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Analysis: What we know about the Texas midterm elections as early voting ends, and what we don’t

Today is the last day of early voting, and the outcome of the 2018 midterms won't be known until Tuesday. But it's already possible to answer a lot of the big questions about this election.

Long lines for the start of early voting snaked around the parking at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center near downtown Ho…

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On this second-to-last day of the 2018 election — early voting ends at twilight and all that’s left is Election Day next Tuesday — most of the people who will vote this year have already cast their ballots.

The outcomes are still unknown, but some of the questions are clear.

What do Texas voters think about Donald Trump?

The only way to answer this question is to know which flag those voters are flying. Texas Republicans remain persistently in the president’s corner. Texas Democrats are obstinately against him. The latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll took the measure of this: 88 percent of Texas Republican voters approve of the job Trump is doing, and 91 percent of Democrats disapprove.

It doesn’t stop there; that partisan attraction/repulsion streak is indelible in voters’ responses to questions about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and other Trump judicial picks, about immigration and border security, trade negotiations, the FBI and, of course, the president’s suitability to lead the country.

That oil and water reaction to the nation’s top Republican official provides a stark backdrop for these elections in Texas and nationally: 2018 is a referendum on Donald Trump.

Are there any new blue spots on the red Texas map?

Travis County — where the state Capitol is located — has long been the most prominent Democratic outpost in this very Republican state, but the old line about it sticking out of state political maps like a “blueberry in the tomato soup” is a little stale. There are other blueberries now. Dallas County is a big one. Harris County is well on its way. El Paso, and so on.

If you’re searching for blue waves this year, watch the state’s two largest counties — Harris and Dallas — where Republican congressional and legislative incumbents are in electoral danger in districts that, before this year, had long been considered safe. Dallas alone accounts for more than half of the hottest Texas House contests in this election; all but one of those races have Republicans playing defense against Democratic challengers. That’s also true of at least three Harris County races. Republican U.S. Reps. Pete Sessions of Dallas and John Culberson of Houston are trying to wriggle out of those same snares.

To answer the question: Yes, there are blue spots, but it’s still a big Texas-shaped bowl of tomato soup.

Did state issues stand a chance this year against national ones?

Not really. “All politics are local” seems to have been replaced for now by “all politics are national.”

The top race on the Texas ballot isn’t for state office — it’s for the U.S. Senate. So that’s one reason.

But midterm elections are often about the occupant of the White House, and that’s certainly true this year. The biggest political events of the year — most recently Kavanaugh’s confirmation, major shifts in immigration policy and hate- and politics-driven mass shootings and attempted bombings — have been national ones. Texas candidates have spent as much or more of their time responding to what’s coming out of Washington than to what’s on the slate in Texas.

Property taxes and public education and roads and storm recovery still move voters. But those aren’t the issues at the top of the political playlist right now.

Is immigration a reliable way to drive Texas conservatives to the polls?

It doesn’t hurt when the president chooses to close the election season with an issue that continues to top the list of “most important problems facing the state of Texas” among Republican voters: 61 percent of them put immigration and border security at the top — again — in the latest UT/TT Poll. Fifty-seven percent of Republican voters in Texas don’t think the Trump administration has gone far enough in enforcing federal immigration laws. And 81 percent of those voters believe “undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States should be deported immediately.”

Trump’s continued attention to the northbound caravan of asylum-seekers crossing Mexico, and his promise to send thousands of military troops to the Texas border in response peaked during early voting. As people argue until they are red- or blue-in-the-face over whether his timing was intentional, this is clear: His timing affects what people are thinking about when they vote.

What’s the deal with all that turnout?

Short answer: It’s big, and it’s not clear what that means. State officials say there are 15.6 million registered voters now. In recent midterm elections, between 33.6 and 38 percent of Texas voters have turned out; given the current number of registered voters, that would mean 5.2 million to 5.9 million voters.

Since we’re already out on a limb, add this: The early vote in the last two Texas midterms was between 53 percent and 55 percent of the total vote. If 55 percent of the total vote this cycle turned out before Election Day, that would mean between 2.9 million and 3.2 million Texans would vote early — based on normal overall turnout.

That’s the setup. Here’s the payoff: As of the end of business on Wednesday, 4 million Texans had already voted.

Read it as you’d like. Voter turnout might be higher than in a normal midterm, or early voting might have borrowed more votes from Election Day than normal.

We’ll know next Tuesday.

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