Campaign signs are displayed outside a candidate forum in Kyle, Tex., on Feb. 21.
Columnist

Here in Hays County, one of the fastest-growing in Texas, Republicans will have a choice of no fewer than 18 candidates for Congress when the 2018 midterm primary season kicks off on Tuesday.

The field of GOP contenders vying to replace retiring Rep. Lamar Smith tug at every faction within the party: Sen. Ted Cruz has endorsed his former chief of staff, Chip Roy, in the race, while former Bexar County GOP chairman Robert Stovall is getting help from Brad Parscale, the digital whiz President Trump just tapped to manage his reelection campaign.

George W. Bush’s political guru Karl Rove has raised some money for state Rep. Jason Isaac, who is running on the Trumpian-sounding slogan: “Make America Like Texas.”

Also among the Republicans running is Jenifer Sarver, who acknowledges she voted for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016; gun-control advocate Samuel Temple, who refers to himself as a “unicorn” in this firearm-loving state; former CIA agent William Negley and ex-San Marcos mayor Susan Narvaiz. At least four of the candidates — including a former congressman, Francisco Canseco — don’t even live in the district.

It’s anyone’s guess which two will make the likely May runoff.

But while the ballot will be crowded, the voting booths most likely will not be. Primary turnout in Texas has long been among the lowest of any state in the country.

In the last off-year election, only 10 percent of registered voters cast a ballot in the GOP primary. At a candidate forum here last week, a dozen of the congressional contenders showed up to make their cases — but only 30 or so people were there to listen.

All of this matters because Texas has not elected a Democrat statewide since 1994. In most parts of the state, the Republican primary is the election. November is usually a mere formality.

Election after election, Democrats have gotten their hopes up in Texas, only to see them crushed.

But if there are going to be any Lone Star surprises in 2018, they are likely to come in places such as this congressional district, which Trump carried by 10 points in 2016 — less than half the margin that Mitt Romney enjoyed four years earlier.

Democrats have a spirited primary of their own going on, in which one centrist candidate is battling three more liberal ones.

The landscape here in Hays County is covered with signs of change — brand-new apartment complexes and subdivisions, many welcoming recent arrivals from the nearby liberal bastion of Austin. But the 21st Congressional District also stretches into the rural, conservative Hill Country, which remains a Republican stronghold.

If this year is different, it will be in large part because the Republicans have moved further and further toward the fringe in Texas.

Low primary turnout has made the party a hostage to a small and extreme segment of the electorate. It has produced a legislature that in its most recent session seemed more interested in determining which bathroom transgender people should use than in figuring out how to finance the public school system.

The state’s business community has become so dismayed by low voter participation— and the political dysfunction it produces — that it has launched a campaign it calls “March Matters ” to urge people to get to the polls, whatever their party.

“We really want the legislature to talk about the Texas of tomorrow, rather than squabbling over ideological issues,” said Texas Association of Business chief executive Jeff Moseley.

Meanwhile, teachers groups are mobilizing online, under the hashtag #blockvote, to get their members to vote for more moderate candidates.

Even Trump is trying to get more Republicans to the polls in Texas, by tweeting his endorsements of candidates as far down the ballot as agriculture commissioner and comptroller.

This year, there’s another reason to keep an eye on Texas voters as they go to the polls — or don’t — in the first primary of the 2018 midterms. Eight of the state’s 36 congressional seats are open, and Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke is giving Cruz a stronger challenge than most people expected for Senate.

Meanwhile, Trump’s popularity across Texas in 2017 averaged 39 percent in the Gallup poll, only one point higher than it was nationally.

In early voting, which began Feb. 20, Democratic turnout in the largest counties has surged to nearly double what it was four years ago, while Republicans are up less than 20 percent, according to a running total by the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

“Numbers for the first week of Early Voting should shock every conservative to their core,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) warned in a fundraising email.

If this turns out to be the year that Texas turned even a little bit bluer, the first warning sign will come Tuesday. But don’t look for who shows up at the polls. Look for who doesn’t.