The Texas Primaries: 6 Takeaways To Kick Off The 2018 Election Cycle

Mar 7, 2018
Originally published on March 8, 2018 10:41 pm

Launching the 2018 election cycle, Texans cast ballots in primaries on Tuesday — leaving several races headed for runoffs.

Election night in Texas offers several takeaways of note, as we look ahead. Here are six to consider:

1. Texas is still Texas. Turn Texas blue? Not so fast. For all the attention on Democratic turnout — and turnout was high for Democrats — they were swamped by voters on the GOP side. Check out the the total vote in the big statewide races, for example. More than 1 million Democrats turned out for the Senate primary that has gotten so much national attention because of the candidacy of Rep. Beto O'Rourke. That was double the Democratic primary turnout in the last midterm. But look at the GOP side: There was 50 percent higher turnout for the uncontested GOP Senate primary featuring incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. (That was even up slightly from 2014 for Republicans.)

Wayne Slater, retired senior political writer for The Dallas Morning News, says he is skeptical of a statewide Democratic wave in Texas, because of the voters who are fueling both parties. The Democratic vote was up in the 15 most populous counties, but the rural vote is still overwhelmingly Republican. Two-thirds of the Democratic vote came from more populous counties, he said, while just 55 percent of the Republican vote did. Tuesday night proved, he said, "Rural Texas still substantially gives it to Republicans." So until that changes, or until Latinos in South Texas truly get fired up for a favored Democratic statewide candidate, "This whole stuff about a blue wave coming, don't hang your hat on that," Slater said.

2. No sure Bet-o. Cruz got double the votes of O'Rourke, and a largely unknown, underfinanced 32-year-old named Sema Hernandez got nearly a quarter of the vote in the Democratic primary. That doesn't bode well for O'Rourke. Expect Cruz (and his sharp-elbowed operatives) to run a tough campaign, targeting O'Rourke, including that his given name is Robert and Cruz's is Rafael in Latino-heavy Texas and that O'Rourke is too liberal for Texas. In fact, the Cruz campaign is already up with a radio ad with the line, "If you're gonna run in Texas, you can't be a liberal man ..."

3. The suburbs are still the key to the House — and Democrats are faring well there. For all that cold water for Democrats statewide in Texas, at the same time there is this silver lining for them — turnout in the three Republican House districts they hope to flip was on par or outpaced that of Republicans. Yes, those were competitive primaries for Democrats while the GOP is running three incumbents who faced token opposition, but those districts are still in play — and they're happening in the suburbs, where Trump's approval rating is suffering. Specifically, Democratic turnout surged in major metropolitan areas — and the wealthy suburbs, as The Cook Political Report's David Wasserman points out.

4. The power of female Democratic candidates is real. We've written about the record number of women running for office in 2018. Well, the power of women was felt in the Democratic primaries Tuesday night. Nearly half of the candidates who finished first in Democratic primaries were women (17 of 35). What's more, Texas is more than likely to send two Latinas to Congress. Remarkably, Veronica Escobar, an El Paso County judge running to fill O'Rourke's House seat, and state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, running to replace Democratic Rep. Gene Green in Houston, are the overwhelming favorites to be the first Latinas sent to Congress from Texas. That is really quite something in a state where nearly 4 in 10 people are Latino.

5. The anti-establishment sentiment is as strong as ever. If anyone thinks either party will be able to put a thumb on the scale for any candidate this year, Texas provided a few flashing red lights. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee published opposition research on congressional candidate Laura Moser, highlighting that she wrote she wouldn't want to live in Paris, Texas, again. It tried to undercut her — because it believes she would lose in a general election in a winnable seat in the Houston suburbs — but this, instead, backfired. The gambit raised her profile and helped propel Moser into a May 22 runoff. And a Democratic candidate endorsed by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer was edged out by a political novice, who is a pastor and former math teacher. (They will face each other in a May 22 runoff, though.)

