With Rising Voter Turnout, Democrats Hope To Turn Parts Of Texas Blue

Bins of signs are seen in a storage area at the Bexar County Election offices last month in San Antonio.

Updated at 8 p.m. ET

Texans were casting their votes in primaries Tuesday, the first contests of the 2018 election cycle. But voters in the Lone Star State have been voting for almost two weeks already — and there’s been a big surge in enthusiasm across the board.

Driven by anti-President Trump fervor, in this typically deep red state, there are plenty of positive signs for a once-latent Democratic Party in the state. Early vote turnout for the minority party has surpassed GOP totals — and even bested their 2016 numbers. Democrats have also fielded a record number of candidates in all 36 congressional districts, and there’s the potential to flip maybe three or more seats come November.

There are eight open-seat races happening, too — six held by Republicans and two by Democrats who are retiring. The majority of those races will stay in the same party’s hands. But the nominees may not be known in those crowded races until May 22, since a candidate needs to top 50 percent this go-round to avoid a runoff.

The same is true in what will be some of the most watched races this fall — primaries to see who will face Reps. John Culberson, Pete Sessions and Will Hurd in the three congressional districts held by Republicans but won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Those Democratic primaries — some of which have turned quite bitter — may go into runoff overtime as well.

In the Senate race, both GOP Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke are expected to easily win their primaries. Cruz still has the edge for re-election, but O’Rourke has been mounting a surprisingly strong campaign and gaining attention.

In another race to watch, there’s a political scion with a familiar name — yet another George Bush, this one George P., son of none other than Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and 2016 presidential candidate. Despite Jeb Bush’s feuds with President Trump, Trump has endorsed George P. Bush for re-election for land commissioner. But Bush is running against a former land commissioner who wants the job back. If a Bush in Texas endorsed by Trump were to lose, that would certainly be news.

Most of the polls in the state closed at 8 p.m. ET, but some areas in the far western part of the state will be open until 9 p.m. ET.

Here’s more of what to watch as the returns roll in:

Can Democrats sustain their early vote momentum?

The 11 days of early voting brought some of the best news in decades for Democrats. Not only did they best GOP early voting statewide totals in some key areas like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, but they also beat their own turnout numbers from the same period in 2016 — a presidential year when more voters typically go to the polls.

Analyses have shown Democrats are getting lower-propensity voters to the polls this time around — ones who may come out to pick their choice for the White House but haven’t previously shown a heavy interest in voting in midterms.

The big question on Tuesday is, can Democrats match the enthusiasm they’ve seen in early vote numbers at the ballot box on Election Day? Democrats and Clinton’s campaign saw a similar early vote surge in some key states in 2016, only to be swamped by Republicans at the polls. So is Democrats’ early vote turnout simply an aberration that will correct itself come Tuesday or is it a bigger harbinger of warning signs to come for Republicans?

Democratic primary battles dial up the heat

Enthusiasm on Democrats’ side has yielded a record number of 111 candidates in all 36 congressional districts for the first time in 25 years. But that cuts another way — some of those crowded primaries have turned particularly nasty in the final stretch, highlighting a Democratic divide between centrists and progressives. The outcomes of these primaries could have consequences for flipping crucial races come November.

There’s possibly no more intriguing race to watch tonight than the Democratic primary in the 7th District for the right to face Culberson, a Republican who represents the Houston suburbs.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee controversially waded into the race a little more than a week ago against progressive activist Laura Moser. The committee, responsible for trying to elect Democratic House members, cited derisive comments she had made about a more rural part of the state when she was a writer living in Washington, D.C.

That was before she moved home to run for Congress. (The committee also cited other controversial language she has used in her writing.) The DCCC’s decision to drop opposition research against Moser drew backlash from many progressive groups, and even Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said it was an action he wouldn’t have taken.

The DCCC’s maneuvers — the very embodiment of “the establishment” that many voters hate — may have had the opposite of the intended effect and could end up propelling Moser into the May runoff. EMILY’s List-backed attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and nonprofit executive Alex Triantaphyllis are seen as the other contenders to grab runoff slots. The DCCC would prefer either of those candidates over Moser, thinking the chance to oust Culberson in a rapidly changing district might be lost if she is the candidate.

Other Democratic hopefuls to watch

The other two Clinton-won districts — Sessions’ suburban Dallas 32nd District and Hurd’s expansive 23rd District, which runs along the Mexican border from El Paso to San Antonio — both have primaries of note, too.

The Texas Tribune’s Abby Livingston writes that in the 32nd District, it’s former State Department official and ex-Clinton staffer Ed Meier who has raised the most money and is expected to secure a spot in the May runoff. He could be joined by Brett Shipp, a former journalist who has name recognition in the area; former Obama official Lillian Salerno; or former NFL player Colin Allred, who also served in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Obama.

In the five-way race to take on Hurd, it’s likely to be former federal prosecutor Jay Hulings or former intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones who makes the runoff, per the Tribune, but former Obama agriculture appointee Judy Canales and former high school teacher Rick Treviño, who has tried to seize the progressive mantle, are also worth watching.

Open seat chaos

The seats open because of retirements are all likely to stay in their current party’s hands, but there is some rising interest in the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Lamar Smith in the San Antonio and Austin suburbs.

There’s a massive 18-way primary happening in the 21st District, and if a far-right candidate wins the nod, Democrats are hopeful they can compete for it in the general election. (They are encouraged by some generic-ballot polling.)

For Republicans, former Ted Cruz chief of staff Chip Roy, former CIA agent William Negley, state Rep. Jason Isaac and former Bexar County GOP Chairman Robert Stovall are seen as having the best chances to advance to a runoff. Former Rep. Quico Canseco, who used to represent the nearby 23rd District, is also running, but he has mounted underwhelming campaigns before and hasn’t raised much money this cycle.

On the Democratic side, tech entrepreneur Joseph Kopser is seen as the front-runner. He has raised the most money (and gotten the endorsement of House Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland). Kopser has tried to strike a bipartisan tone to attract crossover GOP voters, but some of his other challengers have campaigned on more progressive platforms.

It’s worth watching whether Kopser can avoid a runoff (by getting more than 50 percent) or is forced into a race that could expose more divides within the Democratic Party.

The Bush factor

As member station KUT’s Ben Philpott reported, the last Bush currently holding office in the country — George P. Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush — is facing a primary challenge in his race to remain the Texas land commissioner.

And that effort is facing some resistance just over two years after his father, Jeb Bush, succumbed to the challenge from Trump.

For the younger Bush, after winning election in 2014, the “realities of holding office began to sink in,” Philpott writes. “There are questions about how well his office has handled Hurricane Harvey relief. He’s also received bad press over his handling of the Alamo. You know, the one we’re supposed to remember all the time. Those issues brought criticism from some in the party, and motivated Bush’s predecessor, former land commissioner Jerry Patterson, to challenge him in the GOP primary. Patterson had left the office in 2014 in a failed attempt to run for lieutenant governor.”

To help him this time around and possibly avoid a runoff with Patterson, Bush turned to the man who vanquished his father — and he got it. Last week the president tweeted his support, writing, “Texas LC George P. Bush backed me when it wasn’t the politically correct thing to do, and I back him now.”

Correction: March 6, 2018 12:00 am — A prevsious version of this story misspelled a reference to Jerry Patterson’s last name as Paterson.

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