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Cruz, O’Rourke easily win primaries in Texas

Voters in Texas fired the starting pistol of the 2018 midterm elections on Tuesday, going to the polls to choose nominees for governor, a Senate seat and 36 congressional districts — including a handful of races that could determine which party controls the House next year.

Two statewide, Republican incumbents with national aspirations, Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz, won renomination easily. Cruz will face Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who dispatched two challengers in the Democratic primary, in November.

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The Texas primaries are setting up as a crucial, first test of national Democrats’ strategy to muscle out candidates it sees as weaker in the general election, potentially threatening the party’s quest to recapture Congress. And both parties will be closely monitoring turnout trends — especially following a surge of Democratic voters casting their ballots early, either in person or by mail — to determine whether the Texas primaries are the latest harbinger of spiking Democratic enthusiasm in the first nationwide elections under President Donald Trump this fall.

While Tuesday is Election Day, early voting began on Feb. 20 — and in the 15 most populated counties of the state alone, more than 885,000 voters had already submitted their ballots by the time early voting ended last Friday.

More Democrats voted early than Republicans — the first time that’s happened in a midterm election in Texas since 2002 — and Democratic turnout during the early-voting period was more than double that of the 2014 midterms.

While strategists in both parties remain skeptical of O’Rourke’s chances of toppling Cruz in the large, expensive and traditionally Republican state, O’Rourke has managed to outraise the first-term GOP incumbent in three consecutive reporting periods, boosted largely by small-dollar donations.

Abbott’s opponent is still to be determined. Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez led Andrew White, the son of former Gov. Mark White, in early returns — but a runoff may be necessary to determine the nominee if Valdez falls short of winning a majority of the vote.

Runoffs are also possible in most of the competitive congressional primaries. Democrats are targeting three Republican held seats — Rep. John Culberson’s suburban Houston district, Rep. Pete Sessions’ North Dallas district and the expansive district held by Rep. Will Hurd, which stretches from the San Antonio suburbs west to just outside El Paso.

The Democratic primary in Culberson’s district is by far the most contentious: Seven candidate are competing for two runoff spots, and House Democrats’ national campaign arm is worried that activist Laura Moser will squeak into the runoff. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took the rare step of posting opposition research about Moser, who recently moved to the district from Washington, on its website.

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“Democratic voters need to hear that Laura Moser is not going to change Washington,” the DCCC website reads. “She is a Washington insider, who begrudgingly moved to Houston to run for Congress.”

The national party has not waded into the other two primaries.

In addition to the three seats seen as competitive in the general election, eight other congressional districts are open, without an incumbent on the ballot.

Six Republican members are not seeking reelection this year — with each occupying seats seen as unlikely to switch parties in November: Reps. Ted Poe, Sam Johnson, Jeb Hensarling, Joe Barton, Lamar Smith and Blake Farenthold. Barton and Farenthold are leaving Congress amid sex scandals, with the latter accused of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior toward congressional staff.

Two safe Democratic seats are open: Rep. Gene Green is retiring, while O’Rourke is leaving his El Paso-based seat to run statewide. Both Democratic primaries will likely go to runoffs in May.

Kevin Robillard contributed to this report.

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