, says Murray. In the primary turnout in the “Metroplex,” consisting of Dallas and Fort Worth plus eight surrounding suburban counties, there has been a steady decline in the GOP’s share of the primary vote. In 2010, the primary turnout in the Metroplex was 79% Republican; in 2014, it was 70% Republican, and this year, it was down to 57% Republican. In Dallas County itself, the Republican Primary vote increased 4% over 2014 while the Democrats’ vote increased by 98%.
The big worry for the Democrats is that turnout among Hispanic voters was not high. In the Democrats’ US Senate primary, Beto O’Rourke, the much-touted challenger to Cruz, got an unimpressive 62%. Sema Hernandez, a Houston progressive who spent about $4,000, got 24% and Edward Kimbrough 15%. O’Rourke had campaigned in 226 of the state’s 254 counties, according to the Austin American-Statesman. But he lost a number of counties, including in the Rio Grande Valley and along the border.
By contrast, in the Republican Primary, Cruz got 85% of the vote against four contenders, none of them heavyweights. Thus 1.3 million people voted for Cruz to 641,000 who voted for O’Rourke. Aiming toward November, Cruz’s opening television spot against O’Rourke included a jingle: “Liberal Robert wanted to fit in. So he changed his name to Beto. And he did it with a grin.”
In the Republican Primary for governor, Gov. Greg Abbott received 90% against two opponents. But Kronberg argues that despite his overwhelming primary victory, Abbott came out weaker. That’s because he tried to defeat three state House members who had tried to put limitations on the governor’s powers. “He succeeded in only one,” points out Kronberg. “The other two both won, despite Abbot’s cutting TV spots against them.” Nevertheless, in November Abbott is about as close as you can get to a lead pipe cinch.
The Democratic gubernatorial nominee will be chosen in the May 22 runoff. Lupe Valdez, a Houston progressive who was also the first openly lesbian Latina sheriff in the nation, led with 43% to Andrew White’s 27%. White, a successful businessman, is the son of former Gov. Mark White (D). Voters on the left support Valdez while pragmatists who want a stronger contender in November support the more moderate White.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R), the fiery rightwing radio host, did not run as well as Abbott, but he did rack up a solid win, 76% to 24%. His Republican opponent, former Rockwall City Council member Scott Milder, endorsed the Democratic nominee. However, since Patrick endorsed only winners in state senate primaries, “His power over the Senate may be stronger than ever,” says Kronberg.
Another contest of interest was the battle for Land Commissioner, an important state office in Texas. The incumbent, George P. Bush, son of Jeb and nephew of George W., had taken some flak over campaign contributions, but he won with 58% over three opponents. The Bush name still carries weight in the Lone Star State.
In a year when Democrats are trying to win control of the US House of Representatives, Republican consultant Craig Murphy says “November will be interesting in the Texas congressional races… Texas is usually stable. This year it’s not as stable as it usually is.” He adds, “It’s a year when Democrats will see how far they can push it.”
The major targets for Democrats to gain seats include the 7th, 23rd and 32nd Districts. In the 7th, US Rep. John Culberson (R) was up about 5,000 over the Democratic turnout in his district. There is a runoff for the Democratic nomination between Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Laura Moser. In the 23rd, the seat was won twice – but narrowly in 2016 – by Republican Will Hurd; he will face a major challenge from either Gina Ortiz Jones or Rick Trevino.
In the 32nd, US Rep. Pete Sessions (R) was only about a thousand votes up over the Democratic turnout. “Sessions will have a tough time in November,” says Murphy. “However, he has had tough races before. He campaigns hard. He’s one of the best campaigners in the country.”