Analysis: A good day to be a Texas incumbent
Tuesday's primary election results were perfectly summarized by a Republican political consultant: "So much money, so little change."
Texas Elections 2018
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke in the race for U.S. Senate. View full 2018 Texas election results or subscribe to The Brief for the latest election news.More in this series
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Incumbents of almost every stripe did well in Tuesday’s primary elections for state office.
Only seven of them lost, and only two more were forced into runoffs.
A great line from Republican political consultant Wayne Hamilton nicely summed up this election: "So much money, so little change."
The fallen include:
- State Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, who has literally watched his district grow away from his home base and into the northern clutches of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and whose opponent, state Rep. Pat Fallon of Prosper, was endorsed by Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.
- State Rep. Wayne Faircloth of Galveston was one of three Republicans on Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s hit list — and the only one to fall on Tuesday. He was in trouble anyway, running against wealthy Chambers County candidate Mayes Middleton. They ended close to a draw in Faircloth’s home county, but Middleton won big in his.
- State Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas is one of two Hispanic Republicans in the Texas House and a regular target of arch-conservatives in his primary elections and of Democrats in his general elections. He lost the primary to Lisa Luby Ryan, who now has to best that significant second obstacle in November.
- State Rep. Diana Arévalo, D-San Antonio, fell victim to a time-worn electoral hazard: a predecessor who wants the seat back. She won office when former state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer gave it up for an unsuccessful state Senate bid. The key word there was “unsuccessful.” He saw his old perch as the best way back to Austin, and he won it by 115 votes out of 9,369 cast.
- Tomas Uresti’s first bid for re-election to the Texas House was undone, in part, by an unrelenting barrage of awful headlines featuring his last name. His brother, state Sen. Carlos Uresti, was convicted — right in the middle of early voting — on 11 federal felony charges including counts of money laundering and fraud. The trial was lurid, the headlines gruesome and the House Uresti’s loss on Tuesday probably preordained.
- Roberto Alonzo of Dallas, a 10-term state representative, was convincingly defeated by Jessica Gonzalez, a young attorney in this strongly Democratic district.
- State Rep. Dawnna Dukes of Austin received a meager 10.16 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary that served as a referendum on the incumbent. That’s not a good thing for a legislator who had become a fixture on the budget-writing House Appropriations Committee and had been re-elected every two years since 1995. She suffered medical setbacks after a traffic accident and was charged with violating ethics laws that embarrassed prosecutors later said were based on bad evidence. And she said, at one point, that she wouldn’t run this time, a move that prompted several candidates to jump into her race. She came back, but they didn’t leave. Two of them — Chito Vela and Sheryl Cole — will be in a May runoff. Dukes will be at home.
Two more state representatives, Democrat René Oliveira of Brownsville and Republican Scott Cosper of Killeen, were pushed into runoffs in May. Oliveira will face Alex Dominguez. Cosper’s remaining opponent is Brad Buckley. Runoff elections are not the preferred forum of incumbents, but they’re still alive.
Various factions declared victory after the votes were counted; that’s what factions do. But the results were evidence of good defense more than good offense. Most of the incumbents under fire in this year’s primaries survived to the next round. Scads of money were spent, including a fair amount against incumbents.
People targeted by education candidates — Patrick, state Sen. Joan Huffman and state Rep. Mike Lang, to name three — came out fine. Some of the biggest targets of conservative activists — state Reps. Sarah Davis, Lyle Larson, Charlie Geren, Dan Flynn, Hugh Shine, J.D. Sheffield, Giovanni Capriglione and several more — lived to tell their electoral war stories.
Sometimes money mattered. Sometimes it made no difference at all. Kathaleen Wall spent millions and missed the CD-2 runoff by 145 votes. Jim Hogan spent almost nothing but a filing fee and finished ahead of Trey Blocker, a lobbyist who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to beat Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. Miller finished first.
The marquee race — the one that got most of the attention up to this point, and probably the one that will be in the spotlight going forward — produced an unexpected result. Sema Hernandez and Edward Kimbrough combined to get 38.2 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate.
That’s the race dominated by the presence of U.S. Rep Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, who is trying to do for Texas Democrats what John Tower did for Texas Republicans all the way back in 1961 — and to avoid the fate of the party’s last would-be savior, Wendy Davis, who ran for governor in 2014. Tower, a Republican, rocked the political world by winning the special election to replace Lyndon Johnson in the U.S. Senate.
O’Rourke’s first foray into statewide politics was strongish — 60+ percent is a solid win. But it wasn’t a powerful showing, especially against unknown opponents. Davis got just 38.9 percent of the vote in the 2014 general election against Abbott. Republicans were quick to try to make a parallel narrative of O’Rourke’s first step.
That brings us to turnout. Democrats improved their turnout, from a terrible, awful number — only 560,033 people showed up for the party’s 2014 primary — to a lousy one this year: 1,036,942. That’s an 85.2 percent increase, but it’s not enough to scare anybody.
Republican turnout topped 1.5 million, up 13.5 percent from 1.35 million four years ago. They improved less, but they started bigger. And they’re still outrunning the other big party by a 3-to-2 margin in turnout.
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