The Texas Primary's Lessons for Democrats

By James Arkin & Caitlin Huey-Burns
March 07, 2018

Democrats looking for clues about their party’s strength in the Trump era found a mixture of data points in Tuesday’s Texas primaries, the first of the midterm season and considered a test run for targeted races across the country in November.

While Democrats outperformed previous midterm turnout levels, the results also produced some tough lessons. Hoping to capitalize on gradual demographic shifts and newfound energy, Democrats have placed their long-shot hope of turning Texas purple in the hands of Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who won the party’s nomination to challenge Sen. Ted Cruz in the general election. But the vaunted El Paso congressman received less than half of the vote total Cruz did, suggesting the GOP base is still formidable on the statewide level.

Also, several establishment-linked candidates failed to make it to their respective runoffs. And in the case of the San Antonio-based 7th District, efforts by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to squash journalist-turned-activist Laura Moser backfired, signaling a clash between the part base and its leadership.

Still, the primaries demonstrated that Democrats are prepared to compete everywhere, as they had no shortage of viable candidates vying for federal and local offices. Texas is hosting a handful of key House races in the kinds of suburban swing districts Democrats are targeting nationwide, where voter enthusiasm could make a difference. The party also broke some ground: Two Latinas won primaries in heavily Democratic districts and are poised to become the first Hispanic women representing the Lone Star State in Congress.

While GOP operatives argue that Democrats still have a steep hill to climb in Texas and elsewhere, and are skeptical the opposition party can produce presidential-level turnout in the midterm, they say the campaigns sent warning signs to Republicans for November.

“This is a wake-up call for Republicans that we've got to take it very seriously,” said Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based strategist and chairman of the Travis County GOP. “I don't want to pretend it's not a problem. Democratic enthusiasm is higher. Partly it's about Trump, and partly the Democrats did a good job recruiting a lot of candidates. ... Republicans have to commit seriously in Texas.”

Cruz wasted little time kicking off his general election campaign against O’Rourke. He released a minute-long radio ad featuring a song with the lyrics, “If you’re going to run in Texas, you can’t be a liberal man.” The song previewed some of his likely attacks against O’Rourke, using his actual first name, Robert, and the line, “Wants those open borders, and wants to take our guns.” On Hugh Hewitt’s radio program Tuesday morning, Cruz said Democrats are fueled by antipathy for Trump, and he warned conservatives against complacency.

“Mark my words, we are going to see historic turnout from the extreme left in November, which means if conservatives stay home, we have the potential, we could lose both houses of Congress,” Cruz said. “We could end up with a Speaker Pelosi and a Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. In Texas, if conservatives stay home, if we rest on our laurels, we could see Texas turn blue.”

O’Rourke, in a Facebook Live video from Washington, congratulated his supporters and, without mentioning Cruz by name, was enthusiastic about his prospects.

“We’re going to do something really special in Texas,” he said. “... Failure is not an option in this one. There are too many of us counting on one another to do anything else but win.”

The most critical House races of the night produced inconclusive results. Democrats are headed to May runoffs in all three of the Republican-held House districts they are targeting -- all three of which were narrowly won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Dallas, former NFL player Colin Allred will face former U.S. Agriculture Department official Lilian Salerno, as neither candidate topped 50 percent. The winner will take on Rep. Pete Sessions, who has won every race since 2002 by double digits but is among the most heavily targeted GOP incumbents. In a perennial swing district that covers 800 miles of Mexican border, Air Force veteran Gina Ortiz Jones will face either Rick Trevino or Judy Canales, who are in a tight race for the second runoff spot with results from nine precincts still unreported as of Wednesday morning. The winner of the runoff will take on second-term Rep. Will Hurd.

And in the most closely watched district of the night, in suburban Houston, lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who ran with support from EMILY’s List, won easily but fell well short of 50 percent. She will face Moser in a runoff, a result that will frustrate that DCCC and delight progressives and Republicans alike. The DCCC ran opposition research against Moser last month, arguing she was a flawed general election candidate and attempting to head off her campaign. It had the unintended effect of infuriating progressive groups, which rallied behind Moser, whose support surged in the final days of the campaign. The bad blood between progressive groups and the DCCC will linger through the May runoff, causing a protracted proxy war between the two wings of the party.

“The same gutless, corporate playbook that has lost Democrats nearly 1,000 elected offices over the last decade isn’t our party’s path to retaking the House in November,” said Jim Dean, chairman of the progressive group Democracy for America.

Republicans also pounced on the opportunity to criticize the opposition party’s campaign arm. Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Speaker Paul Ryan, issued a statement congratulating Moser and twice calling her a “progressive champion.” The GOP’s official campaign arm piled on as well.

“I guess the DCCC can’t rig a primary as well as their counterparts at the DNC,” said Matt Gorman, a spokesman for House Republicans’ campaign committee.

In each of the three competitive districts, the top-funded candidate failed to qualify for the runoff. In Hurd’s district, Jay Hulings, a former federal prosecutor who had been backed by the Castro brothers, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the Blue Dog Coalition, was in fourth place. Meier, a former Obama administration official, finished fourth in the Dallas district. And in Houston, Alex Triantaphyllis, who ran a local nonprofit, also came in fourth. Those loses could fuel grassroots organizations and local activists who have argued against the national party prioritizing candidates with the best fundraising track records.

In two other House races, Democrats are poised to make history. Sylvia Garcia avoided a runoff in a heavily Democratic district outside Houston, and Veronica Escobar (pictured) did likewise in an El Paso district currently represented by O’Rourke. Both women will likely become the first Latinas representing Texas in Congress.

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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