Updated on March 5 at 7:13 p.m. ET
The 2018 primary elections kick off this week, and Democrats are already seeing reasons to be excited deep in the red, beating heart of Texas.
The Lone Star State holds the nation's first primary on Tuesday, and in the 11 days of early voting Democrats reached record levels in a midterm year. They surpassed GOP early voting turnout this year and their own party's numbers during the same period in 2016, a presidential election year where voting numbers are typically much higher, and more than doubled their turnout from the last midterm election in 2014.
The rising Democratic enthusiasm mirrors what the party has already seen across the country in the nearly year and a half since President Trump was elected — more than three dozen state legislature seats changing hands, important wins in Virginia and New Jersey last year and mobilization through rallies and protests.
Texas's primary brings the first actual voting in the 2018 midterm cycle, giving both parties a chance for a more concrete measure ahead of November's elections. Early signs of such a swell in a bulwark red state could be an even more ominous sign for Republicans nationally this fall if it's borne out by Tuesday's results.
"Texas is the nation's bellwether right now," said Tariq Thowfeek, the communications director for the Texas Democratic Party. "It's a good gauge of the incredible progressive energy we have across the country in a state that is ranked at the bottom of the barrel in voter turnout."
The Cook Political Report's David Wasserman found that in the top 15 counties in the state, the Democratic early vote had spiked 105 percent over 2014 numbers. On the Republican side, there had been only a 15 percent uptick.
A surge in Democrats on the ballot
It's not just an uptick in Democratic voters happening in Texas, but an increase in candidates putting their names on the ballot, too. Democrats are fielding a modern-day record number of candidates across the state. There are 111 U.S. House candidates running for the minority party, and they are spread across all 36 Texas congressional districts — the first time that's happened in 25 years, and a departure from two years ago when Democrats didn't run candidates in eight seats.
On a state legislative level, Democrats have candidates in 132 of the 150 state House districts and in 14 of the 15 state Senate districts up for election this year. That includes four Senate districts where Democrats didn't field candidates in 2014 or 2012, and 20 new House districts where they didn't have candidates in either 2016, 2014 or 2012.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said that the Democratic surge is even more impressive given that it's usually GOP voters, not Democrats, who have been reliable in non-presidential years.
"It's one word — enthusiasm. In a midterm election like this, what you normally expect to see is the Republicans' primary turnout might be twice what the Democratic turnout is, so to have the Democrats even with, and even slightly ahead, of Republicans in this midterm election is really extraordinary," Jillson said.
Key suburban swing districts are likely to determine control of the House in 2018. There are several GOP-held districts like that which could be at play in Texas, such as Rep. Pete Sessions's suburban Dallas seat and Rep. John Culberson's suburban Houston district, which, along with Rep. Will Hurd's expansive border district that runs from San Antonio to El Paso, all voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
"Going into this year, there was an expectation following the Women's March, in the wake of the elections in New Jersey and Virginia and all these special elections that something similar was likely to happen in the first-in-the-nation Texas primary, and I think it has," SMU's Jillson said. "It signals a Democratic electorate that is motivated to make a statement against Donald Trump, and that motivation is nowhere more powerful than in female voters."
There's been a downside to the Democrats' surge of candidates in some places, however. In the primary to face Culberson, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently lobbed attacks against one candidate they didn't feel would be a strong challenger given past derisive comments about places in the state. That move prompted a backlash from some progressive groups and criticism from the head of the Democratic National Committee.
Matt Angle, a longtime Texas Democratic strategist and director of the Lone Star Project, said the sheer number of candidates was still a positive thing for Democrats in a state where they've had trouble recruiting in the past, and noted that other primaries have been more civil. Those are encouraging signs, he said, for the way the state is trending politically.
"Make no mistake — it's a tough lift in Texas. It's a state still that is a right of center state, but I'm very encouraged," Angle said. "The excitement being generated now among candidates will not only build, it will consolidate."
Backlash to Trump
President Trump under-performed past GOP presidential nominees in the state, carrying it in 2016 by only single digits, and a Gallup poll released at the end of January showed that the president's approval rating in Texas had dropped below 40 percent.
While Trump's approval among Republican base voters remains strong, that dissatisfaction with the president is certainly driving Democratic turnout and convincing more disaffected voters to turn blue, Angle argued. For example, that has helped Democratic Rep. Beto O'Rourke in his upstart campaign to unseat Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. While O'Rourke still remains an underdog, he's been drawing large crowds and has even outraised Cruz recently with the help of small-dollar donors.
"In Texas, I think what you do have a chance to do is build a really strong coalition of Democrats, independents and fair-minded Republicans who are disillusioned with the type of leadership they're getting," Angle said.
Texas GOP strategist Derek Ryan pointed out that Democrats do have some major statewide primaries, such as the gubernatorial race, that could be driving some turnout, but admitted that Democrats have done a good job of recruiting candidates across the board, thus making those competitive races more appealing to some voters.
Ryan also acknowledged that the rise in Democratic enthusiasm is worrisome for Republicans — especially because Democrats have gotten many low propensity voters to the polls. He's been diving into the early voting data, and his analysis found that many of those primary voters are ones that voted in 2016 — but haven't had a proclivity to vote yet in a midterm year when turnout typically drops off. And nearly a quarter of Democrats who cast early ballots were new voters who just registered in the past two years.
