Analysis: Early omens of a very conservative GOP primary

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick praise a judge's ruling against Obama's immigration program at a Capitol press conference on Feb. 18, 2015. (Photo by Bob Daemmrich via The Texas Tribune)

by Ross Ramsey | The Texas Tribune

With little competition to light up Republican primary voters, the races at the top of the 2018 ballot look like an unexciting rerun. If you’re the most conservative candidate in a down-ballot race, that might be reason to celebrate.

The entire slate of statewide officeholders, from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz down to Texas Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick, is seeking reelection.

That’s good news for people who like predictability, who are happy with the current management of the state and for those who — this is the most important piece — rely on the GOP’s most reliable voters, the ones who turn out no matter what.

Competition and the campaigning and news that comes with it draws a crowd. It’s apparent in the turnouts for primaries in presidential election years — lots of candidates, lots of noise — and in gubernatorial election years that have fewer candidates and — usually — less public attention and interest.

The current statewide slate of non-judicial incumbents whose terms are up — a group that doesn’t include U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a couple of Railroad commissioners — will all be on the ballot: Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Comptroller Glenn Hegar, Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Craddick.

Serious contenders still have time to get in, but not much. The primary elections will be on March 6 — six months from now. Fundraising efforts are well underway. Lots of big donors and activists are committed. Others are being wooed. Filing for the primary ballots doesn’t start until November, but this political cycle has been underway since the regular legislative session ended in May.

Low primary election turnout is generally good for full-throated liberals and conservatives.

In 2014, when Abbott was elected governor, fewer than 1.4 million people voted in the Republican primary. Put another way, 679,038 votes were all that were needed to win the nomination in a state that had 18.9 million residents of voting age. Abbott had three minor-league opponents —people who spent little and remained virtually unknown all the way to election day. He got 91.5 percent of the vote.

But revisit that year’s primary for lieutenant governor, which pitted three statewide officeholders — Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Railroad Commissioner Todd Staples — against Patrick, then a state senator. Patrick positioned himself as the most conservative of the bunch, leveraged his local celebrity in the state’s biggest city — he was a radio talk show host in Houston for years — to emerge in front in the first round and then to finish off Dewhurst, the incumbent, in a runoff.

The small conservative primary vote put him in place for a typical red-state victory over Democrat Leticia Van de Putte in that year’s general election.

That year, 2014, was an oddity: Only a couple of incumbents were running on the statewide ballot (not counting judges). Cornyn had a relatively easy time in a relatively low-visibility primary race. Abbott’s primary was a yawner. The rest of the winners — Paxton, Hegar, Miller and Ryan Sitton — were popular with those most conservative voters. The one possible exception was Bush, whose name scared most of the serious contenders out of his race. He won his primary with ease.

Skiing in the wake of those statewide candidates, several down-ballot results favored the most conservative contenders. Bob Hall of Edgewood beat conservative incumbent Bob Deuell, and Don Huffines of Dallas unseated John Carona, a moderate Republican. Paul Bettencourt of Houston and Konni Burton of Colleyville — two of the Senate’s most conservative members — won open seats that year.

Small turnout, conservative voters.

Several Republican senators could face similar headwinds in 2018. Kel Seliger of Amarillo beat Mike Canon by 5 percentage points in 2014; Canon is back for another bite, along with Victor Leal of Amarillo (whose campaign consultant is also the chief political advisor to Patrick). Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls is being challenged by state Rep. Pat Fallon of Frisco in a contest that will hinge as much on geography — Fallon’s end of the district has more Republican primary voters in it — as on ideology. Hall, who took advantage of 2014’s political breezes, faces a challenge from state Rep. Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale, once an employee of the senator Hall defeated.

Depending on the outcomes in March, those races could continue the Texas Senate’s steady rightward trend. For similar reasons, Republicans in the Texas House and in the state’s congressional delegation will be calibrating their strategies for a low-turnout, conservative electorate.

It starts at the top of the ballot, which offers little to attract Republican voters who only show up for noise and competition. That’s why it looks like a good year for candidates dependent on the GOP’s hardest-core voters, the ones who come out even when things are quiet.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.