Blue wave may be building in Texas

More Democratic voters than Republicans have cast ballots ahead of next month’s primary elections in Texas, in what some party officials interpret as a new sign that a blue wave is building ahead of the midterm elections.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office said 168,000 voters had cast ballots in the Democratic primary in person or by mail in the state’s ten largest counties through the end of Sunday. By contrast, 138,000 voters had cast ballots in the Republican primary.

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It is the first time in a decade that Texas Democrats have turned in more ballots than Republicans at this point in the early voting window. And it’s the first time in 12 years that Democrats outpaced Republicans in a midterm election year.

This year’s data show a marked increase in the number of Democratic voters who have cast early ballots than in previous midterm years. Four years ago, just 90,000 Democratic voters showed up during the first six days of early voting. In 2010, only 71,000 Democrats had voted early.

“If you want to compare Democratic turnout to Democratic turnout, it is climbing exponentially this year,” said Ed Espinoza, the executive director of the Democratic-leaning Progress Texas. “You can’t underestimate the surge that we’re seeing out there with the blue wave coming.

The last time Democrats outpaced Republicans came in 2008, when Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSunday Shows preview: Lawmakers, Trump allies discuss Russia probe, migrant family separation Giuliani: FBI, prosecutors investigating Trump belong in the psych ward Des Moines Register front page warns Iowa could lose up to 4M from Chinese tariffs MORE and former President Obama were locked in a pitched battle for the Democratic presidential nomination. At the same time, Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainThe Memo: Trump’s media game puts press on back foot Meghan McCain shreds Giuliani for calling Biden a 'mentally deficient idiot' Mueller warns of Russian midterm attack, while Trump attacks Mueller MORE (R-Ariz.) had effectively locked up the Republican presidential nomination, giving GOP voters less impetus to go to the polls.

This year, Republicans are sounding the alarm over higher Democratic turnout. In a fundraising email, Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) campaign warned supporters about vote totals coming in below expectations.

“Numbers for the first week of Early Voting should shock every conservative to their core,” Abbott’s campaign wrote. “If these trends continue, we could be in real trouble come Election Day.”

Scary emails meant to drive fundraising notwithstanding, some Republican observers say several factors are amping up Democratic numbers: The party has competitive primaries in several top-tier congressional races, and Democrats are choosing between several gubernatorial candidates. On the GOP side, most primaries are barely contested; Abbott faces no serious intraparty challenge, and neither does Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz wins charity basketball challenge against Jimmy Kimmel Pruitt’s new problem with the GOP: Ethanol The Memo: Trump’s media game puts press on back foot MORE (R).

It is difficult to read too much into the results of six days of early voting eight months before a midterm election. But the tally is a sign of an intensity gap that favors Democrats — and the last midterm year in which Democratic early voting beat Republican early voting, 2006, Democrats won back two U.S. House seats in Texas.

“I don’t believe that there are conclusions that can be drawn at this point. While I don’t want to downplay Democratic enthusiasm, there is enthusiasm on the GOP side too,” said Chris Wilson, Abbott’s pollster. “This is a story whose final chapter will not be written until March 7,” the day after the primary election. 

The Democratic path back to a majority in Congress almost certainly runs deep through the heart of Texas. Democrats are mounting credible challenges to Reps. John CulbersonJohn Abney CulbersonCook Political Report moves GOP chairman’s race to ‘toss-up’ 2018 midterms: The blue wave or a red dawn? Primary victories fuel new 'Year of the Woman' for Dems MORE (R), Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsCook Political Report moves GOP chairman’s race to ‘toss-up’ Primary victories fuel new 'Year of the Woman' for Dems Overnight Defense: Doubts grow over Trump, Kim summit | Lawmakers want floor debate on war measure | New cell phone policy at Pentagon MORE (R) and Will HurdWilliam Ballard HurdCook Political Report moves GOP chairman’s race to ‘toss-up’ Immigration compromise underlines right’s clout Pelosi, Dems hammer GOP for ‘derailing’ DACA debate MORE (R), all of whom hold suburban districts that Clinton won in 2016. The party also has its eyes on a district held by Rep. Lamar SmithLamar Seeligson SmithLawmakers scold NASA for cost overruns Big Tobacco’s smoke and mirrors revived by Pruitt’s science transparency policy Freedom Caucus bruised but unbowed in GOP primary fights MORE (R), and Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) is pulling in big bucks in his underdog challenge to Cruz.

Democrats need to reclaim 24 seats to win back control of the House, and two seats to reclaim the Senate. At the state level, Democrats need to win 20 seats to move into a tie in the 150-seat Texas House of Representatives, and six seats to win control of the 31-member state Senate.

The early voting numbers are another indicator that Democratic voters are enthusiastic about turning out to cast ballots, at least this early. So far in 2018, Democrats have won a handful of state legislative special elections in Republican-leaning districts in Kentucky, Florida, Missouri and Wisconsin.

Several recent surveys also suggest Democrats lead the generic congressional ballot. A CNN survey conducted last week shows Democrats leading by a 54 percent to 38 percent margin — a margin wider even than in 2008, when Democrats picked up almost two dozen seats in Congress. 

A Marist poll conducted over the same period found Democrats leading 46 percent to 39 percent.

While Republicans have controlled Texas politics for a quarter-century, there are signs that Democrats are growing their vote share at a disproportional rate. In 2004, former President George W. Bush took 4.5 million votes, compared with just 2.8 million for Democratic nominee John KerryJohn Forbes KerryGOP Senate report says Obama officials gave Iran access to US financial system Democrats conflicted over how hard to hit Trump on Iran In Iraq, the US State Department has a religious blindspot MORE. Twelve years later, President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday Shows preview: Lawmakers, Trump allies discuss Russia probe, migrant family separation Seth McFarlane: Fox News makes me 'embarrassed' to work for this company  'Art of the Deal' co-author: Trump would act like Kim Jong Un if he had the same powers MORE beat Clinton by a margin of just 9 percentage points, 4.7 million to 3.9 million.

Espinoza, the Democratic strategist, said his party has had more trouble generating turnout in nonpresidential years.

“The hurdle for Democrats has always been, what is our midterm turnout like?” Espinoza said. “That’s been the most erratic thing for us.”