Here’s what to watch for in Texas election

Texas Republicans are looking to capitalize on a favorable national environment Tuesday in a host of elections for offices from governor to chief executive of the country’s third-most-populous county.

While the GOP focuses on the border and economy under President Joe Biden, Democrats are hoping to prove polls and political forecasters wrong by tapping into anger over the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the Uvalde school shooting.

At the top of the ticket, Gov. Greg Abbott is running for a third term against Beto O’Rourke, who has emerged as the state’s undisputed Democratic leader since his near-miss loss to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz four years ago. O’Rourke has broken fundraising records against Abbott and given him the toughest challenge of his long political career, but polls show the governor is well positioned to win reelection.

Further down the ballot, Republicans are playing offense in South Texas, and they have been similarly determined to win back the office of Harris County judge, which serves as the leader of the state’s most populous county, home to Houston.

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The last midterm election in Texas was a blockbuster affair. Turnout soared to new heights against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s first midterm as president and O’Rourke’s star-making run against Cruz. But turnout for Tuesday’s election has been down compared to 2018, and the parties are more curious than usual about how many people — and who exactly — will show up on Election Day.

Here are five things we are watching Tuesday:

Can Republicans make good on their South Texas ambitions? 

Republicans have talked a big game about South Texas throughout the election cycle.

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Looking to capitalize on Biden’s underperformance across South Texas in 2020, the GOP is targeting three congressional seats in the predominantly Hispanic region. In the 15th District, Republican Monica De La Cruz faces Democrat Michelle Vallejo for an open seat. In the 28th District, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, is up against GOP challenger Cassy Garcia. And in the 34th District, U.S. Rep. Mayra Flores, R-Los Indios, is trying to hold on to the seat she won in a June special election. Her Democratic opponent is U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, who currently represents the 15th District but chose to seek reelection in the 34th due to redistricting.

The U.S. House districts are not the only battlegrounds in South Texas, though. A host of other down-ballot seats are in play, including an open state Senate seat in the Rio Grande Valley, plus a newly drawn open state House seat there.

Redistricting has helped the GOP in some cases, with Republicans making the 15th Congressional District redder for themselves. But in other places, like the 34th District, Democrats have been forced to play defense despite receiving more of an advantage in redistricting.

The congressional seats have taken up much of the national attention. Republicans believe they have a path to winning all three, which would be a seismic shift in South Texas politics.

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“I think there’s a real possibility that all three will elect Republicans,” Cruz said in an interview Friday before rallying with Garcia in the San Antonio area. “I think [Flores] is going to win reelection, I think Monica De La Cruz … [is] gonna win, and then Cassy Garcia, I think, is gonna surprise a lot of people in the media because I think she’s gonna win as well. And that is, it is a paradigm shift for the Republican Party and national politics.”

In a sign of the new competitiveness of South Texas, national surrogates are pouring into the region up through the final hours before the election. U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel held a rally Sunday with all three congressional contenders. And on Monday, former President Bill Clinton campaigned with Cuellar in Laredo and then Vallejo in Edinburg.

Is the polling right for Abbott?

Despite massive fundraising and high-stakes issues, the governor’s race has not been particularly close in most recent polling. Republican incumbent Abbott has consistently led Democratic foe O’Rourke by mid- to high single digits among likely voters. And one of the last polls of the race gave Abbott a wider 13-point advantage.

But even some Republicans doubt they are leading by that much. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick gave fresh hope to Democrats last week when he said in a radio interview that he and Abbott are “not way ahead.”

“It’s a relatively tight race, 5-7 points, [according to] the polls that I trust,” Patrick said. “I’m not 15 points ahead or anywhere close to that.”

Still, O’Rourke is on his third campaign in as many election cycles, and Texas Republicans would love to shut him out for good. Abbott has spent down his once-staggering war chest to close to empty, looking for a resounding victory.

O’Rourke has stressed polls were off in his 2018 U.S. Senate race — when he came closer to beating Cruz than many expected — and that he is mobilizing voters who are not fully represented in surveys. Yet his own campaign manager acknowledged in a podcast interview released the first week of early voting that they believe they are down by 4 to 5 points, albeit “moving in the right direction.”

O’Rourke got a last-minute assist from former President Barack Obama, who recorded a robocall for the candidate that went out Monday. In the call, Obama said O’Rourke will “restore common sense and decency” in Texas.

Beyond the overall outcome at the top of the ticket, there are plenty of questions the race will answer. Can Abbott meet his goal of winning the Hispanic vote, despite most polls showing O’Rourke leading with the group? Who will win Tarrant County, which was once the biggest red county in Texas but recently has been more Democratic-tilting?

Abbott is not the only Republican statewide official in a competitive race. Patrick faces Mike Collier, who has made more of a bid for cross-party support than any Democratic statewide candidate in recent memory. And Attorney General Ken Paxton is up against Democrat Rochelle Garza in a race that is yet another referendum on his long-running legal and ethical scandals.

Over the summer, some surveys suggested Paxton was in the closest contest among the statewide incumbents, though the latest polls have given him more breathing room.

Whose issues won out? 

During the 1992 presidential race, Democratic strategist James Carville coined the phrase “it’s the economy, stupid,” as a way to remind campaign workers to talk about the ongoing recession and blame it on Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush.