On the GOP side, Ryan found that first-time primary voters only made up about 11 percent of the early vote share, which is a dip from the 2014 midterm primaries. However, on the Democratic side, first time primary voters comprise over nearly a quarter of the early vote — way up from the 14 percent four years ago.
"While I don't think that Texas is going to turn blue this cycle, I do think with these turnout numbers, it could have a significant impact in some races, and some leaning Republican races in November," Ryan said.
Matt Mackowiak, another Republican strategist in the state and chairman of the Travis County GOP, argued that the true test of Democratic enthusiasm will be on Tuesday night. He pointed out that early voting numbers also looked strong for Clinton back in 2016, but that was her high watermark and Election Day voting couldn't match Republican totals.
"For Republicans, if this is evidence of a significant enthusiasm gap, then that would be something to worry about," Mackowiak said. "I'm not sure that it is yet, and just because you have stronger turnout in the primary doesn't mean it translates into Election Day vote in November."
But he admitted that the early numbers should give Republicans some pause and they certainly don't hold any good news if the trend continues on Tuesday.
"There's no way to look at this as positive for Republicans — it's either inconsequential, or it's bad," Mackowiak said.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For months now, you've been hearing politicians and political observers talk about the 2018 midterm elections. Well, they are here. On Tuesday, Texas holds the first primaries leading up to Election Day in November, and Democrats are seeing encouraging early signs in that big, traditionally-red state. NPR political reporter Jessica Taylor is following congressional races, and she is with us now.
Jess, thanks so much for coming in.
JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: So what is up for grabs in Texas this year?
TAYLOR: Well, there's a lot of places where Democrats could surprisingly make gains. So there are actually three congressional seats that are held by Republicans that Clinton won. And it's also a state where Democrats are looking to make gains in the state legislature. Now, in both those areas, they've had a surge of Democratic candidates running, which mirrors what we've seen across the country. For the first time in 25 years, Democrats are running candidates in all 36 congressional districts with 111 candidates on the ballot.
There's also a Senate race on the ballot. Ted Cruz is up for re-election, and Democratic Rep Beto O'Rourke is running against him. He's still an underdog, but he's shown a lot of surprising signs of sort of an insurgent campaign. He's drawing really big crowds in some traditionally-Republican areas and also outraised Ted Cruz as well.
MARTIN: So let me get this straight - that these districts considered so uncompetitive in past years that Democrats didn't even bother to field a candidate?
TAYLOR: Right. Exactly. And I mean, they're - and they are running candidates in some really, really red districts where they don't have a chance. But also, like, if you don't run, things could happen and things, too. So they actually have people that are interested in running, which is a big sign for them.
MARTIN: As we mentioned, primary day is Tuesday, but early voting has been going on for two weeks already. What do we see from that?
TAYLOR: So we analyzed the first eight days of early voting. And Political Report's David Wasserman found that the early vote had a 105 percent uptake over 2014, while on the Republican side, it was only a 14 percent increase. Like I said, we looked at the first eight days in 13 counties, which was the data available from the secretary of state's office. That includes 12 of the largest counties, and that actually makes up two-thirds of the state's population.
And no - and we went back, and we, you know, compared apples to apples of the 2016 and 2014 election all the way back to 2010, and Democrats have already - they've not only outpaced Republicans overall this cycle, but they've already surpassed their 2016 numbers - and that was a presidential election year when we see much higher turnout traditionally - and they've almost doubled their numbers from 2014, the last midterm elections. And most importantly, they're getting low-propensity voters to the polls...
MARTIN: And that means what?
TAYLOR: Oh, ones that don't typically vote in midterm election years. They may turn out for a presidential election, but, midterm, you have to have, sort of, an extra reason to go to the polls and stuff. There's one Texas Republican - a strategist that I talked to, Derek Ryan. He sort of analyzed some of this data, and he found that nearly a quarter of the Democratic vote in the early vote had registered just in the past two years, and first-time primary voters make up 22 percent of the early vote - that's way up from 14 percent four years ago - while on the Republican side, it's only 10 percent of first-time primary voters, a debt from 2014.
MARTIN: And, of course, Jess, you know I'm going to ask you, why? Why do people think this is?
TAYLOR: It's the Trump factor, and even Republicans I talked to sort of admit that this is what's driving it. It mirrors, well, you know, what we've seen across the country with the rallies and protests. And we've seen 39 state legislative seats flipped from Republican to Democratic hands since Trump was elected and, of course, big wins last November in New Jersey and Virginia. You know, and Democrats that I talked to there in the state who say that, you know, Texas is on the path to turning blue because of more Hispanic voters coming out in everything, too - I'd say they're cautiously optimistic. They know that this isn't, you know, going to be a blue wave in Texas by any means, but, you know, just the sheer participation that they're getting - it sort of reinvigorized (ph) their party.
The question is, can Democrats carry this through to November? One Republican strategist said to me, this is either an inconsequential or it's bad for Republicans. There's no good news out of these numbers.
MARTIN: That's NPR's Jessica Taylor. Jessica, thank you.
TAYLOR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.