Texas primary opens midterm election season: 3 things to watch

The tea party movement that pushed Sen. Ted Cruz to victory in 2012 is fading in opinion polls: Will it also fade at the ballot box in 2014? And will Hispanic voters turn a red state blue or, at least, purple?

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Senate minority whip John Cornyn (R) of Texas walks to a closed-door GOP meeting in the US Senate in this file photo. Rep. Steve Stockman is attempting to unseat him in the Republican primary Tuesday.

Tuesday is opening day for the 2014 midterm election season and Texas is at bat with the first primary in the nation. The race features some heavy hitters – filibuster icon Wendy Davis, the Democrat running for governor, and the No. 2 GOP Senate leader, John Cornyn, stumping for a third term.

The first votes of the primary season are being cast in a state known for its presidential clout (second most electoral votes in the country, not to mention the Bush family), its conservative politicians (tea party darlings Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry), and its rapidly growing Hispanic population that could turn a red state purple, if not blue – or so Democrats hope.

Here are three trends to track in Tuesday’s Texas primary: 

Tea leaves. Despite the strong performance of the tea party in the state’s recent past, it won’t be so easy to read the tea leaves this time around.

True, Senator Cornyn’s main GOP challenger is a tea partyer, Rep. Steve Stockman, who is giving up his seat in the House to take on the powerful Senate minority whip. Incumbent Rep. Pete Sessions (R) is also running against a tea party challenger, Katrina Pierson, a leader of the movement in Dallas. But both challengers are weak – lacking funds and with questionable histories involving arrests (drugs, in the case of Mr. Stockman, shoplifting in the case of Ms. Pierson; Stockman disputes the arrest, while Pierson says a friend talked her into that mistake). Major conservative groups aren’t even backing Stockman.

In Texas, where it takes a majority vote to win or else head to a runoff, both Cornyn and Sessions may well win their primaries outright. The thing to watch will  be their margins of victory.

The better test of tea party strength is further down the ballot. Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst might well head to a May 27 runoff to defend his job against state Sen. Dan Patrick, a conservative radio host. And the three-way attorney general race, where state Sen. Ken Paxton is running a Ted-Cruz-like campaign, will also likely end up as a runoff.

Meanwhile, polling shows the tea party weakening in Texas. A University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found 23 percent of voters would most likely support a tea party candidate in May 2010 – when the movement was piping hot. But last October, that figure dropped a bit to 19 percent. Support for the tea party also has cooled nationally, polls show.

The color purple. Is Texas turning from red to purple – and maybe even blue? Democrats hope that a growing Hispanic population (Latinos will be the majority by the 2020 election) can make this state competitive for them. For now, their great hope is state Senator Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, who hit national celebrity status last year for her 11-hour filibuster in the Texas Senate that temporarily blocked an abortion measure. She’s running unopposed in the primary, and in the general election faces a formidable opponent in GOP Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is also running unopposed Tuesday.

Battleground Texas, a Democratic group, has raised more than $3 million, recruited more than 10,000 volunteers, and made more than 370,000 phone calls and door knocks to grow the ranks of the Democratic Party in the Lone Star State, the Associated Press reports. The group's biggest push will be aimed at November, but Democratic turnout Tuesday is one way to track its effort so far.

Still, several factors may be working against the Democratic push: Some inconsistencies in the biography promoted by the Davis campaign, a lack of strong Democratic candidates in other campaigns, and the general uphill battle in a conservative state. Hispanic support is no sure thing. In Texas, only 46 percent of Hispanics identify with the Democratic Party, while a majority – 51 percent – identify with Democrats outside of Texas, according to a recent Gallup poll. Moreover, the poll finds that white Texans identify more strongly with Republicans (61 percent) than the average among whites in other states (48 percent).

Political dynasties. Keep your eye out for the next Bush – no matter Barbara Bush’s concern about political dynasties. George P. Bush, the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the nephew of former President George W. Bush, is running as a GOP candidate for Texas land commissioner. Now, that might sound like running for dog catcher in other parts of the country, but in big Texas, it’s a big job. He’s expected to easily beat his one opponent – and be on his way to statewide office.

America’s founding was meant to avoid dynasty, but the trend lives on in this year’s midterms: Debbie Dingell, the wife of 30-term Rep. John Dingell (D) of Michigan is running for her husband’s seat, which he is giving up this fall after 59 years (his father occupied that seat before him). Michelle Nunn, a Democrat, is running for her father Sam Nunn’s former job as a US senator from Georgia. And President Jimmy Carter’s grandson, Jason, is running for governor in Georgia. Family politics may not be what the founders had in mind, but it sure can help with name recognition – not to mention fundraising.

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