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US primaries kick off with a Democratic push in Texas

  • The 2018 U.S. primary elections kick off on Tuesday in Texas.
  • Democrats hope record-high levels of early voter midterm turnout and anger over President Donald Trump's policies will help them flip congressional seats from Republican control.
  • Trump has been divisive in Texas, where he receives about 83 percent approval among Republican respondents and 85 percent disapproval among Democrat respondents.
Political campaign signs stand outside a polling station in Austin, Texas, United States March 5, 2018 ahead of the first statewide U.S. primary, which will be held in Texas.
Jon Herskovitz | Reuters
Political campaign signs stand outside a polling station in Austin, Texas, United States March 5, 2018 ahead of the first statewide U.S. primary, which will be held in Texas.

The 2018 U.S. primary elections kick off on Tuesday in Texas, where Democrats hope record-high levels of early voter midterm turnout and anger over President Donald Trump's policies will help them flip congressional seats from Republican control.

Democratic turnout in the state's largest 15 counties hit 465,245 in early voting, according to the Texas secretary of state. That was double the party's early voting totals for the 2014 midterm election and surpassed the 420,329 people who voted early in this year's Republican nominating contest.

Texas Democrats, however, have not won a statewide race for posts such as governor or U.S. senator for more than two decades, and analysts expect Republican turnout to top that of Democrats on Election Day in a state where Republicans outnumbered Democrats in 2014 primary votes by a more than two-to-one margin.

"Every two years the Democrats find some sort of factoid to fixate on and convince themselves that this is the year where they make Texas competitive — and every two years it falls flat," said Chris Wilson, a pollster for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott, both Texas Republicans.

Texas Democrats are fielding their largest contingent of congressional and legislative candidates in a primary in several decades. For the first time in more than 25 years, the party will be contesting each of the state's 36 U.S. congressional districts, the party said.

Democrats, who need 24 seats nationwide to take control of the U.S. House, see the party's best opportunities in the six Republican-held districts where incumbents are not seeking re-election. They also are targeting at least two Republican incumbents whose support bases have weakened, in part due to shifting demographics.

Trump has been divisive in Texas, where he receives about 83 percent approval among Republican respondents and 85 percent disapproval among Democrat respondents, according to polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.

Some of the issues that helped Trump nationally, such as reworking trade deals like NAFTA, can be vulnerabilities in Texas, where the state's economy is heavily dependent on trade with neighbor Mexico. His plans to crack down on immigrants have spurred political activism among Latinos, who make up about 40 percent of the state's population and tend to support Democrats.

"Donald Trump's presence in the White House is motivating a subset of Democratic voters and independents to turn out to vote to express their opposition to his administration," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Texas.

Cruz and Abbott, the top Republicans facing primaries on Tuesday, have used the Democratic surge in early voting in appeals to party faithful to go out to the polls.

The two incumbents are expected to easily win and then drive the party ticket in November. Abbott already has a war chest of about $43 million, more than the combined funds at this point of every Democratic candidate running in the state for governor, lieutenant governor and the U.S. Congress.

The best-funded Democratic candidate is Beto O'Rourke, a U.S. House member running for the U.S. Senate. Fluent in Spanish, O'Rourke has been drawing big crowds across the state as he calls for universal healthcare, new restrictions on gun ownership and immigration reform.

Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said that although O'Rourke is a long shot to beat Cruz, Democrats are poised to narrow the electoral gap in Texas.

"If Democrats are able to pick up one or two U.S. House seats previously held by Republicans and cut into Republican margins in the state legislature ... that would show that the party's 'blue wave' is no mirage," he said.