The eyes of Democrats were on Texas Tuesday night, as the party searches for swells that it hopes will form into a wave carrying it to control of the U.S. House of Representatives in November.
Did any evidence of an impending Democratic wave materialize? It depends how you want to interpret Tuesday's primary, the first of the 2018 congressional midterm elections.
One interpretation is that Democrats are putting themselves in place to unseat Republicans in one or two Texas congressional districts for the first time in several election cycles. Turnout in the Democratic primaries was nearly double that of the 2014 midterms.
A less optimistic observation is that some of the Democrats' leading candidates, such as Rep. Beto O'Rourke in his U.S. Senate primary, failed to perform to expectations, raising questions about whether they'll have the support to win statewide in November. Democratic infighting about what kind of candidates — progressives or moderates — to send to the general election hasn't quieted down, either, with several runoffs remaining.
Let's break down the mixed results for Texas Democrats and see what that could mean for Democrats across the nation.
Good news for Democrats in Texas: 1 million voted in the primary.
That's the highest Democratic turnout for a midterm in 16 years, according to Texas Democrats. When gauging how well they'll do in November, this may be the most important number for the party. Texas is still a red state, but to turn it a little less deep red, getting out Democratic voters who normally vote only in presidential elections is their No. 1 strategy. That means Latino voters, younger voters and even rural Democrats. And Democrats got early signs they were on track to get those voters out: Turnout was 100 percent higher than 2014 levels.
“If Texas votes like it looks, then Democrats win,” Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, said before the primary. “And Democratic enthusiasm is through the roof right now, so that we are changing the political landscape very quickly.”
Republicans don't necessarily disagree that Democrats could have a good year. “This could be very much a two-cycle bloodbath,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican who runs a political consulting company in Texas.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday in Washington, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) called Tuesday's primary a “wake-up call.”
But: Ahead of Tuesday, some Democrats were predicting they would equal GOP turnout; they fell short of that. Republicans got 1.5 million votes — a slight tick up from the last election cycle but still their own record. “We kept hearing about this unprecedented Democrat turnout in Texas,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said on CNN, “and then Republicans showed up in droves yesterday.”
Good news for Democrats: Progressive Democrats got the candidates they wanted.
Democrats are targeting two House Republicans: Rep. John Abney Culberson in the suburbs west and northwest of Houston; and Rep. Will Hurd in a perennially competitive border district.
On Tuesday, almost all the candidates that liberal Democratic groups pushed won their primary outright or made it to a runoff. Veronica Escobar won her primary for the heavily Democratic El Paso district that O'Rourke is vacating to run for Senate. When Democrats talk about their success recruiting candidates in this cycle, she's someone they're referencing. The former county chief executive could be the first Latina ever to represent Texas in Congress.
But: Progressive wins means establishment candidates lost, or at least didn't win outright, in some of these races. The national Democratic Party took an unusually aggressive step to try to handicap progressive activist and author Laura Moser in the race to unseat Culberson. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee published a scathing opposition research paper on her just before the primary, highlighting that in 2014 she wrote, “I’d rather have my teeth pulled out without anesthesia” than move to rural Texas.
The move arguably backfired by elevating her profile. On Tuesday, Moser came in second to the more establishment candidate, Lizzie Fletcher. But since neither won a majority of the vote, they will advance to a May runoff. Meaning: Democrats' intraparty war in the 7th District isn't over.
Along the border, a candidate who was backed by top Texas Democrats in Congress didn't even make the top three in his primary. Gina Ortiz Jones, a former Air Force intelligence officer, made it to the runoff with the support of liberal groups.
Good news for Democrats: Texas Democrats are presenting their most serious challenge to a Republican senator in years.
O'Rourke won his primary Tuesday, so he'll be the Democratic nominee to challenge Sen. Ted Cruz in November. O'Rourke is a candidate most Democratic operatives can get behind. He's telegenic, eloquent and organized.
But: O'Rourke still needs to prove he can run a competitive statewide campaign if he wants to draw in Democratic donors and operatives who are currently focused on protecting vulnerable Senate Democrats in Trump states such as West Virginia and Missouri. And his first test Tuesday didn't go that great.
O'Rourke won his primary with 62 percent of the vote, but he ceded 38 percentage points to two much lesser-known, less-hyped challengers. He lost counties in the south, east and panhandle.
As Republicans were quick to point out, Cruz also got twice as many votes in his primary than O'Rourke.
Still, some operatives counter that O'Rourke did as well as he could, given that he's a new name to everyone in the state but the far west corner, which is closer to San Diego than Houston, and he didn't run any TV ads to introduce himself during the primary. Democratic operative Adam Bozzi points out that the share of votes O'Rourke won Tuesday (about 640,000) is more than the combined total of all Democratic votes in the 2014 primary (about 550,000.)
That's one reason Texas and national Democrats are still optimistic things are going their way this year. President Trump is popular among Republicans in Texas, but among the general population, he gets some of the lowest marks of any Republican state.
But a lot more will have to continue to go their way. If Texas's primary day underscores anything, it's that momentum is on the Democrats' side, but no wave is guaranteed.
Correction: Gina Ortiz Jones, a Democratic candidate for Texas's 23rd House district to challenge Rep. Will Hurd, made it to the runoff. She did not win her primary outright on Tuesday.