Texans Go to the Polls

A voter casts his ballot behind a ballot booth. (Keith Bedford/Reuters)
Today’s primaries are the year’s first indicator of what voters think of the Trump administration.

Polling places across Texas will play host today to the first primary elections of 2018, a test of whether American voters are happy with the progress made under the Trump administration.

In the Lone Star State, internal tensions on both sides of the aisle have made it difficult to predict exactly how much of a role the president’s specter will play, but mainstream media have already begun to hype the possibility of a “Blue Wave” taking Texas this November.

For Democrats, Texas has been an uphill battle for decades; a Democrat hasn’t been elected to statewide office since 1994. But the long odds haven’t deterred U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke from trying valiantly to unseat Republican senator Ted Cruz this year, and a few analysts have claimed there are some signs he might actually have a chance. Most recently, some suggest that early voting and registration numbers in the primaries bode well for Democrats across the state.

Cruz himself seems unwilling to write off his reelection contest as a formality, saying at a Texas GOP event in mid February, “Let me tell you right now: The Left is going to show up. They will crawl over broken glass in November to vote.”

According to the Texas Tribune, O’Rourke outraised Cruz at the end of 2017 by about half a million dollars, though Cruz maintains a cash-on-hand advantage. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics calls the Senate race a likely Republican hold, and informed observers tend to agree that, at least so far, the Democratic party would be better off focusing on flipping House seats.

Even so, there are only four Republican districts in Texas that could conceivably end up in Democratic control after November’s elections. Three are districts that went to Hillary Clinton in November 2016: the seventh, 23rd, and 32nd. The fourth currently belongs to Republican representative Lamar Smith, who is retiring this year. Again according to UVA’s Center for Politics, the most precarious of these four seats is the 23rd, where Will Hurd’s race has been rated a toss-up; there are five Democrats competing in the primary to face off against him in November.

Texas’s seventh congressional district is also of particular interest, though, because today’s primary pits seven Democratic candidates against one another for the chance to replace Republican John Culberson. The seat has been controlled by the GOP since 1970, but Clinton won the district in 2016 by two percentage points.

Just last month, the national Democratic party repudiated one of its own primary candidates for this seat, Laura Moser, after digging up opposition research revealing that Moser had said she’d rather have her teeth pulled than move from Washington, D.C., to Paris, Texas. It’s difficult to fault the national Democratic party for being concerned that Moser is too left-wing to pull off a successful challenge to Culberson, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s (DCCC) deliberate attack on her has angered many on the far left.

The DCCC’s decision to oppose Moser is especially interesting given that she’s been endorsed by Our Revolution, the group that controls the email list from Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. Moser was noticed early in the primary campaign for her intensely pro-abortion rhetoric, including when she wrote last summer in Vogue, “When the Democrats unveiled their ‘Better Deal’ last week, they focused on economic policies related to job creation, wages, and income inequality. That’s all well and good, but they left abortion rights off the table, and what is abortion if not an economic issue?”

The Democratic party’s spurning of Moser in favor of more moderate options seems to suggest that party leadership senses the danger in running too far to the left against vulnerable Republicans, which could be a clue to Democrats’ midterm strategy in similar districts across the country.

Safe money, of course, remains on Republicans in Texas, but that doesn’t mean the party isn’t facing challenges of its own. Take, for example, the battle that has been unfolding between the state GOP’s moderate and conservative wings.

The party controls the state senate, with 20 senators to the Democrats’ 11. And it has a similar advantage in the state house: 95 Republicans to 55 Democrats. But the legislature’s ability to enact GOP governor Greg Abbott’s agenda has been hampered by division within the Republican party’s own ranks.

Conservative factions of the party have staged a de facto ouster of House speaker Joe Straus.

In fact, conservative factions of the party have staged a de facto ouster of House speaker Joe Straus, who announced last fall that he would not seek reelection. As some Texas conservatives see it, Straus and his allies in leadership have directed the legislature too far toward the center, spurning efforts to make real progress on issues such as abortion, border security, property-tax reform, and the Second Amendment — even legislation on these issues that had the support of the governor.

In Bexar County, Straus’s home county, the local Republican party passed a resolution to censure him for a list of six grievances, three more than the minimally required number. According to the policy blog Empower Texans, those grievances included unilaterally adjourning a special legislative session early despite objection from members of the body; refusing to recognize proper motions and procedures made on policies he opposed; appointing state representative Byron Cook as chair of the state-affairs committee and allowing him to obstruct and kill multiple pro-life bills; and killing all school-choice legislation.

A number of other county Republican parties passed this censure resolution against Straus as well, and the state GOP followed suit. So as Texas Democrats consider whether they can afford to move in a more progressive direction, Republicans continue to be frustrated that their state hasn’t become conservative enough, even under Abbott.

Today’s results won’t serve as a bellwether for this year’s midterms, but the dynamics of intra-party division on display, even as voters head to the polls, very well might.