Texas Primaries See Surging Democratic Turnout and Record Number of Female Candidates

This year’s midterm elections officially began on Tuesday as Democratic and Republican primaries were held in Texas. Democrats are hoping Texas could become a key state in the party’s effort to retake control of the Senate and the House. A record 50 women were on the ballot in what many are calling the “year of the women.” On Tuesday, Congressmember Beto O’Rourke won the Democratic primary for US Senate. He will take on incumbent Ted Cruz, who easily won the Republican primary. On the House side, Democrats are putting up candidates in every Texas district for the first time in over 25 years. In one of the most watched Democratic races, progressive Democrat Laura Moser placed second, forcing a runoff against Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, an attorney who has been criticized for working at a law firm that has targeted unions in Texas. The race is seen as part of a war within the Democratic Party. Moser was endorsed by Our Revolution — the political organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’s run for the White House. Fletcher was backed by the Democratic Party. In February, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took the unusual step of directly attacking Moser even though she is a Democrat. Moser and Fletcher will now face each other in a runoff to decide who will face Republican Congressmember John Culberson in November. We speak to Mike Barajas, staff writer for The Texas Observer.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This year’s midterm elections officially began Tuesday as Democratic and Republican primaries were held throughout Texas. Democrats are hoping Texas could become a key state in the party’s effort to retake control of the Senate and the House. A record 50 women were on the ballot in what many are calling “the year of the women.” On Tuesday, Congressman Beto O’Rourke won the Democratic primary for US Senate. He’ll take on incumbent Ted Cruz, who easily won the Republican primary, though the El Paso congressman, O’Rourke, outraised Cruz in the last months. On the House side, Democrats are putting up candidates in every Texas district for the first time in over a quarter of a century.

In one of the most watched Democratic races, progressive Democrat Laura Moser placed second, forcing a runoff against Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, an attorney who’s been criticized for working at a law firm that’s targeted unions in Texas. The race is seen as a war within the Democratic Party. Moser was endorsed by Our Revolution — the political organization that grew out of Bernie Sanders’ run for the White House. Fletcher was backed by the Democratic Party. In February, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee took the unusual step of directly attacking Moser even though she’s a Democrat. Moser and Fletcher will now face off in a runoff to decide who will face Republican Congressman John Culberson in November.

In other primary news, Texas appears poised to send its first Latina women to Congress this year — next year. The election would be later this year. Former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar and state Senator Sylvia Garcia won their respective Democratic primaries in heavily Democratic districts.

To talk more about the results in Texas, we go to Austin, where we’re joined by Mike Barajas, a staff writer for The Texas Observer.

Mike, you’ve been following this all very closely. Give us the highlights.

MICHAEL BARAJAS: Yeah, so, as you mentioned, the Democrats do have reason to be enthusiastic after yesterday’s primary. Early vote totals showed a pretty big surge in Democrats that were coming out to vote in that party’s primary, in the Election Day totals.

AMY GOODMAN: Something like a million Democrats and a million and a half Republicans?

MICHAEL BARAJAS: Right, yeah. So, Election Day totals were a little bit below what I think Democrats had ultimately hoped for, but still we’re seeing record turnout, over 2014, in particular. I think it’s something like double, at least, the amount of primary voters in the Democratic Party that we’re saying. So, naturally, this is still a red state. This is still Texas, after all. So, we’re seeing that growth. By a pure numbers standpoint, you know, there wasn’t as much growth on the Republican side, but there are still something like a million and a half Republican primary voters in Texas. So, that tells you what Democrats might need to overcome in the general, but that also sort of is kind of an indicator of, you know, how much enthusiasm Democrats have, going into the general election.

Now, that could be for a number of different reasons. That could be because, you know, Texas is changing. Texas, in the last presidential race, you know, it went, I think, nine points to Trump, but that’s a smaller margin, I think, than — I think they said it’s the smallest margin of any Republican presidential candidate in Texas in something like 20 years. So, you mentioned the congressional seats. You know, there are a handful here in Texas that were seen as, not that long ago, deeply entrenched Republican seats, until, you know, last presidential election, they voted, you know, some in a small margin, but for Hillary. So, that includes the seat out in Houston that Moser is running in, now in the runoff, that we clearly know what the DCCC thinks about that race. But —

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about that, the progressive group Our Revolution endorsing the Democratic congressional hopeful Laura Moser, a week after her own party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, released an opposition memo on her. I want to turn to a part of one of Moser’s campaign ads.

