Texas Primary: Lone Star State Poised To Send First Latina Reps. To Congress

Updated at 12:24 a.m. ET

Texans cast their votes in primaries Tuesday, the first contests of the 2018 election cycle. Democrats are hoping final numbers will show they are turning their voters out in significant numbers for a deep red state.

Driven by anti-President Trump fervor, there are plenty of positive signs for a once-latent Democratic Party in Texas. Early vote turnout for the minority party surpassed GOP totals — and even bested their own 2016 numbers. Democrats have fielded a record number of candidates in all 36 congressional districts, and there's the potential to flip maybe three or more seats come November.

The state's U.S. Senate race is now set, with incumbent GOP Sen. Ted Cruz and Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke easily winning their primaries, according to the Associated Press. Cruz still has the edge for re-election, but O'Rourke has been mounting a surprisingly strong campaign and gaining attention.

With about a third of the precincts reporting, Cruz was locking up about 85 percent of the Republican vote, while O'Rourke was receiving just over 60 percent of the Democratic vote. A lesser known Democratic candidate, Sema Hernandez, was surprising some Texas political observers by leading the front-runner in some border counties.

Cruz quickly released a radio ad, attempting to define O'Rourke as too liberal for Texas -- in a country jingle. "Beto wants those open borders, and wants to take our guns," says one line.

While O'Rourke has been drawing crowds and small donors, recent polling shows that a plurality of Texans don't know much about him. Successful fundraising can help the Democrat define himself, but Cruz is wasting no time.

There are eight open House seats in Texas this year — six held by Republicans and two by Democrats who are retiring.

In both Democratic districts, candidates appeared to clear the threshold to avoid a runoff. Sylvia Garcia in the 29th congressional district in Houston and Veronica Escobar in the 16th congressional district seat being vacated by O'Rourke in El Paso are poised to become the first Latinas to represent Texas in Congress.

The majority of the open seats will stay in the same party's hands. In nearly all of the GOP districts, nominees will not be known in those crowded races until May 22. In five of the six open Republican districts, no candidates were topping 50 percent to avoid a runoff.

The same is true in what will be some of the most watched races this fall — Democratic challenges to Reps. John Culberson, Pete Sessions and Will Hurd in the three congressional districts held by Republicans but won by Hillary Clinton in 2016. Those Democratic primaries — some of which have turned quite bitter — all appeared poised to go to runoffs on May 22, as well.

A political scion with a familiar name overcame a primary challenge on Tuesday — yet another George Bush, this one George P., son of none other than Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor and 2016 presidential candidate. Despite Jeb Bush's feuds with President Trump, Trump endorsed George P. Bush for re-election for land commissioner. The Associated Press projected that Bush would defeat a former land commissioner who wanted the job back.

Most of the polls in the state closed at 8 p.m. ET, but some areas in the far western part of the state closed at 9 p.m. ET.

Here's more of what to watch in Texas:

Can Democrats sustain their early vote momentum?

The 11 days of early voting brought some of the best news in decades for Democrats. Not only did they best GOP early voting statewide totals in some key areas like Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, but they also beat their own turnout numbers from the same period in 2016 — a presidential year when more voters typically go to the polls.

Analyses have shown Democrats are getting lower-propensity voters to the polls this time around — ones who may come out to pick their choice for the White House but haven't previously shown a heavy interest in voting in midterms.

The big question on Tuesday is, can Democrats match the enthusiasm they've seen in early vote numbers at the ballot box on Election Day? Democrats and Clinton's campaign saw a similar early vote surge in some key states in 2016, only to be swamped by Republicans at the polls. So is Democrats' early vote turnout simply an aberration that will correct itself come Tuesday or is it a bigger harbinger of warning signs to come for Republicans?

Democratic primary battles dial up the heat

Enthusiasm on Democrats' side has yielded a record number of 111 candidates, competing in all 36 congressional districts for the first time in 25 years. But that cuts another way — some of those crowded primaries turned particularly nasty in the final stretch, highlighting a Democratic divide between centrists and progressives. The outcomes of these primaries could have consequences for flipping crucial races come November.

