Texas Primary Roundup: Dem Turnout Shows Progress, But No Revolution

U.S. Representative and Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke will head the Texas Democratic ticket in November. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Yesterday’s Texas primaries formally kicked off Campaign 2018 with a bang, but perhaps not the electoral explosion a lot of Democrats had hoped for. Early voting numbers from the 15 largest Texas counties had shown a huge spike in Democratic participation. But Texas has 254 counties, and unreported GOP early voting in those gave Republicans a sizable advantage in both early and Election Day voting. In the end, Democrats boosted their percentage of the primary vote from roughly 30 percent in the last midterm election to 40 percent now. That’s considerable progress, but not an immediate revolution in the balance of power.

The marquee statewide races turned out as expected. It was a bit of a surprise that Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has been a political celebrity for years, won renomination against his predecessor without a runoff (Texas requires majorities for party nominations; runoffs in many races will be held on May 22). The lesson most Republicans will take away from that result is that Bush’s obsequious behavior toward the president, which earned him a Trump endorsement, was a good idea. Two especially obnoxious ultraconservatives, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, both brushed aside primary opposition. Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, generally considered as strong a candidate against Ted Cruz as the party could hope for, had a meh performance in defeating two little-known opponents. But he’s doing very well in fundraising.

Former Dallas County judge Lupe Valdez and investor Mike White (son of the late governor Mark White) will face each other in a runoff for the dubious honor of going up against the very popular GOP governor Greg Abbot.

Democrats will also hold runoffs in the three House seats held by Republicans but carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016. There were mild upsets in all three. In the San Antonio–based 23rd District, represented by Will Hurd, the leading vote-getter, former military intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones, was no surprise; she led in fundraising going into the primary. But with a few precincts still out, her runoff opponent will either be former USDA official Judy Canales or Berniecrat Rick Trevino, with the heavily endorsed former congressional staffer Jay Hulings falling short. In the North Dallas–based 32rd District, held by Pete Sessions, former NFL player Colin Allred ran first, despite spending very little money. He will face former USDA appointee Lillian Salerno in a runoff. But the top spender in the race, former State Department staffer Ed Meier, finished fourth.

The best-known Democratic upset, though this may be remembered as a tempest in a teapot, was in the Houston-based 7th District, represented by John Culberson. The leading vote-getter was, unsurprisingly, EMILY’s List endorsee Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. But finishing in a runoff spot was Laura Moser, a staunch progressive and the target of an unusual pre-primary DCCC attack on grounds that she would be a sitting duck for GOP attack ads as a “Washington insider.” The intervention appears to have backfired, as Moser finished a strong second and may have a decent chance in the runoff thanks to union concerns about Fletcher’s background in a management-side labor law firm. This also doesn’t bode well for DCCC hopes of culling Democratic congressional fields over in California later this year.

In House races that did not involve vulnerable Republican incumbents, the results are harder to generalize. It was a very good night for EMILY’s List, which saw all of its endorsed Democratic candidates either win or make it to a runoff. And it was a particularly big night for Latinas, two of whom (Houston state senator Sylvia Garcia and El Paso County judge Veronica Escobar) won open-seat primaries in heavily Democratic districts and will soon be in Congress.

But for most of the Texas — and national– — political world, the primary was just the first stage of a long, long election year with a lot of imponderables.

Texas Primary Roundup: Dem Turnout Shows Modest Progress