LAURA MOSER: Most of us would prefer not to spend the most money for the least efficient healthcare system in the world. Most of us don’t think that women should go back to work within 14 days of giving birth. Most of us don’t want our kids drinking from lead pipes or having preventable asthma attacks. Most of us also aren’t that into raiding people’s homes and separating mothers from their children and arresting refugees who have risked their lives multiple times to escape their war-torn homelands. My grandfather came here in 1942 as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Houston welcomed him, as Houston has welcomed hundreds of thousands of people like him over the decades.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Laura Moser’s ad. This is very unusual, Mike, that the Democratic Party took a position in the Democratic primary attacking her?

MICHAEL BARAJAS: Yeah, and it tells you who they think — well, it tells you how they think this district is going to vote, at the very least. I mean, I can’t remember if they outright said this, but this is an indication that they don’t think that kind of progressive candidate or that kind of candidate, with, you know, an outright progressive message, is going to be competitive against a Republican incumbent in that district. Who knows? I mean, Texas, like I said, has been changing in recent years. You know, there are a lot of factors at play — you know, the anti-Trump sentiment that seems to be sweeping not just the country, but also parts of this state, particularly metro and suburban parts of the state. So, you know, clearly, voters thought she belonged in at least that runoff for the primary.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that runoff will take place —

MICHAEL BARAJAS: So, it’ll be interesting to see how —

AMY GOODMAN: That runoff will take place on May 22nd. Now, what about Beto O’Rourke, the El Paso congressman?. We spoke to him when we were doing a piece on a Mexican journalist who has been jailed for months, and he had visited him and was calling for his release. This El Paso congressman, Beto O’Rourke, has now gone — what? — throughout the state, in a very unusual primary campaign, and outraised Ted Cruz in the last months, though, of course, ultimately, Ted Cruz has much more money.

MICHAEL BARAJAS: Yeah, he’s got — I mean, I think the last figures that I saw were something like, you know, $6 to $5 million, between the two campaigns. I mean, Beto O’Rourke has clearly launched what’s looking like a pretty credible campaign for Senate. I mean, the Democratic Party here is looking at him as sort of the — he’s the marquee race. They didn’t field a lot of big-name candidates for governor, even though some folks have been looking at, you know, a rising star like, say, one of the Castro twins from San Antonio. Nobody was willing to jump into the race, in part because Texas maybe is seen as still too red to elect a statewide candidate like that for governor. But there’s at least one statewide race where Democrats are really putting a lot of their hopes, and that’s Beto O’Rourke.

And like you said, he’s crossed the state. You know, he came out of the primary with a clear victory. He’s not going to go to a runoff, so there’s no sort of awkward split there. And he’s going up against, in the general, who is widely seen as a pretty unpopular incumbent. You know, Ted Cruz certainly seems to be taking him seriously. I just saw him on MSNBC talking about gun control and really trying to define this race as, you know, “the liberal congressman from El Paso coming to take your guns, Texas.” So, I think it’s still safe to call that a long shot, but, you know, Texas looks different now than it did in 2014, so it’s hard to say.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s one of four minority-majority states, and very significant for that. Can you talk about the two Latinas, the two Latina women, who are poised to become the first two Latina congressmembers from Texas?

MICHAEL BARAJAS: Yeah. So, I mean, Texas is going to get a couple firsts, just from the primary results last night. One of the presumptive members of Congress that you’re talking about is out of Houston, Sylvia Garcia, who is a state senator. You know, she’s going to take over a congressional seat that was created as a minority opportunity district back in the ’90s in Houston. And that went to a white Democrat. And for two decades, Houston hasn’t had a member of Congress who’s a Hispanic. Not only are they going to get that this time around, but she’s going to be one of the first Latina congressmen or congressmembers in the state.

Same goes for Escobar out of El Paso. She won that race in a crowded field. I think it was seven candidates, and she pulled away with something like 60 percent of the vote, a pretty strong showing. And she, you know, will, again, be one of the history makers, one of Texas’s first Latina members of Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: And you may have one first openly lesbian member of Congress.

MICHAEL BARAJAS: Right. That’s another one of those races that Democrats have targeted this particular election. That’s — Will Hurd currently holds the seat down in South Texas. It’s a sprawling district that goes from San Antonio all the way out into West Texas. Because of how heavily gerrymandered it is, a lot of people see it as a tossup now. Gina [Ortiz Jones] is the candidate that you’re talking about. She came away with a pretty clear lead in a crowded field for that primary, something like 40 percent. So she’s looking pretty good going into the runoff there. And you’re right. If she goes up against Will Hurd and ultimately wins that race, she would be Texas’s first openly gay member of Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Mike Barajas, thanks so much for being with us. That does it for our show. Staff writer for The Texas Observer.