Point Austin: Primary Afterthoughts
Waking up wondering if Texas will ever be purple
Some columns get subjects thrust upon them. For the last 24 hours, I've been reporting and thinking about nothing but the 2018 Democratic primaries (well, there's also my brand-new granddaughter), so what follows are my very intense but unfocused reflections on what happened Tuesday night. My beat was the congressional races, so that concentration might skew my perspective a bit, but in the aftermath, I'm looking at the overall campaign as what the pollsters call a likely November Democratic voter, and trying to make some very early sense, almost at random, of what just happened.
First, Beto. Neophyte Senate candidate Beto O'Rourke has run a grassroots, county-by-county campaign, rejecting corporate PAC money and speaking from both congressional experience and a left-populist approach to politics. The latter has a lengthy Texas history, but much of it long before the population was 28 million and decades before it had become a largely urban state. He won outright against two comparatively unknown rivals (Edward Kimbrough and Sema Hernandez), but with only 62% of the vote. That suggests there are huge swaths of Texas that still don't know who he is, and that he's got a lot of work to do before November.
But he's also gotten plenty of national play, which helps get the word out in this huge state, and most recently incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz has condescended to notice him. Cruz took a cheap shot at O'Rourke's nickname – "Beto" from childhood, for Robert – which seems a very strange gambit from someone who prefers "Ted" to Rafael Edward. Cruz is no dummy, but he's so cravenly ambitious that after Donald Trump beat him like a drum while slinging sleazy personal insults at his wife and father, Cruz quickly tucked his tail and began reflexively sucking up to the Great Orange Bloviator. That won't hurt him at all with the hard Republican base, but it could well motivate swing voters who will see Cruz and Trump as birds of a feather.
Ever Rising, Never Risen
Turnout. There was plenty of excitement over burgeoning Democratic turnout, especially in the early vote, but as Travis County Registrar Bruce Elfant pointed out resignedly, what looks good for Texas – in the neighborhood of 22% – looks lame by national comparison, let alone by normal standards of participatory democracy. (As a subject for another day, Americans, like Austinites, like to talk big about democratic representation, but when it comes to actual voting ... meh.)
Our Capitol Trumpette, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, was quick to proclaim that while the Democratic vote was higher than usual, for every two Democrats statewide, three Republicans arrived at the polls. GOP suburbanites still rule those numbers, and outside the core cities, Democrats will have to work uphill to score a Virginia-like upset. Doable, but hardly a sure thing. More likely is some change around the margins – e.g., in suburban swing districts like Southwest Austin's HD 47, where GOP incumbent Paul Workman is certainly vulnerable to either Vikki Goodwin or Elaina Fowler, in a district where Dems narrowly outvoted Republicans.
The biggest local surprise of the congressional races was long-shot Mary Wilson's lead in CD 21, against three better known and better funded male candidates, especially Joseph Kopser, whom she will face in the May run-off. Wilson told me that while she thought the run-off was possible, coming in first "does surprise me just a bit." Kopser remains a very solid opponent, but with even fewer voters returning in May, much depends on whether Wilson, with fewer resources, can maintain her grassroots edge and a de facto advantage among women voters. That advantage was reiterated in CD 25, where among five strong candidates Chris Perri took 33%, but was trailed not far behind by Julie Oliver (26%), who was frank in acknowledging that throughout that elongated district, Democratic (and swing) women voters would remain very important.
Wilson, the political novice among all these folks, described the results as reflecting a "women's wave" as much as the heralded "blue wave," adding, "I think that wave will continue, as long as women feel like our voices are not carrying the way that they should. There are 80 percent men in Congress, and we do need more women there – whether me or anybody else. And in the run-off, I think that difference will be helpful."
The prospect of either Roger Williams (CD 25 GOP incumbent) or whatever Lamar Smith-wannabe emerges from the free-for-all that was the GOP CD 21 primary retaining those congressional seats – carved out of Travis County first by Tom DeLay and then the broader Legislature's ongoing determination to render Democratic voters irrelevant – should inspire every Central Texas voter to do what ever we can to make things right. Blue wave, women's wave, small "d" democratic wave – if Texas is ever going to be a representative, two-party state, November brings a real chance to make that happen.