Analysis: A Lousy Turnout for a Lackluster Texas Primary Runoff

If you’re the sort who rides your friends for shirking their civic duty by not voting, let up a bit. Tuesday’s was, by almost any measure, an election of limited statewide importance.

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The rumblings you did not hear on Tuesday were the sounds of change in Texas politics.

That’s a joke, sort of. If you’re the sort who rides your friends for shirking their civic duty by not voting, let up a bit. Tuesday’s was, by almost any measure, an election of limited statewide importance.

Very little has changed at the state level so far in this election year, which is a big reason that turnout was so low for the runoff. There's another reason participation was terrible in Tuesday's primary election runoffs: Most of the races were, frankly, boring.

The participants would surely differ. They were all running for important offices, and the differences between the contestants were — looking at you, Keven Ellis and Mary Lou Bruner — quite significant. Some of the regional and local races were regionally and locally important.

But this May runoff never stood a chance of drawing a big crowd.

Contrast it with the high-stakes presidential races, which attracted almost 4.3 million voters to the March primaries. That was a rare thing in national politics: Two Texas primaries that were held before the Republican and Democratic presidential nominees were settled in other states. Two-thirds of March’s voters attended the Republican affair, where they had 13 candidates to consider.

But the races in Tuesday’s runoffs just weren’t the stuff of legend.

Take this lightly, please, but did you know the state has a criminal court that is of more or less equal standing to the Texas Supreme Court? Two of the runoffs were for spots on that court

This May runoff never stood a chance of drawing a big crowd.

Both the Democrats and the Republicans had runoffs for spots on the Texas Railroad Commission, which primarily regulates the oil and gas business. That would be more important to Texas consumers and voters if that commission had more control over, say, gasoline prices. But it’s difficult to connect the commission’s regulatory actions to the everyday lives of voters, and that makes it hard to get those voters interested in who sits on that three-member panel.

The congressional delegation will get some new faces, but it’s because of retirements and not defeats. There is a swing seat race ahead in November, but none of Tuesday’s results point to big changes in Congress.

Four incumbent state legislators — four out of 181 — got beat in the March primaries. Three more were forced into runoffs, and last night Republican incumbents Doug Miller of New Braunfels and Wayne Smith of Baytown got their dismissal notices from voters. Rep. Ron Reynolds, D-Missouri City, advances to the November general election.

The Texas House ended 2015 with 99 Republican seats and 51 Democratic seats. State Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, D-San Antonio, resigned in January. State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, resigned on the first day of the year to become the mayor of Houston. Each is widely expected to be replaced by a Democrat, but those seats are technically open right now, so the official count as of this morning is 99 Republicans and 49 Democrats in the Texas House.

The Texas Senate has 20 Republicans and 11 Democrats, just like it did a year ago. The runoffs didn’t change that, and the two Republicans who are not seeking re-election are from districts where their party has a strong advantage in November.

Texas Republicans are used to better turnouts in the runoffs, but that’s a relatively new experience for them. In 2012, their ballot was topped by an expensive and noisy U.S. Senate runoff between Ted Cruz and then-Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst; more than 1.1 million people showed up. In 2014, hot runoffs for lieutenant governor, attorney general, agriculture and railroad commissioners drew more than 750,000 Republicans to the polls.

But the normal crowd size for both the Republicans and the Democrats in primary election runoffs is much lower — in the 200,000-300,000 range for each, give or take.

And that’s about what happened on Tuesday. Without a big draw at the top of the ballot, most Texas voters sat this one out.