Democratic voters showed up in force in Texas on Tuesday for the nation’s first primary of the year, providing fresh evidence that liberal enthusiasm could reshape even deeply Republican states come November.
Republicans continued to have a clear advantage in the state, with more Texans voting in their primary than in Democrats’. But party leaders sent out a warning call to their own supporters about the growing Democratic engagement.
“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.”
Tuesday’s voting stood to give a fuller 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.
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.
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.
The trend was set to continue Tuesday.
“There’s something different going on in Texas this cycle,” said David Wasserman, who analyzes House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. “It’s a uniquely anti-Trump state, because it has a rare combination of diversity and a suburban professional class. And, in that sense, it’s becoming a little bit more like California every year.”
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.
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 Democratic nominee Rep. Beto 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.
The race for the Democratic nomination for governor will go to a runoff between Lupe Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, and Andrew White, the son of former Gov. Mark White, who led the state in the 1980s. The winner of that race will face Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who won his party’s nomination to run for reelection.
In another closely watched race, George P. Bush, the incumbent land commissioner and the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, won the Republican nomination for reelection, after a competitive primary.
For the most contested House primary races, Tuesday’s contests provided no resolution, only a narrowing of the field. In races where no candidate received a majority of votes, the top two finishers are set to face off in a runoff election May 22.
Much of the focus was on a trio of fiercely contested Democratic primaries, where candidates are battling to win the right to challenge uniquely vulnerable Republican incumbents — Reps. John Abney Culberson, Will Hurd and Pete Sessions — who saw 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton outpoll Trump in their districts.
Sessions said in an interview Tuesday that he’s noticed the uptick in Democratic enthusiasm in his district but also pointed out that Republicans and Democrats cast roughly the same amount of ballots there in early voting.
“I think that what they want me to understand is [their] frustration with the president,” he said. “And I share some of those frustrations.”
The runoff to determine the Democrat who will face Sessions is between Colin Allred and Lillian Salerno, both attorneys who worked in the Obama administration. Former Clinton aide Ed Meier had a big cash advantage in the Democratic race to replace Sessions in the Dallas-area 32nd District, but fell short.
The Democratic race in the Houston area 7th District, represented by Culberson, has gotten especially heated after 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.
The national party’s intervention has only brought more energy and attention to Moser’s candidacy; she is set to face Houston lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher 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.
In the 23rd District, which follows hundreds of miles of the Mexican border, five Democrats are looking to unseat Hurd, with former federal prosecutor Jay Hulings and former intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones leading the money and endorsement race. Jones lead the early vote count.
Tariq Thowfeek, communications director for the Texas Democratic Party, said party officials were expecting each of those primary races to proceed to runoffs “just because of the sheer number” of candidates.
But Thowfeek said the surfeit of Democratic candidates was ultimately good for the party, driving turnout still higher.
“It’s rivaling a presidential year, which is unprecedented,” he said.