by ROSS RAMSEY
The elections that were supposed to come and go in March (the primary) and May (the runoff) — elections delayed by redistricting litigation and stretched out by new federal laws that add days to the stretch between the first and second rounds — are coming to an end on Tuesday.
More than six dozen candidates for state office who expected to be doing something else with the middle of their summer have almost reached the end of the primary marathon. Many are running in contests in which the general election won’t be competitive, either because the other major party doesn’t have a candidate or because their districts were designed to elect only one party’s nominees.
It has been a slog. The regular election cycle goes like this: Chatter starts on the political grapevines sometime in September or October with talk of who’s running and so on. After Thanksgiving, candidates file and call people who might help them with money or other support. There’s a holiday break in December, and the campaigns get going in earnest — in a sprint, really — in advance of early voting that starts in February and culminates with an early March primary.
Squint at that calendar and you can see how the business has to work: this much time to raise money, this much time to knock on doors, this much time you want your campaign on TV and so on.
That’s how everyone started the year. Redistricting took a funny bounce, though, eventually delaying the March elections until May 29, and the runoffs from May 22 to July 31.
Anyone who planned on the first calendar winced at the second. What began as a sprint became a distance race. A year with a 10-week primary, followed by an 11-week runoff and then five months to prepare for and run in a general election turned into something else — a five-month primary, a nine-week runoff and then only three months for the general election.
The delay gave oxygen to candidates like Ted Cruz and stole momentum from others, like David Dewhurst, who had a big advantage going into what was supposed to be a quick primary at the beginning of the year. That race — the Republican primary for U.S. Senate — became a toss-up worthy of national attention instead of a more provincial race between a sitting lieutenant governor and a pack of relative pipsqueaks.
That story repeats as you work through the other three-dozen races on the primary ballots. Everyone is exhausted. They’re out of money. The outcomes of the elections and the political fortunes of the candidates aren’t necessarily what everyone expected last November and December — back when the political players were ramping up for the elections.
Much is at stake, but you can’t tell that from looking at the voters. Turnout was better than expected and still disappointingly low in the first round, when 11.7 percent of those who are of voting age cast ballots. Runoffs ordinarily draw less than half as many voters as the elections they follow.
Most Texans aren’t engaged, either because they have more pressing things to do, or because they’ve tuned out of politics or because the campaigns and candidates aren’t talking about things that matter to them. Whatever the reason, the primary was a niche election of interest to only one voter in nine.
What might have been? In March, the Republican presidential nomination was still in play and the opinions of Texas Republicans would have been consequential in a national race. That’s not the case in general elections, and it’s not usually the case in primaries, which tend to settle before they reach us. But the 2008 Democratic contest made it to Texas and increased turnout in both primaries — voters do love a noisy competition — and the combined primary turnout that year was 23.9 percent.
Texas might have changed the outcome in the presidential race. The results in any number of state races might have been different. More people would have voted.
The campaigns and candidates are pooped, but they volunteered for this. Voters didn’t, and most have apparently moved on, handing their choices to the tiny part of the public that will vote no matter when you hold an election — even at the end of July.
ROSS RAMSEY is editor of The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.
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