Tuesday’s Texas primaries set up a big question for both parties, there and across the country: Will they play to their bases or reach out to more moderate voters this November?
Primaries for five of the eight open congressional seats in the state are headed to a May 22 runoff on one side or the other — and on both sides in the race to replace Rep. Lamar Smith (R) in the 21st District outside of Austin and San Antonio. Democrats also will vote that day to make final picks of their nominees to challenge Republican incumbents in three districts that were won by Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Almost all of these runoffs pit candidates who excite the ideological edges of their parties, where most of the activist energy is, against ones likely to be more appealing to the kind of independent voters who populate the suburbs.
National political strategists would clearly prefer the latter. But the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s decision to put its finger on the scale in a seven-way primary to choose its challenger against endangered GOP Rep. John Culberson backfired. Its clumsy attack on journalist Laura Moser, a liberal who has been calling for President Trump’s impeachment, catapulted her from out of pack and into a runoff against establishment pick Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. If she can consolidate most of the support that had gone to the other candidates in the race, Moser may well win that head-to-head contest.
Among the 18 GOP candidates running to replace Smith, the two who emerged were Chip Roy, a former chief of staff to Sen. Ted Cruz who has received more than $500,000 worth of help from the conservative Club for Growth, and Matt McCall, an evangelical favorite who challenged Smith unsuccessfully in 2014 and 2016. Roy got into the runoff with just 27 percent of the vote; McCall did it with only 17 percent. Left by the wayside were a host of candidates with strong ties to the state’s traditional political powerbrokers — more evidence that the GOP in Texas has been remade in Cruz’s image.
Meanwhile, Democrats — who have an outside shot at taking the GOP-leaning 21st district, which includes fast-growing suburbs outside Austin — saw the establishment pick come in a narrow second in the initial round of balloting. The leader going into the runoff is Mary Street Wilson, a minister and mathematician who got 31 percent. That was two percentage points more than that received by tech entrepreneur Joseph Kopser, who had raised far more and had the endorsement of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).
Runoff elections generally draw even lower turnout than initial primaries — and the people who are motivated enough to vote are not generally representative of the larger fall electorate. That means there may be opportunities squandered for both parties. But one thing Texans made clear on Tuesday: They do not want anyone else picking their candidates for them.