The 2018 electoral season is officially upon us. Texas voters head to the polls Tuesday in the first statewide primary in the nation this year, the results of which will offer up the clearest look yet at how Democrats and Republicans are navigating their internal divisions ahead of what is shaping up to be one of the more freewheeling midterms in recent history.
Democrats have turned out in droves for early voting, despite the lack of a marquee race at the top of the ticket. But whose side are they on? A Houston House district pits the national party against restive progressives, while the governor’s race features a choice between a relative moderate with a famous name and a left-leaning challenger with a compelling story but little money.
Republicans have been less enthusiastic in early voting but are still expected to dominate the statewide races in November. The question for GOP primary voters is how much Trump is too much Trump? Will Republicans reward loyalty to the president, or will they put some distance between themselves and the elephant in the Oval Office? A Trump disciple is facing a strong test in the race for land commissioner, and, in a twist, the last hope of the Bush dynasty is hoping a Trump endorsement can save his job.
The results today won’t answer these questions definitively, of course—particularly given so many of the contests appear destined for a runoff later this month—but they should tell us plenty about the state of play eight months out from Election Day.
Here are a few races to watch on each side of the aisle:
7th Congressional District
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made no secret that it thinks Laura Moser, a freelance journalist who created the anti-Trump text-message service Daily Action, is too liberal to win this Houston-area district in November. (Moser wrote for Slate, among other outlets.)* And after the DCCC dumped its opposition research file on Moser late last month, progressive groups like the Bernie Sanders–aligned Our Revolution sprang to her defense, along with many out-of-district small-dollar donors. While the DCCC, the official campaign arm of House Democrats, has not publicly backed one of the other candidates in the race—and the Democratic National Committee is trying to stay out of things altogether—some establishment-leaning allies like EMILY’s List have lined up behind Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a Houston-area attorney.
Others Democratic hopefuls include cancer researcher Jason Westin, who along with Fletcher was endorsed by the Houston Chronicle, and Alex Triantaphyllis, a nonprofit executive who’s been atop the fundraising leaderboard. If no candidate can crack 50 percent in Tuesday’s primary, as seems likely to be the case, the top two vote-getters would proceed to a runoff later this month. If Moser is one, the current intra-party skirmish could turn into an all-out war.
The winner will get the chance to unseat Rep. John Culberson in a district that has been represented by Republicans for the past half-century, but which went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Democrats have long dreamed of turning Texas blue—but even the most optimistic of them don’t expect to have one of their own in the governor’s mansion next year. That leaves the party with a dilemma at the top of the ticket: nominate Houston businessman Andrew White, the son of a former governor who has deep pockets but stands accused of being wobbly on reproductive rights, or ride with Lupe Valdez, a progressive former Dallas County sheriff who also happens to be gay and Latina.
White has tried to sell himself as the more electable of the two, but Democrats haven’t won a statewide election in Texas since 1994, and it would be a stunner if they were to snap that streak against the incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who previously served as state attorney general and remains relatively popular with voters, and highly popular with wealthy donors.
The primary has already shed some light on one way the party is evolving. Four years ago, liberal darling Wendy Davis refused to back away from her past support for the state’s open-carry law despite an outcry on the left. Today, in the wake of last month’s school shooting in Florida, White and Valdez have both called for stricter gun laws while running for office in the gun-loving state, including universal background checks and a ban on high-capacity magazines.
The latest state polling suggest the two are on track for a runoff, though an outright victory by Valdez is not out of the question. According to University of Texas pollsters, Valdez led the field with 43 percent support last month while White was in second with 24 percent. None of the other seven candidates cracked double digits.
Democrats are funneling their statewide hopes into this year’s Senate race instead, and there won’t be much suspense in this primary. U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke was at 73 percent support in the most recent UT poll and seems like a lock to square off against Sen. Ted Cruz this November. So Tuesday will serve as less of a contest and more of a formal introduction to O’Rourke for voters in Texas. He’ll need it.
The 45-year-old congressman is a rising star in his party—but he still has plenty of ground to make up on Cruz. As of last month, UT pollsters found his favorability rating was well above water—29 percent had a favorable view of him compared to only 14 percent who had an unfavorable one—but a whopping 39 percent of respondents didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion about him. The opposite is true of Cruz: Only 6 percent of those surveyed didn’t have an opinion about the Texas senator, but 42 percent said they had an unfavorable view of him (31 percent “very unfavorable”) compared with 40 percent who had a favorable one. Those aren’t great numbers for an incumbent, obviously, but Cruz’s brand has never exactly been the guy people like.
Nonpartisan handicappers like the Cook Political Report believe Democrats have a real chance to upset Cruz this fall. But for that to happen, Texas voters will need to fall in love with O’Rourke, who won’t get much help from the top of the ticket.
Overseeing state-owned lands and mineral rights isn’t the type of gig that normally makes national headlines, but this isn’t about the job itself so much as it is about the man who is trying to keep it: George P. Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, nephew of former President George W. Bush, grandson of former President George H.W. Bush, great-grandson of former U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush, and the only member of the Bush dynasty currently serving in elected office.
George P. Bush had no trouble winning his first term in 2014, but a lot has happened in the four years since. That statewide victory was supposed to put Bush on a path to the governor’s mansion and maybe one day even the White House. But today he’s doing everything he can to stay politically relevant—up to and including bucking his family and running into the arms of Donald J. Trump. Despite the obvious glee Trump took from humiliating Jeb during the Republican primary, George broke with his literal forefathers and publicly backed Trump in 2016, and has continued to stand by him since. Trump is now returning that favor with an endorsement of his own.
Bush is hoping that will be enough to help him clinch the GOP nomination outright on Tuesday.
The most recent polling from the University of Texas, released last month, had Bush sitting at 57 percent support. But with a four-man field, it’s possible he could find himself in a runoff with Jerry Patterson if that number dips on Tuesday. Patterson served three terms as land commissioner before stepping aside after 2014 to mount his ultimately unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor. He’s found some success attacking Bush in the primary over Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts and ongoing redevelopment around the Alamo. Bush, meanwhile, has attacked Patterson for not supporting Trump.
State Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is one of the few politicians who can rival Trump for offensive comments and ethical transgressions. Miller’s Twitter account called Hillary Clinton a “cunt” during the presidential campaign, and Miller has since posted stories on Facebook about a federal judge who was trying to impose Sharia law (it was fake, of course) and has suggested the “Muslim world” should be nuked.
A former rodeo cowboy, Miller has treated his current job with the seriousness of a rodeo clown. His first official act as agriculture commissioner—which oversees the state’s school lunch program—was to declare amnesty for cupcakes. Since then, Miller has traveled to Oklahoma (on the state’s dime) to receive a “Jesus Shot,” which can purportedly cure all chronic pain, and he refurbished his office with $55,000 worth of outlandish taxidermy.
Miller’s facing a strong challenge from Austin attorney Trey Blocker, and the race could test whether the kind of norm-breaking behavior that has failed to sink Trump will have consequences farther down the ballot.
*Update, March 6, 2018: This post has been updated to mention that Moser has written for Slate.