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What to Watch in the Texas Primary

Tuesday's primary is the first of three elections that will select the state’s next set of officeholders.

By Ross Ramsey

If you're an election nerd, you’ll need to pace yourself: Tuesday's primary is the first of three elections that will select the state’s next set of officeholders. Expect an unusually top-heavy Republican primary runoff in May, and a November general election that will answer a perennial question in Texas politics: Are there enough Democrats out there to elect anyone to high office?

Full 2014 state and local elections coverage

To help you follow all of this, our Election Day scoreboard is ready (and empty, until the numbers start to come in Tuesday night), and our brackets offer a different look at the matchups and how the races will progress throughout the year.

Here’s a quick list of things to watch for Tuesday:

  • Start with the Democrats, notable this year because the Texas Democratic Party is campaigning openly against two of the candidates on its primary ballot. Kesha Rogers, who has called for the impeachment of President Obama, is running for U.S. Senate and led the pack in a University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll that came out of the field two weeks ago.

On the other end of the ballot, troubadour and comedian Kinky Friedman has the best-known name of the candidates for agriculture commissioner.

Democratic leaders are afraid either of them will be nominated Tuesday or in a runoff and will take the serious veneer off the 2014 ticket.

  • How scratch-resistant are the brand-name candidates? A few contests might be called petri dish races, because they offer a quick look at the condition of candidates or political names without the distractions of a lot of competition or advertising. The newest candidate from the state’s most famous political family — George P. Bush — will face David Watts, an underfunded candidate who has never run before, in the Republican primary. Watts is unknown to most Republican voters in the state. The Bush name is well known. This should provide a glimpse into the current popularity of the Bush brand in Texas.

The two leading candidates for governor each face opposition in the primary, but like Bush, they are better known than the competition. Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis will get a quick report card on the strength of any resistance among their base voters.

All three should win Tuesday; the question is how much their opponents cut out of the total.

  • Does John Cornyn break 60 percent in his bid for another nomination to the U.S. Senate? Conservatives in the GOP tried to recruit an opponent but fell short; the most prominent of the seven candidates other than the incumbent is U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Friendswood.
  • Who makes the runoffs? The Republican races for lieutenant governor, attorney general, comptroller, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner appear all but certain to go another round on May 27. The question for Tuesday is which two candidates from each of those crowded fields will progress.
  • Do the insurgents beat the establishment? The labels are fuzzy, but a number of races feature candidates who, loosely speaking, are part of the Republican establishment and others who want to break in and do things differently in Austin. Who will come out bragging?

Examples include House District 92, where Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, is being challenged by Andy Cargile; HD-6, where Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, faces Skip Ogle; HD-60, where Cullen Crisp is running against Rep. Jim Keffer of Eastland; and Senate District 16, where Donald Huffines is taking on Sen. John Carona of Dallas. In the first two races, last cycle’s insurgents are being challenged by establishment candidates; in the second two, chamber of commerce-type Republican incumbents face challenges from movement conservatives.

The rest of the ballot is sprinkled with contests like this; watch who crows after the elections are over.

  • Did endorsements mean anything? Republicans have nearly three dozen candidates running in the top seven races, and voters looking to sort through that might be relying on expert advice. But whose advice? U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz? The local newspaper? A trade group? An ideological one?
  • Who (if anyone) got a mandate? This is related to the endorsements and to the insurgent vs. establishment framework. The elections might reveal something about the mood of the Texas voters.
  • Who’s out of politics (for now)? With an extraordinary number of open seats at the top of the ballot, an extraordinary number of elected officials are risking their current perches to reach for higher ones. Inevitably, that means a lot of political careers are coming to at least a temporary end Tuesday, and after the May runoffs.
  • What’s it like outside? Election day forecasts for the state range from clear to icy. If this election fits the normal pattern, most voters voted before Tuesday, but the day still accounts for nearly half of the turnout. The weather has caused a delayed start and ending at the polls in parts of the state.
Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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