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Ratings Update: Texas Primaries Narrow Democratic Fields

Some top recruits fail to make runoffs

Texas Democrat Colin Allred finished first in the 32nd District primary and will face Lillian Salerno in the May runoff for the chance to take on GOP incumbent Pete Sessions (Courtesy Colin Allred for Congress)
Texas Democrat Colin Allred finished first in the 32nd District primary and will face Lillian Salerno in the May runoff for the chance to take on GOP incumbent Pete Sessions (Courtesy Colin Allred for Congress)

After months of speculation, the 2018 midterm elections are officially underway with initial primaries in Texas.

There’s more evidence of a Democratic surge previously seen in Virginia and in special elections around the country, but also the reality that some of the swarm of Democratic candidates aren’t even going to make it to the general election.

While operatives on both sides of the aisle treat primaries like the plague, they can be a proving ground for candidates (particularly first-time ones) and an opportunity to ramp up their campaigns before moving on to more competitive general elections. Some of the Democrats’ most publicized and well-funded candidates fell short of making the runoff in Texas on Tuesday night.

The primaries are significant considering Democrats have multiple targeted races including the 7th, 23rd and 32nd districts. But the Democratic nominee won’t be known in each race until after the May 22 runoff. That doesn’t mean Democrats can’t win in November. Despite their competitive and expensive primaries, President Donald Trump will likely unify and energize the Democratic Party in each race before November.

Pairs of Democrats and Republicans are headed for runoffs in a handful of solid races in districts that aren’t at risk of a party takeover. And three candidates, Republican Van Taylor (3rd District) and Democrats Sylvia Garcia (29th District) and Veronica Escobar (16th District) won their primaries outright and are all but certain to be the first new members of the next Congress (and, in Garcia and Escobar’s case, the first Hispanic women elected from Texas).

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As expected, in the Senate contest, Republican incumbent Ted Cruz and Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke won their primaries and will face off in the general election. O’Rourke continues to raise money at a considerable clip, in spite of shunning PAC funds, but he still faces an uphill battle. We’re keeping our Solid Republican rating for now, but it could get more competitive in the months ahead.

Here’s a quick rundown of the primaries, and the general election ratings:

2nd District

State Rep. Kevin Roberts will face former Navy SEAL Dan Crenshaw in the GOP primary runoff for the open seat left by retiring Republican Rep. Ted Poe. GOP donor and activist Kathaleen Wall, who spent millions of dollars of her own money, finished third. The Harris County district stretches from the west to the north of Houston, and President Donald Trump carried it 52 percent to 43 percent in 2016. Democrat Todd Litton avoided a runoff by winning his primary outright, and party strategists believe that he has the profile to take advantage of an electoral wave. Rating: Solid Republican.

3rd District

As expected, state Sen. Van Taylor won the GOP nomination for retiring Republican Rep. Sam Johnson’s seat. Taylor lost a challenge to Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards in 2006 in the 17th District but represents 94 percent of the 3rd District in the state Legislature. A Marine veteran and real estate investment banker who has an MBA from Harvard, he calls himself one of the most conservative state senators in Austin. The Club for Growth endorsed Taylor, who supported Ted Cruz in the 2016 presidential primary, and he hasn’t ruled out becoming a member of the Freedom Caucus. He’s the prohibitive favorite in the general election in a seat Donald Trump carried with 55 percent. Rating: Solid Republican.

5th District

State Rep. Lance Gooden and Bunni Pounds, a former campaign manager to the seat’s retiring GOP Rep. Jeb Hensarling, advanced to the Republican runoff after finishing first and second in the primary for this open seat. Former state Rep. Kenneth Sheets, a lawyer and Marine veteran who was endorsed by Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, failed to finish in the top two. Trump carried the district, which sits southeast of Dallas, 63 percent to 34 percent over Hillary Clinton, so there is little chance of a Democratic takeover. Rating: Solid Republican.

Republican Bunni Pounds made the runoff in the race to succeed her former boss, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, in Texas’ 5th District. (Courtesy Bunni Pounds for Congress)
Republican Bunni Pounds made the runoff in the race to succeed her former boss, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, in Texas’ 5th District. (Courtesy Bunni Pounds for Congress)

6th District

Retired Navy pilot Jake Ellzey and Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright progressed to the GOP runoff to replace Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton. Wright worked with Barton for nine years, serving as chief of staff for the last two. Democrats are headed for a runoff as well, between journalist and consultant Jana Sanchez and 2016 nominee Ruby Woolridge. The GOP nominee will start the general election with an advantage in a district Trump carried 54 percent to 42 percent. Rating: Solid Republican.

7th District

Local nonprofit director Alex Triantaphyllis led the Democratic field in cash on hand at the end of 2017 with $634,000, but failed to make the runoff. Lizzie Pannill Fletcher ($437,000) received the most votes, followed by “The Resistance” activist Laura Moser ($329,000). The DCCC publicly opposed Moser in the weeks before the primary by making her opposition research public, but it may have given her a boost from anti-establishment sympathizers.

