Ramsey: Abbott, O'Rourke offer preview of march toward November
Eight more months.
The candidates who survived Tuesday’s primary elections — and won’t face runoff elections in May — now start all over again, raising money, researching their opponents and trying to build up the organizations and support that will get them through the November general election.
The race at the top of the ticket was all but a foregone conclusion, with well-known and well-financed candidates on both the Republican side, in Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Democratic side, in Beto O’Rourke.
Abbott and O’Rourke have had their eyes on November from the start, attacking and critiquing each other and ignoring their primary opponents throughout this first round.
Both won their primaries easily, in the process previewing some of the themes other candidates in their parties will probably adopt for the general election: immigration/border security, the electric grid, gun laws, abortion, environmental regulations and a handful of cultural issues including how race and history should be taught in schools and the rights of transgender children and their parents.
Voters and the media aren’t the only Texans fixated on that. The outcome in that top contest could send a wave down the ballot. Even though Texas no longer has one-punch, straight-ticket voting that allows voters to select all of the candidates in one party at once, a hard-fought top race can draw voters who keep their party hats on as they go down the ballot.
Republicans have swept statewide races in Texas since the mid-1990s. But in years when the top contest was close, the rest of the statewide races tended to be close, too. A large margin at the top can provide an umbrella for the winning party’s down-ballot candidates; a small one can leave them exposed.
Candidates in runoff races start another sprint to May, when they’ll find out whether they are going to be their party’s nominees.
Some of those runoffs are going to be hard races. It’s never good news for an incumbent to get dragged into a second round; it means a majority of the voters in that incumbent’s own party voted for someone else. Attorney General Ken Paxton faces that problem: He and Land Commissioner George P. Bush are on their way to a runoff.
Tuesday’s winners won’t be back in public campaign mode, for the most part, until August or September. But they’ll be raising money in anticipation of that, traveling the state to get their organizations and supporters in place, and digging to find out whatever there is to know about the opposition.
In some ways, it’s easier to run in a general election. Voters can see one big difference between candidates right on the ballot, where each contestant’s political party is listed. In many races, even that doesn’t matter; the new political maps drawn after the 2020 census predetermine which party is likely to win in a general election. Republicans have the majority of the “safe” districts on the Texas maps, but many Democrats are also drawn into safe seats.
The result, for those candidates, is that they can coast through the rest of the election season. For others, the hardest part is still ahead. Some statewide candidates and contestants for a handful of seats in the state’s delegation to Congress, the Texas House and Senate will face expensive and competitive races next fall.
They’ll be joined in May by the winners of the runoff, settling into a summer and early autumn of fundraising and planning. That long break in the state’s overstretched election calendar reaches from the nation’s earliest primary to the general elections in November.
The issues will change with the news. The candidates will be exposed to political chatter and chicanery for a longer period than their counterparts in states where the primary and general elections are closer together. The voters might be in a brand-new frame of mind when the next elections roll around.
Eight more months. In politics, that’s a lifetime.
Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, where this column originally appeared.