Five things to watch for in Texas primaries

Five things to watch for in Texas primaries
© Greg Nash

Texans will kick off the 2018 midterm elections Tuesday as they head to the polls for the first primary of the cycle.

The Lone Star State has already seen a groundswell of enthusiasm, with the state recording historic levels of early voting.

Republican candidates are scrambling for the GOP nomination for House seats left over by the retirements of veteran GOP lawmakers. Democrats are looking to position themselves for November, with their eyes on Republican-held districts President TrumpDonald John TrumpScarborough mocks 'Deflection Don' over transgender troop ban Pelosi condemns Trump's 'cowardly, disgusting' ban on transgender troops Trump moves to ban most transgender people from serving in military MORE lost in 2016.

Meanwhile, Texas voters find themselves at the center of intraparty fights waged at the national level.

Here are five questions to consider as the Texas results come in:

Will Democratic turnout send the GOP a warning for November?

Democrats have seen a surge in enthusiasm since Trump took office, and Texas early voter figures are the latest sign that voter energy is on their side.

Democratic turnout has doubled in the 15 most populous counties since the 2014 midterms, according to state data analyzed by The Dallas Morning News. Republicans have seen a far smaller boost, 16 percent.

Democrats have an early advantage heading into Tuesday’s primaries of more than 50,000 votes. As of Friday, 406,302 people voted early in the Democratic primary, while 353,963 cast a vote early in the Republican primary.

That’s good news for Democrats, who enjoyed a similar enthusiasm gap in Virginia’s governor race last year. During that state’s primary, Democrats had a huge showing, with nearly 200,000 more people voting in the Democratic primary than the GOP’s. Democrats went on to win the governor’s mansion in November by 9 points.

But Virginia has clearly been trending toward Democrats over the past several cycles, while Democrats have struggled to make inroads in deep-red Texas.

Democrats are hopeful that high turnout in Texas can buoy them in districts Democratic presidential candidate Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRepublicans invest nearly 0,000 in red Arizona district Al Franken: Sessions firing McCabe ‘is hypocrisy at its worst’ Papadopoulos encouraged by Trump campaign staffer to make contact with Russians: report MORE won in 2016, like in the 32nd District, where GOP Rep. Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsDCCC adds first black candidates to list of top candidates Spending deal talks down to toughest issues, lawmakers say Rep. Louise Slaughter dies at 88 MORE faces his toughest challenge to date. Clinton carried Sessions’s district by nearly 2 points in 2016.

The crowded primary for Sessions’s seat features seven Democratic candidates, including three former Obama administration officials who have proven to be the top fundraisers in the race: Ed Meier, Colin Allred and Lillian Salerno. Instead of attacking each other, the candidates have trained their fire on Trump and Sessions.

It’s unlikely that candidates in many of the crowded primaries races will be able to win more than 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday. In those races, the top two vote-getters will square off again in a May 22 runoff.

Does DCCC intervention in a Houston-area primary succeed?

The Democratic face-off against GOP Rep. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonO'Rourke faces uphill battle against Cruz after lackluster primary win Sanders: DCCC primary attacks on other Dems ‘not acceptable’ Budowsky: GOP panic is intense and growing MORE has turned ugly in recent weeks, playing into the larger divide between progressives and the Democratic establishment.

Democrats have a glut of good candidates in Texas’s 7th District against Culberson, who’s considered vulnerable after Clinton won his district in 2016.

Nonprofit founder Alex Triantaphyllis, lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and activist Laura Moser lead the field, which also includes a handful of other candidates who aren’t expected to make a runoff.

Instead of letting the primary play out, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) made an aggressive move in February to undercut Moser’s campaign. The DCCC, the campaign arm for House Democrats, released opposition research that it believed would sink her in a general election, accusing the candidate of being a “Washington insider” who doesn’t respect Texas.

Moser has pushed back on those attacks, raising money and rallying supporters in the face of the DCCC criticism.

This likely won’t be the last time the DCCC intervenes in a primary this year, especially with California Democrats worried about a glut of candidates in key races there.

That means how Moser fares Tuesday will serve as the first referendum on the DCCC attacking fellow Democrats.

Will any Republicans win a crowded primary outright?

The Texas Republican delegation will look very different in 2019, with six incumbents opting to retire after this cycle.

Trump won five of those members’ districts by double-digit margins — the closest was a 9-point victory in the seat currently held by Rep. Ted PoeLloyd (Ted) Theodore PoeDoug Collins to run for House Judiciary chair Perry cites competition from Russia, China to defend nuclear talks with Saudis Water has experienced a decade of bipartisan success MORE — so whoever wins the Republican primary in those races will be the heavily favored front-runner in the general election.

State Sen. Van Taylor is expected to cruise to victory on Tuesday and win the nomination for the seat vacated by Rep. Sam JohnsonSamuel (Sam) Robert JohnsonWatchdog: Social Security acting head hasn't been authorized to serve for months Five things to watch for in Texas primaries Millionaires should pay their fair share of Social Security payroll taxes MORE. But in the other five races — with fields including as many as 18 candidates — Tuesday will likely be about who makes the runoff.

In the Dallas area, Rep. Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingOvernight Finance: Lawmakers race to finalize omnibus | What we know about funding bill | White House on board | Fed raises rates for first time under Powell Power struggle threatens to sink bank legislation Despite Senate vote, Dodd-Frank reform is far from a done deal MORE has endorsed a former staffer, Bunni Pounds, to replace him. But Pounds could be stymied by one of two state lawmakers in the race or by Jason Wright, a former staffer to Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzLesson from special election: Run on Social Security, Medicare and lower drug prices Conservatives balk over funding bill ahead of shutdown  Confirmation fight over Trump pick exposes blurred lines in GOP-LGBT activism MORE (R-Texas) who has won his old boss’s endorsement.

