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Beyond Wins and Losses, What Will Tuesday Say About Texas Politics?

After Tuesday's general election, political observers will examine voter turnout and exit poll data, seeking insights into where Texas is politically, and where it may be headed.

Paul Beckham and Gary Giffen leave Zilker Elementary School in Austin after casting ballots for the primary election on March 4.

Republicans appear poised to maintain their grip on every statewide office in Texas for a 16th straight year, yet Tuesday’s election results will yield information beyond winners and losers. Political observers will be looking closely at voter turnout and exit poll data, seeking insights into where Texas is politically, and where it may be headed. Here are the questions most drawing their attention:

Question: Will Wendy Davis break 42 percent of the vote in the governor’s race?

Answer: Four years ago, Texas Democrats had high hopes of unseating Gov. Rick Perry. The Democratic nominee, former Houston Mayor Bill White, was widely viewed as a strong contender. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report categorized the race as a tossup.

“White is probably the strongest gubernatorial candidate Democrats have nominated since Ann Richards was the party’s standard-bearer in 1990,” the report said nine months before the election.

White lost to Perry with 42 percent of the vote. It was the best showing by a Democrat in the governor’s race since Richards drew 46 percent in her losing re-election bid against George W. Bush in 1994.

Democrat Davis, has drawn her own comparisons to Richards, with supporters framing her campaign as the most aggressive mounted by a Democrat in years. Democrats have predicted that, short of winning, Davis will at least lose by less to the Republican Greg Abbott than White did to Perry.

“If they can surpass that number, that would mean they’re on the right track,” said Jeronimo Cortina, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Houston.

The latest New York Times/CBS News/YouGov poll found Abbott leading Davis 57 percent to 37 percent among likely voters. Davis has dismissed such polls as “wildly inaccurate.”

Q: Will fewer people vote for Dan Patrick in the lieutenant governor’s race than for Abbott?

A: In 2006 and 2010, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor drew more votes than the candidate for governor. This year, Democrats predict that the trend will be reversed because Houston state Sen. Dan Patrick is too conservative for many Republicans to support.

Patrick has effectively positioned himself to the right of Abbott, said Seth McKee, an associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University. He cited Patrick’s television ad asserting that “ISIS terrorists threaten to cross our border and kill Americans.” Federal law enforcement agencies have repeatedly dismissed that claim as not credible.

“The segment of the electorate that’s more informed about politics is going to make that distinction between him and Abbott,” McKee said.

Patrick has suggested that critics will regret underestimating his appeal to Texans.

“Some Democrats have said they want me to be the nominee,” Patrick said during a victory speech in May after winning the Republican nomination. “Well, they’ve got me, and I’m coming.”

His Democratic opponent, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio, has called Patrick “dangerous” and “untrustworthy” in TV ads. Yet her attacks are tame compared with what Patrick withstood during the Republican primary, including questions about his mental stability after leaked medical records revealed that he had been treated in a psychiatric facility and attempted suicide in the 1980s.

If Patrick is politically vulnerable, Van de Putte has failed to capitalize on it, according to Allan Saxe, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“I understand in San Antonio she’s known as a great campaigner, but it doesn’t seem to have come across in this election that much,” Saxe said.

Q: Will there be a Battleground Texas effect?

A: The grass-roots Democratic organizing group Battleground Texas was created last year with the goal of turning reliably Republican Texas back into a swing state. The group repeatedly predicted a long road, hoping to win some local races this year and build from there.

“That creates the atmosphere for people who are really strong to run statewide,” Jeremy Bird, the group’s founder, said in early 2013. Less than a year later, the group became inextricably linked to Davis’ bid for governor, raising expectations of its immediate impact.

Erica Sackin, a spokeswoman for the group, said it has seen success developing a vast network of volunteers.

“It’s really about that grass-roots outreach, neighbor talking to neighbor, especially as we’re doing our final push to get people to the polls,” Sackin said.

Republicans are already dismissing the initiative as a failure. Craig Murphy, a consultant, has noted that most of this year’s new registered voters are in heavily Republican counties.

“Voter registration is occurring where Battleground Texas wishes it weren’t,” Murphy said in a release mocking the efforts. “When they vote on November 4, it will be great news for Texas Republicans.”

Q: Will voter ID affect the outcome?

A: The law requires citizens, with few exceptions, to show a photo identification card before their votes can be counted. Acceptable forms include a driver’s license, state ID, military ID card and a concealed handgun license. According to a state estimate in 2011, more than 500,000 registered voters did not have the credentials needed to cast ballots under the law.

A federal district judge in Corpus Christi found the law unconstitutional in early October. While that ruling is appealed, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and then the U. S. Supreme Court gave Texas permission to continue enforcing it for this election.

Republicans describe the law as crucial to preventing voter fraud. Democrats excoriate it as a veiled attempt to disenfranchise poor and minority voters.

Cortina said the law’s impact would be noticeable if rural and poor Texans tried but failed to obtain the appropriate identification to vote.

McKee, who has studied how voter ID laws affect elections, expects the impact will be marginal.

“There’s been a lot of work on voter ID in the academic literature, and people are having trouble seeing much of an impact on turnout,” McKee said.

Q: What will the turnout look like in South Texas?

A: On Thursday, Davis made four campaign stops in the heavily Democratic and Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. Two days earlier, Abbott was in Harlingen for his 16th visit to the region in this election season, according to his campaign.

Both Abbott and Davis have predicted that they will win a majority of Hispanic voters statewide. That competition is most apparent in the campaigns’ efforts in South Texas. The outcome is more critical for Democrats, Saxe said.

“The Democrats need strong turnout in South Texas, the Rio Grande area, in order to deflect from Republicans in the other parts of the state,” he said.

Disclosure: The University of Houston and the University of Texas at Arlington are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Politics State government 2014 elections Dan Patrick Governor's Office Greg Abbott Texas Legislature Wendy Davis