MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
For months now, you've been hearing politicians and political observers talk about the 2018 midterm elections. Well, they are here. On Tuesday, Texas holds the first primaries leading up to Election Day in November, and Democrats are seeing encouraging early signs in that big, traditionally-red state. NPR political reporter Jessica Taylor is following congressional races, and she is with us now.
Jess, thanks so much for coming in.
JESSICA TAYLOR, BYLINE: Thank you.
MARTIN: So what is up for grabs in Texas this year?
TAYLOR: Well, there's a lot of places where Democrats could surprisingly make gains. So there are actually three congressional seats that are held by Republicans that Clinton won. And it's also a state where Democrats are looking to make gains in the state legislature. Now, in both those areas, they've had a surge of Democratic candidates running, which mirrors what we've seen across the country. For the first time in 25 years, Democrats are running candidates in all 36 congressional districts with 111 candidates on the ballot.
There's also a Senate race on the ballot. Ted Cruz is up for re-election, and Democratic Rep Beto O'Rourke is running against him. He's still an underdog, but he's shown a lot of surprising signs of sort of an insurgent campaign. He's drawing really big crowds in some traditionally-Republican areas and also outraised Ted Cruz as well.
MARTIN: So let me get this straight - that these districts considered so uncompetitive in past years that Democrats didn't even bother to field a candidate?
TAYLOR: Right. Exactly. And I mean, they're - and they are running candidates in some really, really red districts where they don't have a chance. But also, like, if you don't run, things could happen and things, too. So they actually have people that are interested in running, which is a big sign for them.
MARTIN: As we mentioned, primary day is Tuesday, but early voting has been going on for two weeks already. What do we see from that?
TAYLOR: So we analyzed the first eight days of early voting. And Political Report's David Wasserman found that the early vote had a 105 percent uptake over 2014, while on the Republican side, it was only a 14 percent increase. Like I said, we looked at the first eight days in 13 counties, which was the data available from the secretary of state's office. That includes 12 of the largest counties, and that actually makes up two-thirds of the state's population.
And no - and we went back, and we, you know, compared apples to apples of the 2016 and 2014 election all the way back to 2010, and Democrats have already - they've not only outpaced Republicans overall this cycle, but they've already surpassed their 2016 numbers - and that was a presidential election year when we see much higher turnout traditionally - and they've almost doubled their numbers from 2014, the last midterm elections. And most importantly, they're getting low-propensity voters to the polls...
MARTIN: And that means what?
TAYLOR: Oh, ones that don't typically vote in midterm election years. They may turn out for a presidential election, but, midterm, you have to have, sort of, an extra reason to go to the polls and stuff. There's one Texas Republican - a strategist that I talked to, Derek Ryan. He sort of analyzed some of this data, and he found that nearly a quarter of the Democratic vote in the early vote had registered just in the past two years, and first-time primary voters make up 22 percent of the early vote - that's way up from 14 percent four years ago - while on the Republican side, it's only 10 percent of first-time primary voters, a debt from 2014.
MARTIN: And, of course, Jess, you know I'm going to ask you, why? Why do people think this is?
TAYLOR: It's the Trump factor, and even Republicans I talked to sort of admit that this is what's driving it. It mirrors, well, you know, what we've seen across the country with the rallies and protests. And we've seen 39 state legislative seats flipped from Republican to Democratic hands since Trump was elected and, of course, big wins last November in New Jersey and Virginia. You know, and Democrats that I talked to there in the state who say that, you know, Texas is on the path to turning blue because of more Hispanic voters coming out in everything, too - I'd say they're cautiously optimistic. They know that this isn't, you know, going to be a blue wave in Texas by any means, but, you know, just the sheer participation that they're getting - it sort of reinvigorized (ph) their party.
The question is, can Democrats carry this through to November? One Republican strategist said to me, this is either an inconsequential or it's bad for Republicans. There's no good news out of these numbers.
MARTIN: That's NPR's Jessica Taylor. Jessica, thank you.
TAYLOR: Thank you.
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