There's possibly no more intriguing race to watch than the Democratic primary in the 7th District for the right to face Culberson, a Republican who represents the Houston suburbs.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee controversially waded into the race a little more than a week ago against progressive activist Laura Moser. The committee, responsible for trying to elect Democratic House members, cited derisive comments she had made about a more rural part of the state when she was a writer living in Washington, D.C.

That was before she moved home to run for Congress. (The committee also cited other controversial language she has used in her writing.) The DCCC's decision to drop opposition research against Moser drew backlash from many progressive groups, and even Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said it was an action he wouldn't have taken.

The DCCC's maneuvers — the very embodiment of "the establishment" that many voters hate — may have had the opposite of the intended effect and appear to be propelling Moser into the May runoff and EMILY's List-backed attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. The DCCC would prefer Fletcher over Moser, thinking the chance to oust Culberson in a rapidly changing district might be lost if she is the candidate.

Other Democratic hopefuls to watch

The other two Clinton-won districts — Sessions' suburban Dallas 32nd District and Hurd's expansive 23rd District, which runs along the Mexican border from El Paso to San Antonio — both have primaries of note, too.

The Texas Tribune's Abby Livingston writes that in the 32nd District, it's former State Department official and ex-Clinton staffer Ed Meier who has raised the most money and is expected to secure a spot in the May runoff. He could be joined by Brett Shipp, a former journalist who has name recognition in the area; former Obama official Lillian Salerno; or former NFL player Colin Allred, who also served in the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Obama. With more than half the vote in, Allred had 40 percent of the vote. Meier, Shipp and Salerno were all in the teens, jockeying for the second place slot to proceed to the May runoff against Allred.

In the five-way race to take on Hurd, former intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones appeared to secure a place in the runoff. Former Obama agriculture appointee Judy Canales, former high school teacher Rick Treviño, who has tried to seize the progressive mantle, and frmer federal prosecutor Jay Hulings were all jockeying for the second runoff slot with about two-thirds of the vote in.

Open seat chaos

The House seats open because of retirements are all likely to stay in their current party's hands, but there is some rising interest in the race to replace retiring Republican Rep. Lamar Smith in the San Antonio and Austin suburbs.

There was a massive 18-way primary happening in the 21st District, and if a far-right candidate wins the nod, Democrats are hopeful they can compete for it in the general election. They are encouraged by some generic-ballot polling.

For Republicans, former Ted Cruz chief of staff Chip Roy was leading the pack, but will face a runoff.

On the Democratic side, tech entrepreneur Joseph Kopser is seen as the front-runner. He has raised the most money and gotten the endorsement of House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland. Kopser has tried to strike a bipartisan tone to attract crossover GOP voters, but some of his other challengers have campaigned on more progressive platforms. He appears headed to a runoff with political novice Mary Street Wilson, a pastor and former math instructor.

The Bush factor

As member station KUT's Ben Philpott reported, the last Bush currently holding office in the country — George P. Bush, the grandson of former President George H.W. Bush and nephew of former President George W. Bush — faced a primary challenge in his race to remain the Texas land commissioner.

The Associated Press projected that Bush won his primary, overcoming some resistance within the GOP, just over two years after his father, Jeb Bush, succumbed to the challenge from Trump. Bush celebrated the results with supporters — including his father.

For the younger Bush, after winning election in 2014, the "realities of holding office began to sink in," Philpott writes. "There are questions about how well his office has handled Hurricane Harvey relief. He's also received bad press over his handling of the Alamo. You know, the one we're supposed to remember all the time. Those issues brought criticism from some in the party, and motivated Bush's predecessor, former land commissioner Jerry Patterson, to challenge him in the GOP primary. Patterson had left the office in 2014 in a failed attempt to run for lieutenant governor."

To help him this time around and, in the end, avoid a runoff with Patterson, Bush turned to the man who vanquished his father — and he got it. Last week the president tweeted his support, writing, "Texas LC George P. Bush backed me when it wasn't the politically correct thing to do, and I back him now."

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