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Texas may offer hints on 'Trump effect' in 2018 midterms

March 6, 2018
Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas Democrats turned out in force ahead of the first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday in what could be an early hint of a midterm election backlash against President Donald Trump, though their party remains a longshot to dent Republican political dominance of the state.

Democratic early voting across Texas' 15 most-populous counties more than doubled that of the last non-presidential cycle in 2014, while the number of Republican early ballots cast increased only slightly. Total Democratic early votes exceeded Republican ones roughly 465,000 to 420,000, though those figures combined accounted for less than 9 percent of the state's total registered voters.

"I would like to see a complete change in the top of the government," said Bonnie Kobilansky, a 64-year-old nurse practitioner who voted Tuesday in the Democratic primary. "We have to get Trump out of office. This is the most scary time of my life, and I've lived a long time."

Still, Democrats haven't won any of Texas' 29 statewide offices since 1994, the nation's longest losing streak. That's expected to continue this cycle despite any possible "Trump effect" because Democrats fielded little-known candidates against top Republicans, such as Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Even Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been indicted on felony securities fraud charges, remains favored for re-election.

Laura Smith, 60, casting a Republican ballot in Dallas, said: "I love President Trump. Absolutely love him."

"He has guts. He's not afraid. He's strong. He's a leader," said Smith, who works in a dentist's office.

A record six Texas Republicans and two Democrats are leaving Congress, meaning the state will be losing clout on key House committees. But none of those open seats are expected to flip. They've drawn so many hopefuls from each party, that most primary races won't have anyone winning a majority of Tuesday's votes, meaning runoff elections May 22 will determine who will be on November's general election ballot.

Democrats have a better shot in November of unseating three Republican congressional incumbents — Rep. Pete Sessions in Dallas, Rep. John Culberson of Houston and Rep. Will Hurd in a district stretching hundreds of miles from San Antonio to El Paso. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in all three districts in 2016, but Democratic primary runoffs may be necessary in all three races.

Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a former punk rock guitarist, is one of the Democrats leaving his House seat and has launched a longshot bid to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. Neither O'Rourke nor Cruz has faced serious primary challengers, but the challenger has outraised Cruz and the incumbent has warned conservatives against complacency, suggesting that liberals will "crawl over broken glass in November to vote," against Trump and the GOP.

The Democrats have had their own internal strife in Texas over congressional hopeful Laura Moser, who moved from Washington to her native Houston to try and unseat Culberson. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, fearing Moser may be too liberal to win the general election, blistered her for comments from a 2014 Washingtonian magazine article in which Moser said she'd "rather have her teeth pulled out" than live in rural Paris, Texas.

Moser kept things positive while campaigning in Houston on Tuesday, saying the strong Democratic turnout in early voting, "It's amazing. And unlike anything I remember."

But Republican political consultant Derek Ryan noted that only about 3 percent of those casting ballots early in the Democratic primary were first-time voters, meaning most Texans participating "were probably voting Democrat in general elections in previous cycles."

"Three percent, that could make a difference in some smaller races, but in a statewide election I don't think that's enough to sway anything," Ryan said. "Democrats are showing up in the primary election, does that mean more are going to show up in the general election?"

A close Republican primary race Tuesday could be for land commissioner, where George P. Bush was the first member of his family to win his first election four years ago but drew an unlikely challenger in Jerry Patterson, a former Bush supporter who preceded him as land commissioner. Bush has been backed by Trump, but a loss would mean that no one from his family's political dynasty would be in elected office.

Another key contest is the Democratic gubernatorial primary, where the top two contenders in a crowded field are former Dallas County Sherriff Lupe Valdez, backed by the party's establishment, and Andrew White, who opposes abortion and whose father, Mark, was governor in the 1980s. Neither White nor Valdez may win a majority of Tuesday's votes, though.

Abbott has an eye-popping $43 million in campaign cash, tops among gubernatorial hopefuls nationwide, and isn't expected to be seriously challenged by any Democrat. Instead, he's focused on attempting to unseat members of his own party, endorsing the Republican primary challengers to three state House incumbents who backed past ethics reform measures that might have limited gubernatorial power. That includes state Rep. Sarah Davis, a suburban Houston Republican who supports abortion rights.

Davis counters that her district's residents "will not be told for whom to vote."


Eds: Associated Press reporters Jamie Stengle in Dallas and John L. Mone in Houston contributed to this report.

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