Six Things to Watch in Texas’ 2018 Runoff Election

Tuesday’s runoffs will spotlight intra-party feuds, test whether 2018 is really the year of women and conclude a dispiriting battle for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Laura Moser (left) and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher are battling for the Democratic nomination in Houston’s 7th Congressional District.
Laura Moser (left) and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher are battling for the Democratic nomination in Houston’s 7th Congressional District. Courtesy/Facebook

Will the DCCC’s chosen few win out?

As part of its plan to win back the U.S. House, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has set its sights on a handful of Texas congressional seats, all of which have Democratic runoffs on Tuesday. It has a clear favorite candidate in each race, including Houston’s 7th Congressional District, Dallas’ 32nd, and the vast 23rd in West Texas, creating varying degrees of an establishment vs. anti-establishment dynamic.

Since infamously dropping an opposition bomb against Laura Moser in the 7th’s primary, the DCCC has continued to exert influence. Namely, it’s put Colin Allred, a former NFL player running in the 32nd, and the 23rd’s Gina Ortiz Jones, a Filipina lesbian Air Force veteran, on its “Red to Blue” list of top-tier candidates in targeted districts. Moser’s opponent, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, is also a party favorite.

This national party influence-peddling in Texas has sparked accusations that D.C. operatives are trying to railroad progressive candidates. The party contends that it is merely backing candidates who have the strongest amount of local support.

Keep an eye on how these party’s favorites fare, especially in the 7th district between Fletcher and Moser, where the DCCC has rankled lots of activists and could be a decisive factor in what’s expected to be a close race.

Both Allred and Jones took a commanding chunk of the primary vote and are the heavy favorites in their respective runoffs against Lillian Salerno and Rick Treviño. But anything can happen in a runoff.  —Justin Miller

How many new tea partiers will Texas send to Congress?

Six Republican members of Congress are retiring from seats that are almost all seen as safely red. In many of those districts, this has prompted an epic intra-GOP runoff battle over who will replace them: your typical conservative Republican or an uber-conservative wingnut.

In the 21st District, a seat long held by outgoing climate change-denier Lamar Smith, Ted Cruz’s political apostle Chip Roy is the favorite against Matt McCall, whom Roy has blasted as a lackluster do-nothing conservative. The soon-to-be-retired Jeb Hensarling handpicked his longtime fundraiser and tea party evangelical activist Bunni Pounds to take over his Dallas-area seat. But first she’ll have to beat frontrunning Texas state Representative Lance Gooden, who she claims is a tax hike-loving liberal who’s insufficiently opposed to abortion.

Aided by an arsenal of well-funded outside groups, like the far-right Club for Growth, a new batch of tea party insurgents in the mold of Cruz could very well be headed to Washington, D.C., where they’d join the ranks of fellow right-wing obstructionists like Louie Gohmert.  —Justin Miller

Year of the Woman?

The election of Donald Trump and the ensuing #MeToo movement prompted women to take the plunge and run for office at historic rates. One count in February found that 431 women were running for Congress around the country, according to NPR — the vast majority as Democrats.

In Texas, scores of women ascended through crowded primaries and into the runoffs. The Observer counts 10 Democratic congressional and legislative races where a man and woman are facing off — from the gubernatorial runoff to a statehouse race to represent East Austin — that will in some ways test just how much women are galvanizing politics in 2018.

mary wilson, kopser,
Wilson speaks at a March for Our Lives town hall at William B. Travis High School in Austin.  Justin Miller

Take, for instance, Mary Street Wilson, who came out of nowhere in the primary to beat every other candidate running in the 21st Congressional District. “This is the year of the women,” Wilson recently told the Observer. “Four years ago, 10 years ago, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here with you right now. But there’s just a change in the air and I happen to hit it at the same time many other women did.”

Now she’s running head to head against party favorite Joseph Kopser, one of the most well-funded Democratic candidates in the state. She’s struggled to raise much money, but if Wilson manages to repeat her surprise primary performance it will show there’s a forceful wind at the backs of women running for office. —Justin Miller

Just how poor will voter turnout be?

Texas runoffs are infamous for being extremely low-turnout affairs, which, in this state, is saying something. This creates fertile ground for upsets since it’s difficult for candidates to predict which of their supporters will turn out to vote for them again.

The question is: just how much will turnout fall from the primary and who will it benefit?

The vast majority of statewide turnout will likely come from districts where there are marquee runoffs, especially in the major metro areas of Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. But a big and unpredictable falloff in turnout may aid insurgent candidates in some of the runoff races and could have a major impact on the Democratic gubernatorial runoff, too.

Runoff turnout is also a rough gauge of how durable enthusiasm is among each party’s respective bases.

In the last midterm election in 2014, Texas Democratic primary turnout plummeted from 4.12 percent of registered voters to 1.48 percent in the runoff. Republican turnout also fell by about 50 percent.

This year, early runoff voting has already outpaced the 2016 and 2014 runoffs, but it pales in comparison to the 900,000 who voted early in the March primary, according to the Houston Chronicle. —Justin Miller

Battle of the Also-Rans

Give this to Andrew White and Lupe Valdez: They’re running. It’s widely known that the A-listers in the world of Texas Democratic politics — yes, there are a handful — decided to sit this gubernatorial race out. Greg Abbott, with his $41 million war chest and relatively high approval ratings, was simply considered unbeatable, even in what’s supposed to be a wave year for Democrats. After a nine-way primary, voters (or at least the paltry percentage that will show up for a runoff) will choose between former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and political neophyte and Houston businessman Andrew White.

Andrew White, Lupe Valdez
Andrew White, Lupe Valdez  Courtesy/Twitter

Valdez is probably considered the frontrunner, but in recent weeks has shown a remarkable inability to answer even the most cursory questions about major issues facing the state — something she blamed on “newspaper language.” (Editorial note: Newspaper stories are written at a high school reading level.) Add to that her mixed record as a jailer, the inexplicable loss of slam-dunk endorsements and the fact that Abbott is salivating to run against a candidate associated with “sanctuary cities.” White seems to be running the better campaign and has clearly articulated positions, but he also showed no evident interest in politics, despite being the son of a Texas governor, until Hurricane Harvey. White has repeatedly gotten crosswise with key Democratic constituencies and figures, including, most recently, former Planned Parenthood leader Cecile Richards. (Call it White privilege?)

The stakes are not terribly high here. It’s hard to see how either one could beat Abbott. Perhaps the question is: Who will embarrass the rest of the Democratic ticket the least? —Forrest Wilder

Kinds of Blue

Like a swarm of cicadas, Texas Democrats are struggling to emerge after two decades spent buried underground. But which wing of the party — the populist or the pragmatist — has the best chance of taking flight in the Lone Star State?

For the March primaries, the Observer compiled a list of 25 congressional and state legislative candidates running left/populist campaigns à la Bernie Sanders. Of those, four won, 12 lost and nine made the runoffs — a success rate (so far) of about 50 percent. The runoffs should shed light on whether the Sanders approach has legs in Texas. Here’s the list, which includes one newcomer: Mary Street Wilson, who won the endorsement of Our Revolution Texas after a surprise primary victory in the race for Central Texas’ Congressional District 21.

Rick Treviño — CD 23

Chris Perri — CD 25

Mike Siegel — CD 10

Laura Moser — CD 7

Christine Mann — CD 31

Mary Street Wilson — CD 21

Fran Watson — SD 17

Erin Zwiener — HD 45

José “Chito” Vela — HD 46

Andrew Morris — HD 64

—Gus Bova

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