The Big Conversation

Texans can begin casting votes ahead of the March 1 party primaries starting today. Elections officials are expecting a high turnout driven by competitive presidential races in both major parties.

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart told the Tribune’s Jay Root that requests for mail-in ballots there are already at record levels.

“All told, Stanart said he expected close to 400,000 people will cast primary ballots in the state’s largest county. Whereas Democrats dominated interest in 2008, Stanart predicted three-quarters of the turnout in Harris County will be on the Republican side, where native son Ted Cruz and New York billionaire Donald Trump are duking it out at the top of a shrinking list of GOP candidates.”

In 2008, participation in the primaries surged as a result of the high-profile showdown between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The number of votes cast in the Democratic primary more than tripled from four years before — from about 840,000 votes to close to 2.9 million votes.

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Turnout that year was significantly higher also on the Republican side with almost 1.4 million votes cast.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said the record high turnout in 2008 remains an ‘outlier’ that will be hard to surpass,” Root wrote. “But he said the fierce competition in the GOP race will make 2016 one for the history books — and could approach the levels set eight years ago.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Trib Must Reads

Texas Sheriffs, Jails on Immigration Front Line, by Morgan Smith and Terri Langford — The federal government stands poised to deport immigrants who commit serious crimes in the United States — provided someone else catches them first. The success of federal efforts to detain criminal immigrants depends largely on local sheriffs. This story is part of our "Bordering on Insecurity" series.

In Central Texas House Race, Candidates Disagree on Speaker, by Jamie Lovegrove — While state Rep. Marsha Farney and challenger Terry Wilson share conservative views on abortion and immigration, they differ on whether to support House Speaker Joe Straus.

Execution Set for Man Involved in Death Row Escape, by Jolie McCullough — After 24 years on death row, a re-sentencing trial and an escape attempt, Gustavo Julian Garcia, 43, is scheduled for execution Tuesday night. 

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Pro-Cruz Super PAC Steps Up Efforts in Nevada, by Patrick Svitek — One of the main super PACs supporting Ted Cruz is stepping up its efforts in Nevada, launching a major TV ad buy and boosting its field operation with just over a week until the state's caucuses. 

Federal Lawsuit Claims Excessive Force by Austin Police, by Jordan Rudner — One week after an Austin police officer shot and killed an unarmed, black 17-year-old, two San Antonio tourists filed a federal excessive force lawsuit against several Austin Police Department officers. 

Benchmark Cruz, Trump Vitriol Hits New High, by Patrick Svitek — The feud between Ted Cruz and Donald Trump soared to new heights of animosity Monday as the billionaire and U.S. senator from Texas traded accusations of dishonesty and desperation. 

The Day Ahead

•    Today marks the beginning of early voting, which runs through Feb. 26, for the March 1 primary elections.

Elsewhere

At 85, Rep. Sam Johnson has rivals’ respect — but still has rivals, The Dallas Morning News 

Juárenses, profiteers ready for Pope Francis, El Paso Times

Speaker race mentioned at forum, Odessa American 

Pregnant woman among those tested for Zika as Bexar officials prepare for bigger battle, San Antonio Express-News

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George W. Bush comes to little brother’s aid in South Carolina, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Handful of migrants, refugees will greet Pope Francis as he walks along U.S.-Mexico border, The Dallas Morning News

Bush comes under fire in Rollover Pass dispute, Houston Chronicle

More Texas children got insurance in ACA's first year, Houston Chronicle

Conspiracy theories swirl around the death of Antonin Scalia, The Washington Post 

Scalia's death could affect outcomes of Texas cases, Houston Chronicle

Quote to Note

"There seems to be a lot of name-calling going on, but I want to remind you what our good dad told me one time. Labels are for soup cans."

— Former President George W. Bush, stumping for his younger brother, Jeb Bush, in South Carolina.

Today in TribTalk

Turning Texas blue is about more than just a Democratic governor, by Wayne Thorburn — While I hate giving advice to the opposition, if the Democrats are going to once again be dominant, reconstructing the grass roots of the party is essential.

Trib Events for the Calendar

•    A Conversation with Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. and Rep. Jose Manuel Lozano on Feb. 25 at Texas A&M University-Kingsville

•    Live Post-Primary TribCast on March 2 at the Austin Club

•    Protecting Houston Before the Next Big Storm on March 3 at San Jacinto College Maritime Technology and Training Center in La Porte.

•    A Conversation with Sid Miller, Texas Agriculture Commissioner on March 10 at the Austin Club

•    A Conversation with Sen. Carlos Uresti and Rep. Poncho Nevárez on April 13 at Sul Ross State University in Alpine

•    A Symposium on the Texas Economy on April 29 at the University of Houston