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What to watch for in Tuesday's Texas primaries

Last Updated Mar 6, 2018 3:51 PM EST

So the Texas primaries are on Tuesday?

They are. And, since these are the first big primaries of the 2018 season, they could give us a window into how the midterms are going to shake out nationally. These are runoff primaries -- that is, if no one wins a majority outright, the top two candidates proceed to a runoff on May 22.

Are there any big races?

Well, one of the biggest races to watch is the Democratic primary in Texas' 7th Congressional District. GOP Rep. John Culberson currently represents the district, which represents some Houston suburbs and is typically a Republican stronghold. But Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the district in 2016 even as Culberson was reelected, which means it's a natural Democratic pickup opportunity in 2018.

Do they have a good candidate?

This is where things get tricky. The two frontrunners for the Democratic nomination were local lawyers Alex Triantaphyllis and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher. Fletcher, in particular, had the backing of EMILY's List, the well-funded progressive group that tries to elected liberal Democratic women for office. Both, it would seem, have a decent chance of knocking off Culberson should they win the nomination.

Then the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) got involved and things went a little haywire.

How so?

Another candidate running for the seat is Laura Moser, a progressive activist. Her family has strong connections to the state even if Moser only moved back rather recently. But the DCCC decided she a terrible candidate, and has spent the last couple weeks trying to blow her out of the water.

Unfortunately for the DCCC, their plan may have backfired in rather spectacular fashion.

In a highly unusual move, the DCCC decided to release its opposition research file on Moser. A spokesman for the DCCC even went so far as to call her "a truly disqualified candidate that would eliminate our ability to flip a district blue." But while they may have their reasons to doubt Moser's ability to beat Culberson, by going hard against her they may have made her much harder to beat.

Why might Laura Moser be harder to beat now?

The Democrats have a lot of internal baggage heading into 2018, and a lot of it stems from the 2016 primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. After Clinton's surprise loss to President Trump, the party's left wing sensed an opportunity to challenge the party establishment and move the Democrats in a more progressive direction. And by bashing Moser, the DCCC seems to have inadvertently made her a symbol of progressive resistance to the party moderates. Last week, Moser got the backing of Our Revolution, an outside group dedicated to electing Sanders-like Democrats. 

So Moser has taken up the mantle of a progressive warrior who is taking on party bosses in the name of reform. And given that the people who vote in Democratic congressional primaries tend to have a more activist bent, it's a message that could carry her past Tuesday. Should the race head to a runoff, it will happen on May 22nd.

Then what happens?

As they head into 2018, Democrats are trying to downplay the divide in their party between progressive activists (i.e. Sanders supporters) and the more centrist establishment. Conventional wisdom holds that parties embroiled in civil wars tend to lose winnable elections, something that Republicans learned a few times during the Obama years. So if one of Moser's opponents falls short of winning a majority of the vote, and she finishes in second place, they'll head to a runoff, where insurgent candidates tend to do well.

In the process, Democrats worry they could lose their chance of winning Culberson's seat, which will make it just that much harder to capture the 24 seats they need to flip the House of Representatives.

So what's going on with the Republicans?

The big race to watch there is for Texas Land Commissioner, a powerful statewide office. The current incumbent is George P. Bush, the half-Hispanic son of Jeb Bush who has long been touted as a candidate for higher office.

Jerry Patterson, who had the job until he unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor four years ago. There are also a couple of minor candidates running, which could drive down Bush's share of the vote further. And if Bush gets less than 50 percent of the vote, he will also face a runoff, where – again – insurgent candidates tend to do well.

If Bush loses, it could potentially spell the end of the venerable Bush dynasty, which stretches back to Connecticut Sen. Prescott Bush, who was first elected in 1952. His son, George H.W. Bush, was elected president in 1988. His grandson, George W. Bush, was elected president in 2000. And Jeb Bush, of course, became Governor of Florida before running for president in 2016. Six of the last ten presidential elections, in fact, have had a Bush on the Republican ticket.

Why is George P. Bush in trouble?

There's no simple answer to that. The General Land Office (GLO), which he runs, was heavily criticized for its response to last summer's devastating Hurricane Harvey. And he made some ill-advised comments during his father's 2016 campaign for president, such as when he appeared to compare running for Land Commissioner to running for dogcatcher.

But one big issue is The Alamo, the scene of the most symbolic battle in Texas history. Bush has hopes to modernize the site, which holds a special place in the heart of Texans. Patterson, too, wanted to update the site, in part so it could house a trove of Alamo artifacts donated by Phil Collins, a British pop star and noted Texas history buff

But Bush's modernization plans didn't pass muster with a lot of Texans. In particular, Alamo enthusiasts have taken issue with plans in Bush's blueprint to build a series of glass walls approximating where the original site stood, and the moving of a marker containing the names of the Texian fighters who died defending the mission. Bush backtracked on some of these plans amid grassroots' resistance to the project, but it hasn't been enough to assuage the concerns of many critics, or stop Patterson from mounting what appears to be a serious challenge. 

Patterson, who is known as one of the more colorful figures in a state with famously colorful politics, also didn't like Bush's frequent digs at how he managed the agency. Mr. Trump has thrown his support behind Bush, but that might not be enough for him to avoid a runoff.

We'll know for certain on Tuesday whether Bush's future is in real jeopardy, on a primary that just happens to fall on the 182nd anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo.

How about other Republicans?

GOP Reps. Jeb Hensarling, Ted Poe, Joe Barton and Lamar Smith have all declined to run for reelection in 2018. And given that Texas has a lot of ambitious Republicans and only so many seats for them to run for, all the GOP primaries to replace them are filled to the brim with candidates.

Smith's 21st Congressional District, for example, has 18 Republicans currently running to replace him. Meanwhile, 11 are running to replace Barton, nine are running to replace Poe, and eight are running to replace Hensarling.

Given the number of candidates, there's a good chance all of these races head to a runoff.

What are the other races worth paying attention to?

Democrats hope to flip Texas' 23rd Congressional District, which has swung back-and-forth between the two parties in recent years. It's current representative is Rep. Will Hurd, a charismatic African-American Republican and CIA vet who the GOP sees as a rising star. Iraq vet Gina Ortiz Jones, former USDA official Judy Canales, and former assistant U.S. attorney Jay Hulings are all vying to take on Hurd in November.

Another Republican seat that's potentially up for grabs is Texas 32nd, which is represented by Rep. Pete Sessions. Clinton won the district, and Democrats including Lillian Solerno, a former USDA official who's backed by EMILY's List, and former NFL player turned lawyer Colin Allred and running for their party's nomination there.

Also, while it's not competitive, Rep. Beto O'Rourke is expected to become the Democratic senate nominee on Tuesday, and will face Sen. Ted Cruz in November. While it's hard to say whether O'Rourke has a chance, he has impressed political observers. And if 2018 turns into a giant year for Democrats, there's a chance the charismatic could pull off the upset and knock off one of the Senate's most stalwart conservatives. It's a race that's sure to get a lot of attention.