Texas primary a test for the parties' base


Since Republicans dominate most of Texas politics, and Democrats clearly dominate the few districts they do hold, the primary races often decide the final outcome, with the November election merely a rubber-stamp of what primary voters already decided. Yet primary voters are barely more than 2 million of the 13 million registered voters in Texas. Here are the five questions primary voters will answer Tuesday:

---- Will a late primary without a competitive presidential race mean a low turnout?

A fierce court battle over new political districts delayed the Texas primary from March 6, but that did not damper voter turnout as many feared. If early voting totals are an indication, about 1.4 million Republicans and 700,000 Democrats will cast their ballots, on par with the 2010 primaries which brought the tea party tsunami to Texas. The remaining question is how many will vote on the Tuesday after Memorial Day?

---- What kind of conservatives do Texas Republicans want; is the tea party label still strong here?

The race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison tops the ticket with a fierce battle among Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. All three have fought to claim the title of "proven conservative." Dewhurst has the name identification and cash, so the contest is to see if Cruz or Leppert can force a runoff in July.

Most of the Republican races follow a similar dynamic, with candidates competing to see who can be more right wing, particularly in legislative races. More than 20 percent of the Texas House membership, 31 lawmakers in total, retired or quit to run for higher office this year, offering the opportunity for the Legislature to become ever more conservative. In only a few races are moderate Republicans trying to drive out freshman tea party incumbents after the Legislature cut $4 billion in spending on public education last year.

---- Are Republican primary voters ready to elect more minorities?

Gov. Rick Perry and the state's top leaders also hope to keep and attract minorities to the party. Perry has campaigned on half of state Rep. James White, an African American tea party member. Attorney General Greg Abbott has campaigned for Rep. J.M. Lozano, the latest Hispanic Democrat to defect to the Republican Party. However candidates with Hispanic last names have not done well in the past in the Republican primary.

---- Will Hispanics play a larger role leading Democrats in Texas, and if not, will Hispanics stick with the minority party?

Democrats have not held a statewide office since 1998, but redistricting brought four new congressional districts to Texas, and two of them will almost certainly elect a Democrat. But Tuesday's election could have long-term consequences for the party.

Texas added congressional seats because of enormous population growth, nearly 80 percent of it from Hispanics. Federal judges designed two of the new districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth and San Antonio-Austin areas to give Hispanics a chance to select a candidate of their choice, but the perceived front-runners are not Hispanic. As Republicans try to recruit more Hispanics into their party, Democrats may find such outcomes hard to explain to one of their core voting groups.

---- What will be the competitive races in November and what will the Legislature look like in January?

The current political maps mean there is almost no chance for Republicans to hold another 102-48 supermajority in the Texas House next year. But there is a good chance there will be more polarity, if Republicans and Democrats send fewer moderates to Austin next year.

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