The 2018 midterms kicked off in eye-opening fashion in Texas on Tuesday, as a series of surprises in Democratic House primaries jolted the landscape while the party’s large turnout sent a warning to Republicans nationwide.
But the GOP remained in the driver’s seat in statewide races throughout Texas by night’s end, leaving most of the shocks to down-ballot races.
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Washington Democrats saw some of their runoff plans go down the drain. Well-funded candidates fell in contest after contest. George P. Bush unexpectedly cruised to victory. And women kept on winning.
With lawmakers across the country closely eyeing Tuesday’s contests for hints of what’s to come this year, those results and others provided a series of vivid lessons.
Here are POLITICO’s six takeaways from the first primaries of 2018:
Democratic enthusiasm is real, but may not be enough in Texas
It’s a familiar pattern by now: Every few years, Democrats insist they’re going to be competitive statewide in Texas because of their party’s energy and the demographic changes sweeping the state. And every few years, they fall short. This year, though, the state’s Democrats were certain the landscape would look different after more Democrats — 465,000 — than Republicans — 420,000 — voted in Texas’ 15 largest counties in early voting.
It appeared to be a clear continuation of the boundless Democratic energy popping up all across the country in opposition to President Donald Trump, but by the time Election Day numbers came in, the enthusiasm had dimmed — slightly. Data from the state’s other 239 counties favored Republicans, and by the end of the night, there were roughly a half-million more votes in the GOP primaries than in the Democratic primaries.
It was a clear improvement over the 2010 and 2014 midterm cycles, when Republican votes outnumbered Democratic ones by over 750,000. And more Democrats voted in the senatorial and gubernatorial primaries than in any comparable race since 2002. But it suggested that much of the Democratic Party’s early vote came from existing primary voters who were excited to participate this year, rather than any enormous tranche of newly activated voters.
That means competing statewide — including against Sen. Ted Cruz — remains an uphill challenge for Democrats. And Rep. Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic standard-bearer in that race, still must consolidate his party after two relatively unknown rivals picked up over 38 percent of the primary vote.
Still, their voters’ newfound exuberance may be enough to swing individual down-ballot races both in Texas and around the country.
D.C. Dems get brushed back
Laura Moser isn’t going anywhere — and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s first attempt at thinning a primary field failed.
The DCCC dumped opposition research against Moser, a journalist and activist, viewing her as a candidate with too much baggage to win in November. Instead, Moser will face off against Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, an attorney, in May for a shot at a suburban district that Democrats believe is key to flipping the House.
Moser, who raised more than $130,000 after the DCCC’s attacks late last month, is now laying the groundwork for an outsider, Bernie Sanders-style campaign. In a TV ad, Moser urges voters to reject “Washington party bosses [telling] us who to choose,” adding, “we tried that before, and look where it got us.”
“The DCCC’s attack backfired, showing them to be a little toothless,” said a Democratic strategist, granted anonymity to talk candidly about party strategy. “And once the DCCC inserted itself, it became inevitable that the same ghosts of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Bernie Sanders and 2016 will pop up.”
The DCCC, in a memo released early Wednesday morning, said voters “[picked] a clear frontrunner” and remain “in a strong position to win in November.”
Fletcher, who’s backed by EMILY’s List, has drawn opposition from unions. The Working Families Party spent $20,000 on negative ads against her in the primary, accusing her law firm of attacking “the right of immigrant women to stand up for themselves in the workplace,” according to one digital ad.
Trump’s popularity even helps a Bush — in Texas, no less
By avoiding a runoff in his reelection bid as land commissioner on Tuesday night, George P. Bush — son of Jeb, nephew of George W., grandson of George H.W. — showed Republicans that it sometimes pays to lean all the way into your ties to Trump, no matter how close to the party establishment you may seem.
At least in conservative states like Texas.
A member of perhaps the state’s most prominent modern political family, the 41-year-old Bush nonetheless relied heavily on his support from both Trump and Donald Trump Jr. to clear 50 percent in a race against a field that included former Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.
Patterson had loudly criticized Bush for his performance in his first term, including his work to preserve the Alamo, but a final-stretch ad blitz from Bush underscored the incumbent’s conservatism as he hit Patterson for not backing Trump in 2016.
