Democrats saw a major boost in Texas primary turnout on Tuesday, the nation’s first primary of the year, bolstering their hopes that liberal enthusiasm could reshape races in November’s midterm elections.
But while the Democratic Party got nearly double the number of votes it did in 2014’s primaries, the party faces divides in May runoffs — and Republicans still cast more overall ballots statewide.
Republican Party leaders sent a warning call to their own supporters about the growing Democratic engagement, despite their clear advantage.
“They are mobilizing in a powerful way,” warned Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) after the polls closed, in an interview with the CBS affiliate in Dallas. “At the end of the day, the good news is that there are a lot more conservatives in Texas than there are liberals.”
While turnout for the Democratic Senate primary more than doubled from 2014, and Republican turnout ticked up by about 17 percent, Cruz still has an advantage to point to going into November. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Cruz had 1.3 million votes in the Republican primary, more than double what his challenger, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) got in the Democratic race.
Increases in Democratic turnout were most pronounced in urban and suburban areas where the party is hoping to reclaim House seats now held by Republicans. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to wins in November, as races without a clear winner go to runoffs on May 22 and may lay bare intraparty disagreements.
In the Houston area’s 7th District, where incumbent John Abney Culberson (R) is seeking reelection, four times as many Democrats voted this year than in 2014.
But that race has instead showcased divides within the Democratic Party between establishment-backed and more leftist candidates.
Before the primary, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee publicly moved against one of the candidates — Laura Moser, a liberal activist and organizer — because of concerns that she would be less equipped to defeat Culberson in the general election.
Moser ended up with 24 percent of the vote and is set to face Houston lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who got 29 percent, in the May runoff.
GOP operatives have gleefully watched the drama unfold. On Tuesday, the National Republican Congressional Committee released a new ad outing “Democratic Civil War” highlighting the DCCC’s Texas attack.
Political experts closely scrutinized Tuesday’s voting for a more complete picture of just how big the Democratic tail winds will be in November, when Trump will lead a Republican effort to maintain control of the House and Senate.
Cruz easily won his party’s nomination for a second term in the Senate, but he all but admitted that he would have a far more difficult general-election campaign this time around against O’Rourke, who has cast his campaign as a movement and boasted of 10,000 volunteers in the state.
In an unexpected move, Cruz decided to attack O’Rourke by name before the polls had even closed. “Congressman O’Rourke’s campaign is benefiting from left-wing rage,” Cruz said in a conference call with reporters. “Left-wing rage may raise a bunch of money from people online, but I don’t believe it reflects the views of a majority of Texans.”
O’Rourke declined to respond in a streamed Facebook video to supporters: “What is really exciting about what is going on in Texas right now is that all of the energy is around the big things we want to do together,” he said.
Texas has routinely elected GOP officials in statewide races for a generation, though recently with declining margins. Trump won the state by nine points four years after GOP nominee Mitt Romney beat President Barack Obama by 16 points.
“It’s clear Texas Democrats are fired up, exceeding expectations, and charging forward to November,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement Wednesday.
The turnout from the left in Texas follows a string of races around the country where Democrats have shown new enthusiasm for voting in nonpresidential years. Democrat Ralph Northam won the Virginia governor’s race in November, even though the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, received more votes than any GOP candidate for state office in Virginia’s history.
Democrats have also been winning special state legislative elections around the country, in states including Florida, Wisconsin and Kentucky that were once considered safe for Republicans. “WAKE UP CALL,” tweeted Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in January, after a Democrat handily won a state legislative seat that Republicans won by 27 points in 2016.
Democrats fielded 111 congressional candidates Tuesday, including at least one for each of the 36 House districts in the state. That’s more than two and a half times the 41 candidates in the last midterm elections in 2014. Republicans also had more candidates than in 2014 — 102 vs. 72 — but failed to run anyone in four Democratic-leaning districts.
For the most contested House primary races, Tuesday’s contests provided no resolution, only a narrowing of the field.
One trend was clear across the state: The best-financed candidates, in several cases, could not buy themselves victory.
In one particularly stark case, a wealthy Republican fundraiser who spent more than $4 million to win the 2nd District seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Ted Poe appeared poised to miss the runoff.
With all precincts reporting Wednesday, Kathaleen Wall trailed the second-place candidate by 145 votes. While Wall could still make the runoff after absentee votes are counted, she already appears to have spent roughly $350 per vote even before another costly election.
Big spending helped put another Republican hopeful over the top: Chip Roy, a former top aide to Cruz, won the plurality of the votes in the 21st District GOP primary thanks in part to more than $600,000 spent by a super PAC affiliated with the conservative Club for Growth.
But two other well-financed candidates in that district, now represented by the retiring Rep. Lamar Smith, fell short of expectations. William Negley, a Republican who had the backing of wealthy San Antonio business figures, finished third behind businessman Matt McCall. And on the Democratic side, tech entrepreneur Joseph Kopser finished second to math professor Mary Wilson, despite outspending her by more than $500,000.
In other notable races, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia won outright in a crowded primary to replace retiring Rep. Gene Green (D) in the heavily Democratic 29th District, and former county official Veronica Escobar won the Democratic nomination to replace O’Rourke in the 16th District. If elected in November, they would be the first Latina women elected to the Texas congressional delegation.