Heading into Tuesday night's Texas primary, the state's Democrats had plenty of reasons to be hopeful. During early voting, more Democrats had turned out than during any previous mid-term primary in the state's 15 biggest counties, besting their Republican counterparts by more than 40,000 ballots. Beto O'Rourke, the El Paso congressman seeking to take on Ted Cruz as Cruz seeks a second term in the Senate, had become a national media darling. There were signs, the building narrative suggested, that the long-awaited blue wave might be on its way to sweep Texas to its demographic destiny. After Tuesday, however, it's a lot less clear where things stand.
"Tuesday's results are a cautionary result for everybody," SMU political science professor Matthew Wilson says. "Stop generalizing just from early voting. Wait until people actually vote on Election Day because what we have seen is that there are major partisan differences in the utilization rate for early voting. Democrats, for a variety of reasons, seem to prefer to vote early. Republicans still prefer to vote on Election Day."
As Texas' final precincts were tallied early Wednesday morning, it became clear that far more Texans ended up voting in the Republican primary than did in the Democratic contest. While more than a million Democrats showed up, right in line with what many left-leaning pundits said would be a good showing, 1.5 million Republicans did the same, despite a dearth of competitive statewide races.
"We've been suckered before by story lines about incredible Democratic strength based on early voting that get muted or reversed once we see what actually happened on Election Day. That kinda happened this time," Wilson says. "All these stories that were being sent around nationally were like 'Oh my gosh, Democrats are outvoting Republicans in Texas.' Once we tallied everything including Election Day, it turned out that wasn't the case."
Even O'Rourke, the Democratic party's standard-bearer this year, unperformed, collecting about 60 percent of the vote against two largely unknown challengers. Since announcing that he'd take on Cruz more than a year ago, O'Rourke has barnstormed the state, holding town halls and meet-and-greets in some of Texas' reddest burghs. In doing so, he's become a favorite of the national press, who'd like nothing more than to see Cruz sent back the Houston. It's hard to classify O'Rourke's primary result as anything but a disappointment, despite the fact that he easily secured the Democratic nomination and won't have to face a runoff.
"I was expecting him to get like 75 percent of the vote and he got 60 percent," Wilson says. "I think it points to a disconnect between the politically informed class that's always talking to each other and the way they look at the world and the way the average Texas voter looks at the world. A lot of average Texas voters had not heard the names of any of the people running for the Senate nomination on the Democratic side. They just had not plugged in and decided to think about this race yet."
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While he has both the time and the campaign cash to raise his profile through events and advertising between now and November, Wilson says O'Rourke may have lost some of the national press with his performance in the primary.
"There are a lot of things that will be in play in the fall that will help O'Rourke, but I do think just a little bit of a damper has been put on some of the enthusiasm that has been building for him nationally," Wilson says.
However one might interpret the results, Wilson says that he doesn't think the time is right for Democrats to break through statewide for the first time since Bob Bullock was re-elected lieutenant governor in 1994. There is real energy against Donald Trump, he says, but Texas is still a red state.
"If I had to bet, I'd say that Lucy snatches the football away one more time. The predictions that 'This is going to the year,' are going to fall flat again," Wilson said. "Democrats still aren't there yet in terms of winning statewide offices. I think it will be closer because it's setting up to [be] a good Democratic year nationally, but I think that the turnout yesterday reminded us that this is still basically a Republican state."