Democratic party operatives believed Moser would be a weak general election candidate, considering her recent move to the area from Washington, D.C., and her past comment about not wanting to live in her grandparents’ Texas hometown (not located in the 7th District). Some Democrats fear her nomination will jeopardize the party’s ability to win in a district that Clinton only carried by less than 2 points.

Fletcher has an endorsement from EMILY’s List and should be equipped to run a competitive primary, but if the district becomes a proxy war for the Bernie Sanders faction of the party, the race could become unpredictable. Democrats have never won Harris County in a nonpresidential year, and they are hopeful that this could be the year where the Houston-area county finally swings in their direction.

Some Republicans acknowledge that Culberson could be in trouble, given both the national environment and his campaign’s slower start. Rating: Tilts Republican.

16th District

Former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar won the Democratic primary over former El Paso School Board President Dori Fenenbock. The latter had previously donated to GOP candidates and looked like a credible threat with her fundraising and personal money. Given that Clinton carried the district, 68 percent to 27 percent, Escobar is a prohibitive favorite to join Sylvia Garcia (29th District) as the first Hispanic women elected to represent Texas in Congress, and the majority-Hispanic district will be represented by a Hispanic member for the first time since 2012. Rating: Solid Democratic.

Democrat Veronica Escobar easily won the primary in Texas’ 16th District to succeed Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who won the Democratic nomination for Senate. (Courtesy Veronica Escobar for Congress)
Democrat Veronica Escobar easily won the primary in Texas’ 16th District in the race to succeed Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who won the Democratic nomination for Senate. (Courtesy Veronica Escobar for Congress)

21st District

Former Ted Cruz chief of staff Chip Roy won the most votes Tuesday night, while 2014 and 2016 primary challenger Matt McCall took the second runoff slot over former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison aide William Negley. Former Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco struggled to reach 5 percent of the vote. GOP Rep. Lamar Smith is not seeking re-election. Democrats have been excited about Joseph Kopser, a veteran who founded a tech business, but he finished second behind minister Mary Wilson in the runoff. Trump carried the district 52 perent to 42 percent, but the demographics could cause the race to get more competitive. Rating: Solid Republican.

23rd District

Iraq War veteran and former USTR official Gina Ortiz Jones progressed to the Democratic primary runoff, but her opponent was unclear late Wednesday morning. Judy Canales and Rick Treviño were battling for second place while lawyer Jay Hulings, who received considerable national attention and raised the most money, appeared to have finished fourth. GOP Rep. Will Hurd won’t be easy to defeat, but the sprawling border district is primed for a Democratic takeover considering Clinton carried it 50-46 percent. This is the type of district Democrats need to win for a majority but a good example that it won’t be easy. Rating: Toss-up.

27th District

Bech Bruun, who stepped down from his position on the Texas Water Development Board to run for the open seat, and business owner Michael Cloud advanced to the GOP primary runoff. Trump carried the district 60 percent to 37 percent in 2016, and this seat is not a priority for Democrats now that GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold is not seeking re-election to this Corpus Christi district. Rating: Solid Republican.

29th District

Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia is the likely congresswoman-elect to replace Democratic Rep. Gene Green. Garcia avoided a primary runoff despite New York Sen. Chuck Schumer’s late endorsement of Tahir Javed, who spent considerable personal money, and she’ll avoid a competitive general election in a district that Clinton carried 71 percent to 25 percent. Rating: Solid Democratic.

31st District

Democrats have been cautiously optimistic about MJ Hegar, but it looks like being an Air Force veteran who received the Distinguished Flying Cross with Valor Device and wrote a memoir that might turn into a movie starring Angelina Jolie wasn’t enough to avoid a runoff against physician Christine Mann. Trump carried the district, which sits north of Austin, 54 percent to 41 percent, but GOP Rep. John Carter’s primary performance wasn’t anything to write home about. His challenger spent $33,000 through Feb. 14 and received more than 30 percent of the vote. Rating: Solid Republican.

32nd District

Colin Allred had not been considered a top Democratic contender to face a GOP incumbent in a district that Clinton narrowly carried. But he was the top vote-getter Tuesday night and will progress to the Democratic runoff against businesswoman Lillian Salerno. In one of the more surprising results of the night, Ed Meier, who seemed to be in the top tier of Democratic candidates as a former Clinton staffer, fell short of the runoff, finishing in fourth pace. The incumbent Sessions will be a tough opponent, but Clinton carried the seat by 2 points, and the district’s demographics could produce a backlash against Trump and Republicans. Rating: Likely Republican.

Leah Askarinam contributed to this report.Correction 3:27 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated the presidential candidate who carried Texas’ 32nd District in 2016. It was Hillary Clinton

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