This year, Republicans employed the same tactic, making inflation a major point in the campaign and tying Texas Democrats to incumbent Biden, who they blame for the state of the country’s economy.

Republicans have used the economy and immigration as ways to tie Democrats to two of the toughest issues facing Biden and national Democrats. This year, immigration officials set a record for most migrant encounters at the border with more than 2 million — the first time that threshold has been hit.

For their part, Democrats had hoped to keep voters focused on kitchen-table issues like funding public schools and boosting the social safety net. Their candidates had talked about the bipartisan issue of fixing the state’s electricity grid, which failed last year and plunged millions of Texans into darkness in freezing cold, and fighting back against policies that threatened LGBTQ people and officials who cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 presidential elections.

Their biggest social issue came in response to the shooting of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde in May by an 18-year-old gunman, according to police, who used an assault-style rifle to carry out the shooting. Democrats called for red-flag laws, universal background checks and raising the minimum age to buy assault-style rifles to 21. But Abbott and many other Texas Republicans have indicated they’re not likely to move forward on any gun restriction policies. That aversion to any gun control has been a major subject of attack ads by candidates like O’Rourke and dark-money groups who oppose Abbott.

Democrats were also hoping to get a major boost off Democratic anger from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to do away with constitutional protections for abortion. In August, voters in deep red Kansas opted to keep the right to an abortion in their state constitution, and Texas Democrats hoped voters in the state would be similarly energized to turn out for the midterm election.

But polling did not show a massive jump for abortion access on the list of voter priorities, while inflation and immigration remained at the top of the list.

How many voters will turn out?

After two record-breaking election cycles in 2018 and 2020 with big races on the ballot, early-voting turnout has waned this year as Democrats face a tough election cycle and Republicans try to take back the U.S. House and Senate.

Through the two-week early-voting period, the 30 largest counties in the state had seen more than 5,459,552 votes cast, according to Derek Ryan, a Republican data analyst. That’s 534,588 fewer voters who had cast ballots by that time than in 2018, and that’s despite the number of registered voters in the state growing from 15.8 million to 17.7 million. Compared to 2018, when 38% of registered voters cast their ballots during early voting, only 31% of voters have done so this election cycle.

Voters with a previous Republican voting history made up 40% of the votes cast, and voters with previous Democrat voting history made up 29% of the vote. Those with no primary election history made up 30%.

The low share of Democratic voters casting ballots early was bad news for Democrats from O’Rourke to the statehouse candidates who were trying to urge their supporters to get to the polls. Friday saw an increase of 720,636 in the state’s 30 largest counties to close out early voting. But one thing to watch for will be how many people turn out to vote on Election Day.

“We’re seeing unusually low turnout compared to 2018 because that was a record year,” said Frank Ramirez, the Democratic challenger for a battleground state House seat in San Antonio. “Of course we can’t break records every time, but we’d like to be as close as possible to that, so I’m talking to people every single day on the phone, at their doors, at the supermarket, wherever we can, and we’re gathering those votes there.”

Abbott said in a radio interview Monday that turnout so far is “a little bit lower than what we forecast,” but it remains to be seen how many voters turn out Tuesday. Speaking with Lubbock host Chad Hasty, Abbott said his campaign had forecast that 10.5 million people would vote overall, though it may end up “closer to 10 and maybe under 10.”

Will Lina Hidalgo hang on in Harris County? 

One of the most-watched races in this year’s election isn’t a statewide competition. In Houston, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a rising star in the Democratic Party who is widely considered a future statewide candidate, is in a tough reelection battle against Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer.

Mealer, a West Point graduate and an ex-Army captain, has criticized Hidalgo, a first-time office holder, over the county’s high number of homicides and the criminal indictment of three of Hidalgo’s staffers. The high number of homicides mirrors trends seen in most major U.S. metropolitan areas during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the attack has resonated with voters and donors.

Between June 1 and Sept. 29, Mealer raised more than $4.9 million — more than any statewide Republican candidate except for Abbott.

“They’re spending money on the other side like it’s a race for governor,” Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said Friday.

Democrats are taking Mealer’s challenge seriously. On Friday, Vice President Kamala Harris participated in a virtual phone bank for Hidalgo, and first lady Jill Biden campaigned for her on Sunday.

Hidalgo has touted annual increases to public safety budgets in Harris County in an effort to counter Mealer’s narratives about her efforts on crime, and tried to paint the Republican as an election denier and a Trump acolyte.

Hidalgo, 31, flipped Harris County in 2018 during a wave election for Democrats in which she ousted longtime Republican County Judge Ed Emmett. A woman, a Latina and an immigrant, she’s had Democrats pinning their party’s hopes on her potential rise to statewide office.

But Mealer has taken her to task for her expansive view of county government. Hidalgo has spent county money on early childhood education and a legal defense fund for migrants and has made abortion rights a key part of her reelection campaign. Mealer says she’ll get county government back to basics, focusing on improving roads and public safety, but the former vice president in investment banking at Wells Fargo is also a political newcomer who has never held office before.

The race has been flooded with money and attention because if Hidalgo loses, it could be another victory notch on the GOP’s belt this Election Day.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.