Below are eight things to watch as results roll in on Election Day.
How does Beto O’Rourke perform versus his 2018 race?
O’Rourke nearly knocked off Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) four years ago. He pulled in 4 million votes and was a large reason turnout eclipsed 53 percent that year. He also spurred Democratic success in down-ballot races, especially in the suburbs.
He won 10 of the 15 counties with the most registered voters; each of the big five counties, including Tarrant, went for Beto along with metropolitan exurbs of Brazoria, Fort Bend, and Williamson Counties.
O’Rourke, running this year for governor, has neither the benefit of an unpopular president of the opposite party in the White House nor an exceedingly unpopular opponent. The Democrat has narrowly outraised Greg Abbott since February 20, but has been outspent 5 to3 by the incumbent. O’Rourke has tried to make inroads in rural areas, a typical GOP stronghold, but if Republicans regain their suburban control it will all be for naught — supplying little hope for O’Rourke to meet the standard he set in 2018.
Is 2022 turnout substantially lower than 2018’s?
Through the first week, the pace of early voting in Texas was on track for 36.5 percent in total turnout, and through the full two weeks, 534,000 fewer early ballots have been cast than four years ago — 1.3 million behind the pace of 2018 accounting for growth in the voter rolls. In 2018, the total turnout was 53 percent.
This year’s track is on par with each of the four midterms before 2018, making that year appear an anomaly — for now.
A more regular turnout likely bodes well for Republicans, as the only significant gains Democrats made in Texas races occurred in that 2018 “Beto wave” driven primarily by a dislike of then-President Donald Trump.
Through early voting, Texans are much less enthusiastic about going to the polls. Early voting has accounted for a large percentage of overall votes cast in midterms — 74 percent in 2018 — and so historical records indicate Election Day numbers will do little to change the overall picture of how many people turned out to vote.
Does the GOP pick up many of its South Texas targets?
The GOP has set its sights on South Texas, seeing an opportunity to build upon the Republican shift in 2020. Of the 20 counties in the country with the largest shifts toward the GOP, 11 are in South Texas.
Congressional Districts 15, 28, and 34 are the tree-toppers for Republicans, and each has received a substantial amount of national attention. The national party hopes those three are part of the likely GOP wave to retake Congress this year.
Elsewhere in South Texas, Republicans have focused on Senate District 27, the only competitive state senate race, along with House Districts 34 and 37. Last year, the GOP flipped a House seat without winning an election when state Rep. Ryan Guillen (R-Rio Grande City) switched parties, but now he must win re-election for the first time as a Republican.
Democrats have long controlled this area and most of these seats, but as tendencies shift, their grip on South Texas is looser than it’s ever been.
Can Democrats hold onto their 2018 suburban gains?
In 2018, Democrats flipped 12 seats in the Texas House and two in the Senate. During redistricting, Republicans shored up one of those Senate seats — leading to incumbent Sen. Beverly Powell (D-Burleson) foregoing re-election — along with two of those House seats. One of the remaining House seats, HD 115, is moderately competitive but favors Democrats; the rest were all made substantially bluer.
If Republicans win HDs 52 and 65, which they are expected to do, as well as pull off an upset in HD 115, they will have retaken one-third of the legislative seats they lost four years ago.
But even more than that, a key demographic to watch is the native Texan-versus-transplant dynamic. O’Rourke narrowly won native-born Texans in 2018, while Cruz pulled in 57 percent of the vote from those who had moved to the state according to rough exit poll numbers. Between geographical areas, O’Rourke pulled in 44 percent of suburban voters, which accounted for 46 percent of voters overall. It was the closest of the three segments, with O’Rourke winning urban centers handily and Cruz winning rural areas by even more.
Does the GOP run up the score again in rural Texas?
Even as Democrats have grabbed hold of urban centers and gained ground in suburban areas, Republicans’ trump card has been rural Texas.
A good illustration of this advantage is the 2020 race for Texas Railroad Commission, an obscure down-ballot statewide office. Republican Jim Wright beat Democrat Chrysta Castañeda by 10 percentage points two years ago, about doubling President Donald Trump’s margin of victory in the state. The raw margin for Wright was roughly 103,000 votes. Over half of that total came from counties with fewer than 30,000 registered voters.
Two years prior, Cruz pulled in 75 percent of the vote in under-30,000-person counties, the raw number of which accounted for three times his total margin of victory. More than any other factor, rural Texas — the GOP stronghold it is — is the reason for Democrats’ three-decade drought in statewide office and their inability to take a legislative chamber in 20 years.
How does O’Rourke perform in Harris County?
Not long ago, Harris County was a place where Republicans could compete, but after 2018, Democrats narrowly took hold of the county judge position and the court system. That same county judge seat is the subject of national attention this time around as Democrat Lina Hidalgo tries to stave off a well-funded challenge by Republican Alex del Moral Mealer.
Recent crime trends and lax bail policies have reinvigorated the GOP’s belief in taking back the county government and lots of resources are pouring in to boot. A recent poll in Harris County showed O’Rourke only up 2 percent on Abbott. Compare that to O’Rourke’s 16-point margin over Cruz in 2018; Abbott lost the county by 6 points that year.
Abbott has hit O’Rourke on public safety issues hard during the last month and a half, and Mealer has made it the feature of her challenge to Hidalgo.
If Harris County is closer than Abbott’s margin four years ago, which would be due more than anything else to the public safety issue, it would wipe out many of the gains O’Rourke may make elsewhere.
Can Democrats flip the two dead-heat metro races in the Texas House?
After redistricting, only two Texas House districts are rated even by The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index are HDs 70 and 118.
The first, in Collin County, pits Republican Jamee Jolly against Democrat Mihaela Plesa. In the other, incumbent John Lujan (R-San Antonio) faces Democrat Frank Ramirez.
Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) has pumped in loads of his own money to help put the two Republicans over the edge.
The GOP currently holds 83 seats in the 150-seat chamber with a handful of opportunities to flip some others. With these two toss-ups, losses would dampen the gains Republicans appear primed to make.
But if Democrats can flip the pair, it’ll lessen the blow they may shoulder in any losses of their 2018 pickups.
How big is the undervote on lower ballot statewide races?
This midterm will be the first in Texas without straight-ticket voting, which allowed voters to vote for every member of a party without having to select each candidate in each race — one click to cast a ballot for the entire ticket.
In 2018, 30,000 fewer people voted in the Texas gubernatorial election than the U.S. Senate race at the top of the ticket. That undervote number jumped to 70,000 in the lieutenant governor race and 140,000 for the railroad commission race, the lowest on the statewide totem pole other than the state supreme court positions.
Two years ago, in the first election without straight-ticket voting, the undervote for the U.S. Senate race compared with the presidential election was 200,000 votes — a substantially sharper drop-off from the top two ballot spots in 2018. The only other non-judicial statewide race that year was for the railroad commission, which had an undervote of 300,000.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.