At a time Republicans around the country are trying to figure out how to position themselves with respect to Trump, Bush demonstrated that in a consistently Republican playing field like Texas, the combination of universal name identification and appeals to the Trump-loving base can be enough to overcome even harsh intraparty attacks.
Cash isn’t necessarily king
Three Democrats who led fundraising throughout much of 2017 failed to reach the runoffs in top-tier congressional races, despite their early money advantage. Now Democrats are left to watch candidates who have demonstrated less fundraising prowess battle it out for the nomination over the next two months before being able to reload against GOP incumbents with a head start in the general election.
Ed Meier, a State Department official in the Obama administration, led his Democratic opponents in fundraising throughout 2017 and headed into the primary for a competitive, Dallas-area seat with the most cash on hand. But Meier, who aired TV ads in the expensive Dallas media market, finished in fourth place. Colin Allred, a former NFL player, didn’t air any TV ads and struggled to raise money, but was the top vote-getter.
“You have to do more than be the biggest fundraiser, because Democrats want to be inspired,” said Isaac Baker, a Democratic media consultant who worked on Allred’s campaign.
In the Houston-area battleground district, Alex Triantaphyllis raised more than $1 million — topping all of his primary opponents in total fundraising for the race. But Triantaphyllis, a nonprofit executive, still finished behind three of them.
Jay Hulings, a former federal prosecutor who was running in Texas’ 23rd District, a traditional swing district, picked up early national support from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and the Blue Dog PAC. He posted strong fundraising numbers throughout last year, but he failed to make the top-two runoff.
The suburbs rule
Lawmakers and leading operatives on both sides of the aisle have grown increasingly convinced that suburban districts will be 2018’s central battleground in the war for control of the House. And the matchups created by Tuesday’s primaries in two highly targeted races likely cement that expectation. Much of the party’s turnout gains were focused in metro and suburban zones like these.
Outside Dallas, Allred posted an unexpectedly large margin of victory in a crowded primary to set himself up as a clear favorite in May’s runoff before taking on Republican Rep. Pete Sessions, in a district that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
And in suburban Houston, in another Clinton district, vulnerable GOP Rep. John Culberson will also have to wait until May to find out his opponent’s identity. The vote totals — the number of votes in the GOP primary exceeded the Democratic primary tally by only 5,000 — reflect serious interest from Democrats in the district Culberson has represented for nine terms.
“This is proof positive of everything we’ve been talking about with these newly competitive districts — growing in diversity, highly educated oftentimes,” said Charlie Kelly, executive director of House Majority PAC, the main Democratic super PAC for House races. “Places that, I think, are now really competitive. We saw the transition in 2016, and we’re seeing more evidence today.”
The ‘Year of the Woman’ starts off strong
Texas is on track to get its first two Latina members of Congress, while also elevating women in some of the most hotly contested primaries in top-tier races throughout the state.
“The Democrats coming out of the Texas primaries tonight are women and people of color in greater numbers than we’ve seen in the past, and it reflects the diversity of the modern-day Democratic Party,” Baker said.
The Democratic nominee facing Rep. Will Hurd for his battleground seat will likely be a woman: Obama administration alum Gina Ortiz Jones finished first in a Democratic primary on Tuesday night, while Judy Canales, another former Obama administration official, was battling a male candidate for second place Wednesday morning. In Houston, Moser and Fletcher are squaring off, before one of them turns to Culberson. In Dallas, Lillian Salerno will run against Allred.
All of EMILY’s List-endorsed candidates in Democratic primaries either won outright or advanced to a runoff. The pro-abortion rights group president, Stephanie Schriock, called it a “historic night” in a statement.
Sylvia Garcia, a state senator, and Veronica Escobar, a former El Paso County judge, both clinched the nomination in their respective primaries — clearing their path to likely becoming the first Hispanic women to represent the state in Congress. Garcia drew a strong challenge from Tahir Javed, a health care executive who self-funded much of his bid, but her name ID in the district outstripped his endorsement from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Escobar won the primary in O’Rourke’s El Paso-based district and will be a prohibitive favorite in November in a majority-Hispanic district that backed Hillary Clinton by a 46-point margin.