AUSTIN — Early voting for the Texas primary runoffs begins Monday, and well-funded candidates will blitz the airwaves with ads and local politicians will be going door-to-door and working the phones to bring out the vote.
Getting supporters to the polls is critical in runoff elections, which tend to have poor turnout. A few dozen votes made the difference in many Texas House races in the 2008 runoffs, with fewer than 6,000 people casting ballots in most districts. Perhaps more than usual, every vote will count between now and election day on July 31.
The 2012 runoffs are unique in both their timing and scope, which makes predicting the turnout or a winner difficult.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz are in a fierce statewide race for the Republican nomination to replace U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, and former state Rep. Paul Sadler and retired teacher Grady Yarbrough are competing for the Democratic nomination. These high-profile races — and the millions of dollars in advertising spent by the Republicans — should boost turnout.
However, Texans are voting in July for the first time in decades, the result of a lengthy federal court battle over new political districts that delayed the primary from March 6 to May 29. The unusual timing of the runoff in the middle of the summer — when many people are on vacation or not thinking about politics — will likely drive down turnout.
High turnout could favor Dewhurst, who began the campaign with more money and name recognition. But the delayed primary gave Cruz a chance to catch up in both areas, leading to Dewhurst leading in the primary 44.6 percent to 34 percent, but not breaking the 50 percent mark needed to clinch the nomination.
Cruz had always said his goal was to force a runoff, where he felt his tea party base would give him the edge. Activist voters are more likely to vote in the runoffs and recent polls indicate the Senate race is neck-and-neck.
In the Democratic race, Sadler was forced into a runoff, despite Yarbrough failing to mount a statewide campaign. The results showed Yarbrough performing well in the Houston-Galveston region, the home of a famous but unrelated Democratic family named Yarborough. Sadler has yet to raise enough money to buy television ads and is relying on personal appearances to rally voters. Yarbrough recently failed to appear at a scheduled joint appearance in Austin.
This year's runoff also includes an unusual number of additional statewide races. There are two Republican races for the Texas Railroad Commission and incumbent Republican Supreme Court Judge David Medina faces challenger John Devine. Those races should bring more Republican voters to the polls.
While the statewide races will boost turnout, local politics could help those at the top of the ticket.
Republican runoffs for five congressional seats centered on Galveston, Austin, Brownsville, Liberty County and Hidalgo County will turn out voters in those districts. There are also 14 Republican legislative runoffs that will bring out voters in San Antonio, West Texas and Tarrant County.
Many of these races share the same dynamics as the Dewhurst-Cruz race, with young candidates who identify with the tea party running against conservative veterans. These races appear to ask voters to choose between ideological purity and experience up and down the ballot.
Democrats have runoffs for six congressional seats, three of which are almost assured of winning in November. In Dallas-Fort Worth state Rep. Marc Veasey is running against Domingo Garcia and in Brownsville Filemon Vela is up against Denise Saenz Blanchard for two new minority seats. In San Antonio, former U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez is running against state Rep. Pete Gallego for a chance to oust incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Quico Canseco.
Otherwise, Democrats have far fewer reasons to turnout across the state, with only four runoffs in the Texas House.
Some observers worried that the delayed primary would hurt turnout. However, voters showed up in numbers consistent with past years with similar races. But even if the mid-summer runoff doesn't diminish turnout, the basic dynamic that the candidate who turns out the vote wins in runoffs will remain the same. And with a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs, there will be no shortage of television and radio ads urging voters to the polls.