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5 things to watch in the first primary of 2018

The road to the House majority begins Tuesday in Texas, where Democrats must cull crowded candidate fields in the first primary election of 2018.

Early voting numbers suggest high levels of enthusiasm on the left, particularly in historically Republican, suburban districts around Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.

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But the party needs nominees who are well-suited to take on longtime GOP incumbents in these places in what will be the first test of House Democrats’ strategy to negotiate crowded party primaries.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already tried to scuttle a candidate it views as a weaker general-election prospect in a Houston-area district. But that candidate, activist Laura Moser, could advance on Tuesday despite the committee’s involvement.

Texas has a runoff threshold: Candidates must earn a majority of the vote in order to clinch the nomination, or the top two finishers will advance to a second round of voting on May 22. In most of the contested House races, the candidate fields are so large that it’s unlikely anyone will clinch their party’s nomination outright.

Whatever happens Tuesday, one thing is certain: the Texas congressional delegation — the second largest in the House — will see significant turnover this year, with eight of the state’s 36 seats open this year.

But the Texas primaries aren’t only about the House. Sen. Ted Cruz will face GOP voters for the first time since he was “booed off the stage” — as President Donald Trump put it at the time — at the 2016 Republican convention. And Gov. Greg Abbott is seeking to run up the score in his bid for a second term, potentially with an eye toward federal office.

Both parties will be monitoring turnout trends to see if Democrats are any closer to their long-deferred dream of turning the nation’s second-most-populous state blue. Polls close at 8 p.m. Eastern Time/7 p.m. Central, except in El Paso and Hudspeth counties in far West Texas, where polls close at 9 p.m. Eastern/7 p.m. Mountain.

Here are five things to watch as Texans go to the polls on Tuesday:

Democrats are showing up in droves

Tuesday is Election Day, but nearly a million voters in the state’s 15 most-populous counties have already cast their ballots via mail and in-person early voting.

The early-voting figures are consistent with other elections in the Trump era: Democrats are energized and voting at higher rates in nonpresidential elections than in recent history.

In Texas’ 15 largest counties, more Democrats have voted early (465,000) than Republicans (420,000) through last Friday, the final day of early voting. Compare that with the last midterm election, in 2014, when only 227,000 Democrats voted early, compared with 365,000 Republicans.

“It fits a pattern we’ve seen — Democrats are engaged at higher levels than Republicans are,” said Michael McDonald, a professor at the University of Florida who studies early-voting data. “It’s not that Republicans aren’t engaged, but what’s different is that Democrats are very engaged compared to 2014. … This is another piece of the puzzle that fits into a much larger picture that suggests — yes, Democrats are looking to have a good year in 2018.”

Both parties will be monitoring the Election Day vote to see if the trend holds. But even if Democrats are more energized in February and March, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in November.

Democrats have talked about turning Texas blue for more than a decade. For all the attention then-state Sen. Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial campaign received in 2014, Abbott defeated her by more than 20 points.

Abbott entered 2018 with a massive, $ 43 million war chest. The leading Democrats in the race — former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Andrew White, the son of the late Gov. Mark White — aren’t seen as serious threats to Abbott.

It would also take a massive wave for Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who should become the Democratic nominee for Senate on Tuesday night, to threaten Cruz in the Senate race. But Tuesday’s GOP primary will indicate whether Cruz has issues with Republican voters at the poles of the party spectrum: those who were once furious with his failure to endorse Trump in 2016, and moderates turned off by his strident conservative policies and tactics.

Suburban watch: Dallas and Houston

Two House seats key to the Democrats’ shot at the majority track through the suburbs of Dallas and Houston, affluent and well-educated neighborhoods that turned against Trump in 2016. The crowded Democratic primaries won’t yield definitive answers Tuesday as to whom they will run against those Republican incumbents, but it will narrow the field.

In Houston, the DCCC’s efforts to scuttle Moser’s bid to face GOP Rep. John Culberson will be put to the test — a first for the committee weighed down by packed, well-funded primaries across the country. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, an attorney endorsed by EMILY’s List, appears to lead the pack. But two other Democrats — oncologist Jason Westin and nonprofit executive Alex Triantaphyllis — are in the hunt for the second spot.

If Moser finishes second, Democratic operatives are worried that other candidates in crowded primaries will be emboldened to stick it out, even if the party comes after them.

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In Dallas, where GOP Rep. Pete Sessions is seeking reelection, three top Democratic candidates all hail from the Obama administration. Ed Meier, a former State Department official, led his Democratic opponents in fundraising throughout 2017. But Colin Allred, a former Housing department official, and Lillian Salerno, who served in the Agriculture Department, both got help from high profile surrogates, like Julián Castro and Kirsten Gillibrand. But Brett Shipp could be a dark horse in the race, as the former TV reporter has built a personal brand and name recognition in the district.

So far, the race has remained friendly — all of the top four Democrats said they’d back the eventual nominee — but that could change in a head-to-head runoff.

Washington meddling in Democratic primaries

Moser isn’t the only Democrat who suffered an intrusion from Washington in her primary. State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, who would be the first Hispanic woman to represent Texas in Congress, appeared to be a lock on replacing Democratic Rep. Gene Green, who endorsed her, for his eastern Houston seat. But then Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) weighed in.

Two weeks before Election Day, the Senate minority leader endorsed health care executive Tahir Javed, a first-time candidate and longtime fundraiser who brought in $ 1.2 million for his own bid, most of it from his own bank account. Javed’s election would also be historic, as Texas hasn’t sent an Asian-American to Congress. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus said it was “disappointed” by Schumer’s intervention.

Garcia told The Texas Tribune that she’s “still confident we can get out of this without a runoff.”

The personality primaries

Six Republican congressmen opted for retirement ahead of 2018, opening up several conservative-leaning seats throughout Texas. But, so far, their potential replacements aren’t distinguishing themselves through policy differences, only through their personal profiles.

“All these multi-candidate races are very personality-driven so far,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant in the state. “There haven’t been any sharp policy differences, if any. Everyone is supportive of Trump, of the tax bill, of the immigration plan — it’s all been pretty standard Republican fare.”

Houston is pictured. | AP Photo

Local operatives expect most of these crowded races will head to a runoff, as it’s unlikely that any candidate will reach 50 percent. Four of those primaries boast nine or more Republicans, including the 18-candidate race for Rep. Lamar Smith’s central Texas seat.

The one race that could be decided Tuesday night is Rep. Sam Johnson’s replacement to represent the north Dallas suburbs. Van Taylor, a state senator, outraised and outspent his GOP opponents, along with locking down an endorsement from Abbott.

A threat to the Bush name

It’s been a tough stretch for the Bush family. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was battered throughout his 2016 presidential campaign, staggering out of the race without even earning a third-place finish in any of the GOP nominating contests.

Trump, meanwhile, has framed his presidency in part as a repudiation of the men who came before him in the Oval Office, including George W. Bush.

That’s what made Trump’s endorsement of incumbent state Land Commissioner George P. Bush so interesting. The younger Bush, Jeb’s son, has spent $ 2 million to fend off a primary challenge from Jerry Patterson, Bush’s predecessor in the job.

Bush has mostly ducked Patterson and the three other candidates running in Tuesday’s primary. But Tuesday’s primary could serve as a sign that — despite his profligate spending — the political power of the Bush name is waning, even in Texas.

And if the Bush-Patterson race is close, the presence of three other candidates could deny Bush a majority of the vote, forcing the incumbent into a runoff that extends the intraparty fight through the spring.

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