Takeaway from Texas: Expect Republican candidates nationwide to snuggle up to Trump

Takeaway from Texas: Expect Republican candidates nationwide to snuggle up to Trump
© Hill Photo Illustration/Garrett Evans

Viewed from the ground in Texas, the state’s first-in-the-nation 2018 primary ended up looking pretty typical of Texas elections: Turnout was low compared to other states, a lot more Republicans than Democrats voted. And, despite pitched internecine battles in both parties, it was very good to be an incumbent — only nine who sought renomination in their parties’ primaries didn’t succeed (two of those will be in run-offs). In this primary election, virtually every state government office, 36 U.S. House and one U.S. Senate seat were on the ballot.  

This ordinariness is hard for the many Texans who imagine that, when it comes to politics, as one pundit in the state put it, “Texas is its own path.” 

But Texas, however unique in its own eyes, remains on the American political map, and its nation’s-first primary election expressed some national dynamics — and may provide some lessons, as national attention shifts to primaries elsewhere in the country.


President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA MORE wasn’t on the ballot in Texas, but his presence in the White House cast a large shadow. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll conducted in early February found Trump’s job approval was 83 percent positive among Texas Republicans, and 85 percent negative among Democrats. The latest results continue a consistent pattern of polarized partisan views of the president among voters in the state since his election.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a former talk-radio host turned figurehead for social-conservative grassroots voters, began his first campaign ad for the primary (in which he had only token opposition) with the sentence, “I agree with President Trump: Our southern borders must be secure.”  

Further down the ballot, statewide Republican incumbents with more serious primary opposition and more political liabilities, like Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Land Commissioner George P. Bush, trumpeted their respective ties to the president. Both supported him during the 2016 campaign, and he returned the favor by endorsing them by name on Twitter. Despite some jitters, both won in multi-candidate fields without a run-off. 

As the campaigning season moves to other states, risks of a Trump implosion notwithstanding, expect more GOP primary candidates to snuggle up to the president.

Patrick’s early move to put immigration politics front and center along with the president can also be expected to have a demonstration effect in Republican primaries in other parts of the country. In Texas, Republican voters have consistently rated immigration and border security as the most important problems facing the state, and they hold consistently restrictive views about legal and illegal immigration. 

In the same recent UT/Texas Tribune poll, 70 percent of Texas Republicans agreed with the statement, “Undocumented immigrants … should be deported immediately.” When asked directly to think about legal immigration, 62 percent of Republicans said that the U.S. allows too many people “to immigrate here from other countries.”

Not surprisingly, GOP candidates up and down the ballot ran campaigns seeking to tap into these views, especially incumbent state lawmakers who could take credit for helping to pass one of the most envelope-pushing anti-“sanctuary city” pieces of legislation in the country during the most recent biennial legislative session.

Both the campaign and the outcomes in the GOP primaries reflect the fact that Trump’s nativist politics festered in both Texas and U.S. politics long before Trump. (The aforementioned lieutenant governor was elected in 2014 after a loudly anti-immigrant campaign.)

In states where the GOP is competitive or dominant, expect similar immigration politics that, however amplified by Trump during his rise, still hold a powerful charge in the national GOP, with or without him adding juice to it. 

The potential Democratic surge in Republican-dominated Texas, seemingly foreshadowed by a big increase in early voting, dominated news coverage and Democratic talking points. Yet, the magnitude and significance of the surge in turnout look overplayed, now that all the votes have been cast and counted.

Many more Texas Democrats cast votes than in the previous midterm election, with the total number of primary voters nearly doubling to just over a million votes. However, fantasies that 2018 would be the year of a reversal in Democratic fortunes were rained on by the fact that more than 1.5 million voters participated in the Republican primary (also an increase, albeit much smaller, since 2014). 

This left Democrats a half-million votes behind the GOP in primary voting, signaling how most of the initial attention to the big Democratic increases ignored just how deep a hole Texas Democrats must dig out of to become competitive statewide. Democrats fielded more candidates and contested more races than in recent memory, and with a record number of congressional retirements yielding six GOP-dominated open seats, some surprising stories of redemption may yet unfold. But, at best, this might be the beginning of a long process of Texas Democrats slowly, painfully getting up off the mat where they’ve been prone for a long time. 

The Democratic surge in Texas may have more immediate positive portents for Democrats in states where the party is more competitive, or even a similarly permanent minority but in a better position than long-beleaguered Texas Democrats.

Some of the conditions that breathed some life into Texas Democrats — the intensity of Democrats’ rejection of all things Trump, the activation of Democratic women as candidates and voters, better candidate recruitment due to the timing of this election (i.e. the first election under a president and Congress of the opposing party) — can be expected to be operative in other states. Of course, so too can GOP responses, even if Republicans in other parts of the country lack the overwhelming advantages of their Texas kin.  

The Texas primaries are over, but partisans in both parties might glean a lesson or two by glancing at Texas in the rear-view mirror.

James Henson, Ph.D., is director of The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He co-directs the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll. He served as a member and chairman of Austin’s ethics review commission from 2009 to 2012. Follow him on Twitter at @JamesRHenson.