Democrats in Texas are early voting in large numbers ahead of the first primary elections before the 2018 midterms, stoking party optimism that backlash to President Donald Trump won't escape the biggest conservative state in the country.
More Democrats have cast ballots than Republicans since early voting began this week in Texas, according to state election figures released Thursday, and turnout among Democrats is up 46 percent over the last midterm elections in 2014. For Republicans, meanwhile, turnout is basically flat.
Trump won Texas by 9 points in 2016 and so dominant are Republicans that they haven't lost a statewide race since 1994. Political strategists cautioned against reading too much into early turnout totals and said a relatively dull slate of GOP statewide primary races isn't energizing Republican voters like four years ago.
But the numbers still encouraged Democrats whose best hopes in Texas for 2018 are flipping a few congressional seats as Republicans defend their majorities in the House and Senate. GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is also up for re-election but is a heavy favorite to win another term.
"It definitely says there was a large number of Democrats who couldn't wait to get out and vote," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.
The Texas primary is March 6 and is the first in the country this year. Illinois also has an early primary on March 20 but other states won't begin voting until May.
Democratic enthusiasm is high entering the first midterms under Trump, and backlash to the president and his party has already spurred a series of upset victories in GOP-held districts across the country. One race Democrats think they have a shot at taking in Texas is U.S. Rep. John Culberson's district in Houston, which Republicans have held for decades but went for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The early voting figures in Texas only cover the 15 largest counties, but the two-day totals show higher Democratic turnout around both big liberal cities and in suburban counties dominated by Republicans. Around Houston, Democratic turnout in Harris County has more than doubled from 2014.
"Typically, Republicans fair better in gubernatorial years," GOP political consultant Derek Ryan said. "That may not be the case this go around if there is an energetic Democrat base in some of these districts."
Primary elections are usually low-turnout events in Texas and early voting is no predictor. Texas Democrats couldn't get their party's biggest stars to run for governor or top statewide offices this year after Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and the GOP ticket trounced Democrats by 20 points in 2014.