- William Philpott/Reuters
- For the first time in a quarter century, Democrats are running in every congressional district in Texas – a total of 36 seats.
- And early voter turnout in the state’s primary elections indicate a surge in Democratic voter engagement.
- But divisions in the Democratic Party are being exposed by competitive primaries between progressive candidates looking to excite the base and centrist ones, seeking swing-voter support.
For the first time in a quarter-century, Democrats are running in every congressional district in Texas – a total of 36 seats.
This is a significant shift; in 2016, eight GOP-held seats went uncontested. It’s also aligned with a broader surge in Democratic engagement in Texas politics.
Democratic turnout more than doubled from 2012, while Republican turnout increased by just 15% in the top 10 counties, according to Dave Wasserman, a polling expert who edits the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
And nearly a quarter of Democrats who cast early ballots in the top 15 counties in the state were first-time voters, while about 11% of Republicans were new voters.
Notably, Democrats made gains in suburban counties while Republicans lost ground in diverse, urban areas.
“It’s a clear indication of a vivid enthusiasm gap, fueled by the president’s unpopularity, and it means that absolutely nobody anywhere is talking about net Republican gains,” Harold Cook, a political consultant and former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party, told Business Insider in an email. “The entire discussion now focuses on how many seats, both in Congress and in the state legislature, Republicans will lose.”
Just 39% of Texans approve of Trump’s job in office, while 54% disapprove, according to polling earlier this year. These numbers are, surprisingly, worse for Trump than those in more competitive states like Nevada and Arizona.
“I’ve spent my career downplaying Dems’ odds in Texas, but there’s something different going on there this cycle,” Wasserman tweeted last week alongside a map showing the president’s approval rating across the country.
The surge in early voter turnout among Democrats is particularly important in Texas, which had the second-lowest rate of turnout in the country in 2016.
“I’ll be blunt: Democrat voter turnout is surging statewide during Early Voting,” Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said in a recent email to supporters. “If these trends continue, we could be in real trouble come Election Day.”
Demographics shifts in the state, including a growing Latino population, is in Democrats’ favor.
Rifts in the party
Democrats have zeroed in on three Republican-controlled districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016: the seventh, 23rd, and 32nd districts.
In the 23rd District, which stretches across a large part of southwestern Texas, Gina Ortiz Jones, an openly gay former Air Force intelligence officer, and former prosecutor Jay Hulings have taken the lead in a pack of five Democrats. Ortiz Jones, the more progressive candidate, argues that her national security credentials would give her an advantage over Hulings, the party establishment pick, in the general-election fight against Hurd, a former CIA agent.
EMILY’s List, the Democratic group that supports pro-choice women, has funneled money to Ortiz Jones, while Hulings won backing from party leaders, including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, the more conservative Blue Dog Democrats, and Julián and Joaquin Castro, former law-school classmates.
Some argue more progressive candidates will energize the base and boost turnout, while others argue candidates who appeal to independent swing voters and moderate suburban Republicans is the key to victory.
“The best way to appeal to suburban voters isn’t to nominate more moderate nominees – our nominees will already be in the mainstream,” Cook said. “The best way to appeal to suburban voters is to give them authentic and sincere plain talk about what the Democrats intend to do, how Trump-led Republicans have been hurting them, and which candidate and by extension Party, is best positioned to stand up for families like theirs.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee seems to disagree. Last month, in a move that shocked many in the party, the group released opposition research describing Laura Moser, the more liberal choice in the seventh district primary, “a Washington insider, who begrudgingly moved to Houston” to run for office.
Cook called the DCCC’s efforts unwise.
“We Texans don’t like being told what to do,” he said.
Indeed, Moser, whose main competitor is EMILY’s List-backed Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, has seen a surge in campaign donations since the DCCC’s attack.
“We have to fix our broken politics,” Moser said in a new campaign ad. “And that starts by rejecting the system where Washington party bosses tell us who to choose. We tried that before and look where it got us.”