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The political folk from all parties have said it over and again: This is a turnout election in Texas.
What that means, in raw numbers, is that the Democrats have been running, give or take, a million votes behind the Republicans in recent statewide elections. The only way to close that is to get a lot of the majority’s voters to fall asleep or to get a lot of the minority’s voters to wake up.
That sets up the question behind the 2018 elections in Texas, the answer to which will begin to appear on Monday, when early voting begins: Will any of this year’s vigorous, expensive and high-profile political campaigning change the size or the partisan leanings of the state’s voting population?
It would take a big change to make a difference. The distances between Republicans and Democrats in statewide races over the last decade range from large to vast. Republican Greg Abbott got about 960,000 more votes than Democrat Wendy Davis in 2014. That same year, Republican John Cornyn was at the top of the Texas ballot, winning reelection to the U.S. Senate with more than 1.2 million votes to spare over Democrat David Alameel.
The 2010 race for governor was much tighter, but Republican Rick Perry still had 631,000 more votes than Democrat Bill White that year. In the next race down the ballot, Republican David Dewhurst won reelection as lieutenant governor with 1.3 million more votes than Democrat Linda Chavez-Thompson.
The numbers are just as daunting in presidential election years. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Texas two years ago by more than 800,000 votes. The next statewide race on the ballot was for a spot on the Texas Railroad Commission: Republican Wayne Christian beat Democrat Grady Yarbrough by nearly 1.3 million votes.
Four years earlier, Mitt Romney finished almost 1.3 million votes ahead of Barack Obama, and Ted Cruz beat Democrat Paul Sadler for an open U.S. Senate seat by almost as many votes.
You get the idea.
Those numbers explain two things you’re hearing from candidates in competitive races. Start at the top: Sen. Cruz is telling Republican voters that overconfidence is their — his — Achilles’ heel. “The biggest challenge I have in this race … is complacency,” Cruz said at a rally in Smithville in August. “People say all the time, ‘Oh, come on, it’s a Texas re-elect. How could you possibly lose?’ Well, in an ordinary cycle, that might be true. But this is not an ordinary cycle. The far left is filled with anger and rage and we underestimate that anger at our peril.”
Donald Trump Jr., campaigning the state for Cruz earlier this month, sounded the same alarm. Chances are, you’ll hear it again next week at the president’s scheduled rally in Houston, promised after Texas Republicans asked him to come to Texas to shore up Cruz’s reelection bid.
They must’ve seen something, right?
Their business is rousing Republicans who’ve voted before. For more than two decades, there have always been enough of those — by a good margin — to get their candidates through.
Democrats, are trying something harder: Getting people to vote in a midterm election year for the first time.
Some of those might be voters who only show up in presidential election years, when turnout for both parties takes a sizable jump. But in midterm elections — the cycles when Texas governors and most other statewide candidates are chosen — turnout is lower, and Republicans outnumber Democrats by roughly three voters to two.
Texas is a low-voter state, known for its mediocre civic participation. Democrats have hauled out their hopeful rallying cry: “Texas is not a red state — it’s a non-voting state.” The theory underneath is that lots of the people who don’t vote in Texas are Democrats. It’s the logic behind Democratic efforts to turn out adults who register to vote and then don’t follow up. The non-voter category, in midterm elections, accounts for about two-thirds of the state’s registered voters.
The gap is big: To change the partisan flag over any statewide office in Texas would require a combination of Republican declines and Democratic increases to cover half of that million-vote abyss. At current turnout levels of 33.7 percent to 38 percent of registered voters in the last four gubernatorial elections, hordes of voters — more than one in ten — would have to change sides. Or stay home. Or show up for the first time.