Kathaleen Wall, a wealthy Houston-area GOP donor and former business executive, is the heavy favorite in her bid to replace Poe. Wall has spent almost $6 million of her own money on the race so far.

And in another Houston-area district, former state water executive Bech Bruun is leading in his race to replace Rep. Blake FarentholdRandolph (Blake) Blake FarentholdDoug Collins to run for House Judiciary chair Five things to watch for in Texas primaries Congressional interns required to sign nondisclosure agreements MORE, who is retiring in the face of sexual harassment allegations. Bruun has been endorsed by former Texas governor and current Secretary of Energy Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryUS power grid needs defense against looming cyber attacks Overnight Defense: Trump replaces McMaster with Bolton | .3T omnibus awaits Senate vote | Bill gives Pentagon flexibility on spending | State approves B arms sale to Saudis Overnight Energy: Winners, losers in omnibus bill | EPA funding stands at .1b | Lawmakers get wildfire funding fix MORE.

Races to replace Reps. Joe BartonJoe Linus BartonCongress may pass background check legislation in funding bill Overnight Cybersecurity: Former Equifax exec charged with insider trading | Dems blast GOP over House Russia probe | Lawmakers weigh security of energy infrastructure Five things to watch for in Texas primaries MORE and Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithDoug Collins to run for House Judiciary chair Overnight Regulation: FTC to probe Facebook over user data | FDA takes step to regulating flavors in tobacco products | Congress may include background check measure in funding bill Overnight Energy: EPA plans to restrict use of science data for regs | Pruitt's Italy trip cost more than K | Perry insists he's staying at Energy MORE are even more crowded — Barton’s departure has drawn 11 GOP candidates to the field, while Smith’s seat has 18 Republicans looking for a win. Those seats are virtual locks for runoffs.

Can minority candidates make history?

A record number of Texas women are running for Congress. And there could also be some history made among minority candidates in the Lone Star State.

Two major candidates could become the first Texas Latinas to serve in Congress.

Veronica Escobar, a former El Paso County judge, is running for the seat vacated by Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who’s giving up the seat to run for Cruz’s Senate seat.

O’Rourke is backing Escobar to be his successor and she’s scored other high-profile endorsements, including from EMILY’s List.

Escobar is one of six Democrats running, with former El Paso school board president Dori Fenenbock as her closest competitor. Whoever wins the nomination will be the favorite in the general, since it’s a safe Democratic district.

In the race to replace Democratic Rep. Gene GreenRaymond (Gene) Eugene GreenTwo Dems poised to make history as first Texas Latinas in Congress Five things to watch for in Texas primaries Eleven lawmakers have used campaign funds to pay NRA dues: report MORE, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia also has a shot of making history as the first Latina Texan in Congress. She has Green’s endorsement, and once appeared to have an easy shot at winning the nomination in the soundly Democratic Houston-area district.

But now it seems more likely that Garcia will be forced into a May runoff with health care executive Tahir Javed, who has loaned his campaign $800,000 since jumping into the race late last year.

Washington Democrats have also waded into the race.

Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerFox News host Watters says spending bill was 'huge defeat' for Trump Amtrak to rename Rochester station after Louise Slaughter Conscience protections for health-care providers should be standard MORE (D-N.Y.) got involved as early voting kicked off with an endorsement for Javed, a move that angered many Democrats in the state. Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandCynthia Nixon: Cuomo winning gold in Albany's 'corruption Olympics' 2020 Dems compete for top campaign operatives Amtrak to rename Rochester station after Louise Slaughter MORE (D-N.Y.) has contributed to Garcia’s campaign.

And in the border district represented by vulnerable GOP Rep. Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdDCCC adds first black candidates to list of top candidates Overnight Cybersecurity: Trump-linked data firm Cambridge Analytica attracts scrutiny | House passes cyber response team bill | What to know about Russian cyberattacks on energy grid Republicans on defensive over Russia report finding MORE, former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones could become the first Filipina-American from Texas to serve in Congress. If elected, Jones would also be the first out lesbian and first Iraq War veteran elected to the Texas delegation. 

Democrats have long set their sights on taking back Hurd’s expansive Hispanic-majority border district. Hurd, a former CIA officer, narrowly won reelection in 2016, even as Clinton won the district by more than 3 points.

But Jones will have to get through a crowded primary before she can get her shot at the perennial swing district. Her toughest competitor is former federal prosecutor Jay Hulings, who has led the race in fundraising and has the backing of two prominent Texas Democrats: brothers Rep. Joaquin CastroJoaquin CastroHispanic Dems probe immigration agency on internal oversight division GOP leaders back second special counsel Dem lawmaker: Trump is purging anyone who isn’t 'blindly loyal' MORE and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

Will the Bush family legacy live on?

The Bush family looms large in Texas politics, but one member of the family faces ballot trouble on Tuesday.

George P. Bush, the son of 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, is currently the state’s land commissioner — an important job that covers the state’s sprawling land and natural resources.

But Bush is facing a difficult reelection thanks to a primary challenge from Jerry Patterson, who held the job until Bush replaced him in 2015.

Patterson has accused Bush of ducking events on the trail and questioned his management of the historic Alamo site. But Bush has an endorsement from Trump that he’s been quick to tout in the primary fight.

Bush is expected to finish first on Tuesday. But he’ll have to face Patterson again in the May runoff if he can’t win outright on Tuesday.