Win or lose, Beto O'Rourke will help Texas Democrats

First things first: The theme song of the week is ...

Posted: Aug 26, 2018 7:13 AM
Updated: Aug 26, 2018 7:13 AM

First things first: The theme song of the week is Jet Set by Mike Vickers from the television show "Jackpot."

Poll of the week: A new Marist College poll shows Republican Sen. Ted Cruz with a 49% to 45% advantage over Democrat Rep. Beto O'Rourke (TX-16) in the Texas Senate race.

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This is the latest poll that gives Cruz a small, but clear advantage in the contest. Cruz held a 6-point lead in the last Quinnipiac university poll, for example.

What's the point: Cruz is more likely than not going to win the Senate race in Texas. I've driven that point home many times, including in this column.

What I have not mentioned nearly enough, however, is how this contest is the first major Senate race to be competitive in Texas in a generation. Democrats haven't come within 10 points of winning either Texas seat since 1988.

Why does the closeness of the race matter if Cruz is probably going to win? It's all about driving turnout in the House races in the state, and it could help Democrats down-ballot.

If you look at the House map, there are arguably at least six Texas House races that are going to be competitive this fall. These include Texas 2nd, Texas 7th, Texas 21st, Texas 23rd, Texas 31st and Texas 32nd.

It's been shown in academic literature that states where there are competitive Senate races tend to have higher turnout in House races than states that don't (once you control for other factors).

Texas could use the turnout boost. With the exception of Hawaii, no other state had a lower turnout rate of its voter eligible population in 2016 than Texas. Just 52% of all eligible voters cast a ballot two years ago.

It's likely that this low turnout hurt Democrats in 2016. According to 2016 polling from Marist College, no other state polled in October or November had a greater difference between how all how registered voters and likely voters felt about then-President Barack Obama. This measure of partisanship showed that Obama's net approval rating (approval rating - disapproval rating) was 6 points lower among likely voters than registered voters.

Some of this difference is because registered voters in Texas are less white than those who actually end up casting a ballot. The share of the those who cast a ballot was 3 points more white than all registered voters in 2016, according to the government's Current Population Survey. That difference between registered voters and those who cast a ballot was tied for the highest in the nation.

In midterms, nonwhite voters tend to be an even smaller part of the electorate than in a presidential year election. A competitive Senate race could help draw some of those non-midterm and non-2016 voters out to the ballot box to vote in House races.

Now, most of these House races are not occurring in the state's most diverse districts. Still, even in the whiter districts in Texas, there are a lot of nonwhites. All the competitive House races listed above have citizen age voting populations that are at least 30% non-white. Texas 23rd's district is nearly 70% non-white. Democrats ability to beat Republican Rep. Will Hurd in said district could hinge on whether enough non-traditional voters come out to vote for Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones.

I should say there is the potential that higher turnout could, in theory, hurt Democratic House candidates. Democratic voters are very motivated this year in a way Republicans aren't. A competitive Senate race could draw out Republican voters who might otherwise have sat home.

That said, Texas Democrats face such a deficit in voter turnout that anything that increases overall turnout is more likely to help them than it would in other states.

O'Rourke's ability to create even the appearance of a competitive race could help push a House Democrat or two over the finish line, who might otherwise might have fallen a little short.

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