Texas kicks off primary season ahead of the 2018 midterm election, with implications for Democrats and Republicans alike in an election year that could alter the direction of Congress and statehouses around the country for the final two years of President Donald Trump's term.
Things worth keeping an eye on Tuesday as Texans cast ballots:
Democrats remain underdogs to knock off Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, but there's been a surge among Democratic candidates and voters that reflects nationwide momentum for the left since Trump's election.
There is at least one Democratic candidate in every congressional district — 36 of them — for the first time since 1992, the year of a national Republican wave. Democrats have 25 contested congressional primaries, and leading Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke raised $2.4 million in the final three months of 2017, more than Cruz's $1.9 million haul.
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Registered Democrats also outnumbered Republicans in early voting in the most populous counties tracked by the state. Democrats cast more than 406,000 ballots compared to Republicans' 353,000. In the 2014 midterm primaries, Republicans posted a 3-2 advantage in early voting.
"We have candidates everywhere, and that means we are reaching voters who haven't heard from Democrats in a long time," says Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. "That's a good thing for November."
The president won Texas during the 2016 nominating process and in the November election. Now he's a central figure in midterm primaries.
George P. Bush, nephew of fellow Texan and former President George W. Bush, touts endorsement from Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. as the younger Bush seeks re-election as land commissioner. Congressional candidates across the state pledge fealty to the president and blast his critics.
It's most obvious in crowded Republican primaries for safe GOP seats opened by incumbents retiring. Kathaleen Wall, who is running a southeast Texas seat now held by Rep. Ted Poe, is an example. One of her 30-second ads alternates between images of Trump and Wall, while a voiceover offers attributes of the two: "Successful businessman man. Successful businesswoman. ... Talks tough (Trump). Aims tough (Wall, wielding a rifle). Loudly strong (Trump). Quietly strong (Wall). Great hair (Trump). Greater hair (Wall)."
There are 21 contested GOP House primaries.
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NATIONAL DEMOCRATS VS. LIBERAL GROUPS
It's not uncommon for the Democrats' House campaign arm to have favorites in a primary, but they stepped beyond that recently, openly criticizing a Democratic hopeful in a Houston-area seat held by Republican John Culberson.
In a memo posted online, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee called Laura Moser a "Washington insider" and blasted her comments published in a 2014 Washingtonian magazine article. Moser said she'd "rather have her teeth pulled out" than live in Paris, Texas. Party aides say the comments would be used by Republicans to make Moser unelectable in the 7th Congressional District, but their intervention has miffed Texas Democrats, including some of her opponents.
Liberal groups also have cried foul. Moser is running to the left of other leading candidates, and Our Revolution, Sen. Bernie Sanders' political organization, endorsed her in the wake of the DCCC memo.
The battle is sure to intensify if Moser qualifies for an expected runoff.
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Three Texas congressional seats — the 7th District in metro Houston, the 23rd District from San Antonio across border country and the 32nd District near Dallas-Fort Worth — are among the 23 Republican-held seats nationally that sided with Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 presidential race.
Democrats need to flip 24 GOP-seats to reclaim a majority in the U.S. House.
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The Houston seat is likely headed to a runoff. The question is whether Moser, the liberal criticized by national Democrats, is among the two candidates. The San Antonio-border country seat could yield a runoff, as well, between Gina Ortiz Jones, an Air Force veteran, and Jay Hulings, a former federal prosecutor.
Jones' backers include one-time gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis and the pro-choice Democratic group Emily's List. Hulings is backed by the No. 2 House Democrat, Steny Hoyer, along with fellow San Antonians Rep. Joaquin Castro and former Obama Cabinet member Julian Castro.
BETO O'ROURKE vs. TED CRUZ
O'Rourke and Cruz aren't on the same Senate ballot yet, but the primary will be the first test of their standing ahead of their almost certain Senate matchup in November.
The Democratic congressman outraised the Republican senator in the last quarter of 2017 and has touted his candidacy's grassroots appeal for Texas Democrats who haven't had much to cheer about lately. Cruz, who has nominal primary opposition himself, isn't taking the race lightly, however. The senator also is using his stature with endorsements in several of the 21 contested Republican House primaries.
While it's not an absolute harbinger of November, it will be worth checking O'Rourke's vote totals compared to Cruz's to see what kind of gap exists ahead of their fall campaign.
Texas has eight sitting House members who are not seeking re-election, meaning the state with the second-largest delegation will be losing some key experience and leadership in Washington from its Republican majority.
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The outgoing lawmakers include Sam Johnson, the 87-year-old Vietnam veteran and member of the House Ways and Means Committee; Jeb Hensarling, 60, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee; Lamar Smith, 69, who heads the House Science, Space and Technology Committee; and Poe, who has been in Congress since 2005.
Each of them hails from solidly Republican districts, but they could be replaced by even more conservative nominees. Both Hensarling and Smith were being term-limited out of their chairmanships but were well positioned to continue exerting veteran House influence had they stayed.
Associated Press writer Jim Vertuno contributed to this report.