6. Money can't necessarily buy you primary love. There was a time when the candidate with the most money could be seen as the favorite. And when that candidate raised $1 million or more before a primary, he or she was really seen as a favorite. But the energy clearly was not with those candidates Tuesday night in Texas — on both sides. In four races, those candidates missed even making it to runoffs. A candidate who put in $6 million of her own money in the GOP primary in the 2nd Congressional District finished third and got just 12,000 votes. In the 7th District GOP primary, another who raised $1.1 million finished fourth with just 5,000 votes. On the Democratic side, in the 16th District, a candidate who raised just shy of $1 million finished second — but with only about 11,000 votes missed the runoff; and a candidate in the 32nd District also raised almost $1 million and finished third with just 5,500 votes. That's $9 million for 33,500 votes, or $269 a vote — and four losses.

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The 2018 elections kicked off last night with primary voting in Texas. It's a key state with a big Senate race and some important contests in the House that could help determine control of Congress. Democrats were excited going into last night because of early signs of high turnout. So did that come to fruition? And what could any of this mean going forward? NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro is here to give us some context on all this. Hi, Domenico.


SHAPIRO: So turnout - how high was it, and did it show signs of a possible Democratic blue wave in Texas?

MONTANARO: (Laughter) Well, hold your horses, as they might say in Texas. You know, look. Turnout was double for Democrats than what it was in 2014, but Republicans still turned out more voters for the big statewide races. Texas is still Texas. So think about that. So much attention was focused on this Democratic candidate, Congressman Beto O'Rourke's, candidacy for the Senate. But the incumbent, Senator Ted Cruz, had double O'Rourke's votes. And he wasn't even challenged by anyone.

So another bad sign for Democrats - a Latina candidate, Sema Hernandez, who's just 32, spent hardly any money, has very low name ID, managed to get a quarter of the Democratic vote - not a good sign for O'Rourke's candidacy because Democrats have had trouble firing up Latino voters for their favored candidates over the years. And without Latinos fully engaged, it's going to be almost impossible for someone like O'Rourke to win in today's Texas.

Now, that said, winning statewide isn't everything. If you're focused on the possibility of Democrats taking back the House, there were three suburban districts going in that were competitive. And coming out, those three are still very competitive. That's key when Democrats need to flip 24 seats.

SHAPIRO: Looks like this was a good night for women more broadly in Texas. Tell us about that.

MONTANARO: Yeah. It's really fascinating because half of the winners of the Democratic Congressional primaries were women. Yes, it's now all but guaranteed that Texas will send two Latinas to Congress, which is fascinating because with 4 in 10 people in Texas being Latino, it has never had a Latina sent to Congress.

SHAPIRO: What else stood out to you from last night's primary results?

MONTANARO: Well, look; primaries usually run on two things - money and enthusiasm. And there were signs that the grassroots enthusiasm was more important last night than money. I'll give you one example. There were four candidates who far outraised their opponents. They raised between them $9 million for 33,000 votes. When you break that down, it's $269 a vote.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MONTANARO: Not exactly money well spent.


MONTANARO: So now look. There's going to be lots of money that pours in from outside groups. Let's see, if this trend continues, if it's grassroots or if it's going to be that outside money.

SHAPIRO: Within the Democratic Party, Domenico, there's been a lot of tension in the last couple years between the more progressive, quote, unquote, "Bernie Sanders wing" and the more mainstream so-called Clinton wing. Are you continuing to see that play out now that we're in 2018 primary season?

MONTANARO: Well, that played out in one of these key Texas congressional races where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the arm that tries to elect Democrats to the House, actually took the rare step of putting out opposition research against a more progressive candidate because she said that she wouldn't want to move back to Paris, Texas, where her family is. Guess what? She made it into the runoff in that election, boosting her name ID. It was tremendous backlash because of that. And we're going to look on Tuesday to see in Pennsylvania if Conor Lamb, who's taken a more centrist approach...

SHAPIRO: This is a House race just outside of Pittsburgh.

MONTANARO: That's right - special election. We'll see if he can get through with that more centrist approach or if you're going to see liberals more fired up, wanting a more progressive message.

SHAPIRO: So the Democratic civil war is not over.

MONTANARO: Definitely not.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome, Ari.

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