Texas This Week: Texas Primary preview with Ross Ramsey

In Texas This Week, Ashley Goudeau sits down with Ross Ramsey, the executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune, to discuss the upcoming Texas Primary election.

AUSTIN — From Congress to governor to statehouse seats, the Texas Primary ballots contain a long list of races.

We sat down with The Texas Tribune executive editor and co-founder Ross Ramsey to discuss the upcoming election.

Goudeau: "Ross, Tuesday is a very big day. The first primary election in the country. Do you feel like this really sets the tone for the rest of the country, or am I thinking too much of Texas?"

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Ramsey: "I think it could set the tone. You know, it's the first one, it's a little early in the year. So you don't know what the election environment is going to be in October, November, and that's really when we find out whether this president has a rough midterm like a lot of presidents have, or whether he slides right through it. Everybody around the country though is looking at Texas to see if there are any early signs of what's going on, what kind of a year is this going to be. You know, that scene in Jurassic Park where the water glass shakes on the dashboard, they're all kind of in that mode right now."

Goudeau: "The Democrats are hoping that they are going to be able to have a big win with this election. Just because of what we see when it comes to a president's first term and that first mid-term election, the turnover. Talk to me about what typically happens."

Ramsey: "Well, they're hopeful that the first reaction to the president will be a negative one. You know, Bill Clinton in 1994 got a Republican wave. It was a backlash against Bill Clinton. He got elected in '92, '94 was a backlash. For George Bush, 9/11 happened and the country rallied around the president and the administration and he did not have a bad first mid-term. But his second mid-term was not great. Barack Obama's first mid-term was the Tea Party election and the republicans swept a bunch of people in. So it's not an unusual thing, it doesn't happen every time and, you know, so many of the predictions about how things are going to go for Donald Trump have been off the mark that I'd be hesitant to speculate about it. But if he follows other presidencies, it wouldn't be unusual to have a bad mid-term and the democrats are kind of hopeful about it and some of the Republicans are nervous about it."

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Goudeau: "So let's talk about Texas. We've got a lot of big races in this primary. Obviously it's all subject to interpretation, but for you, what do you think hottest race for this primary?"

Ramsey: "It's a weird ballot this year, you know, there's a really great race at the top of the ballot but not until November. That's the race between Ted Cruz and Beto O'Rourke. I'm assuming both of them win their primaries; they're way ahead in the polling. The primaries involving the republican incumbents are mostly pretty quiet until you get to George P. Bush and Sid Miller. The Land Commissioner and the Ag Commissioner. And our polling in those races shows both of them well ahead but in some danger of being in a run-off. So one of the things I'll be watching Tuesday is if you get an incumbent into a runoff, that incumbent's in some kind of trouble. Doesn't mean it's over, but some kind of trouble. So I'll be watching that. There's some turnover coming in the State House and the members elected to the State House this time are going to elect a speaker in January so, down the road, that's going to be important."

Goudeau: "I want to take a step back and talk about the race George P. Bush is in. Jerry Patterson coming out of retirement to challenge the incumbent. How rare is that?"

Ramsey: "It's like World Wrestling Federation isn't it? It's like, you know, something the guy who used to be on the mat is coming back out. It's really unusual and it's hard to decide whether, you know, when you're just watching this race, whether Jerry Patterson is upset with the way George Bush made changes after Patterson was gone or whether he's really incensed about the way things are going at the land office the way George P. Bush has handled reorganizing and 're-imagining,' as he puts it, The Alamo, how the follow-up has come out of the Land Office after Hurricane Harvey. A bunch of issues like that. Patterson said he tried to recruit another candidate, couldn't find one. And he's made an interesting race out of something that shouldn't have been a race at all.

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"It's a little bit of a negative campaign. It's less about, 'Here's what I'm going to do' although he says I'm going to clean this up and more about ,'I don't like the way he has done it, we need to stop that and go back.' He said something at the beginning at his campaign that I think's interesting, if you're kind of a political junkie in Texas. He said, 'You know I'm a big fan of George H.W. Bush's when he was President. And then I worked with,' this is Jerry Patterson talking, 'and I worked with George W Bush in office and have a great deal of respect but the name George Bush doesn't work in a Republican Primary in Texas the way it used to.' And in some ways, this primary is a test of that."

Goudeau: "You know, it also brings in the question of infighting within the Texas GOP that we are seeing. Talk to us about, first and foremost, lay the ground work for why we're seeing that."

Ramsey: "You know it's always hard to be a big-tent party. It's always hard to be the majority. And, you know the sort of fundamental reason here is if you want to run for statewide office in Texas and you're a young person and you say which party should I be in, you want to be a Republican right now because that's who wins the elections. So that means a lot of the competition moves to inside the republican party instead of Republicans versus Democrats. When I was a young reporter, we used to say this was a two-party state; there's the Democratic party and the Democratic party. And now it's a two-party state, the Republicans versus the Republicans. And a lot of the really tough fights in this primary are inside the Republican primaries. You know when I talk about house races and some senate races in the Texas legislature, a lot of what you're talking about is this faction of the republican party versus this faction."

Goudeau: "And what is particularly interesting is that Governor Greg Abbott is aligning himself with one of those factions. Even to the point of running campaign ads against some incumbent members of the GOP."

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Ramsey: "Yeah, this is really unusual. You know, it's not completely out of line for a statewide official to you know reach over and put a thumb on the scale in a race, but they usually don't want to leave a thumb print when they do that, they don't want their name on it, but, you know, maybe I want this race to go this way or that race to go this way. In this case, Greg Abbott has singled out three members of the legislature: Sarah Davis of West University Place in Houston, Lyle Larson of San Antonio, and Wayne Faircloth of Galveston. And as you say, is buying ads against them. The ad against Sarah Davis features Abbott's 2014 Democratic opponent Wendy Davis, there's no relation between the two, but he sort of tries to make voters connect the two in their minds."

Goudeau: "It's sort of risky business to play that political game is it not?"

Ramsey: "Well it is, you know, because if the person you go after wins anyway, as it looks like at least one of these is going to do, maybe two of them, maybe three of them, they're coming back in January of next year and Greg Abbott will be back, he'll have an agenda he wants to get through the House and through the Senate and he's got three ruffled up House members to deal with first."

Goudeau: "One of the things that you just said was that Greg Abbott will be back in January. Does that mean you don't think either of the democrats that are vying for Governor have a chance?"

Ramsey: "I don't at this point, but they could. You know, you never say never in politics. That's what upsets are about. And, you know, I'm reminded that I said three years ago that there's no way Donald Trump's going to be president. Right? So take it with a grain of salt. But right now Greg Abbott is in a position where he's very popular in polling. He has more money than anyone in Texas politics, $43 million in the bank. Which, if he stopped raising money now, is enough to get him through maybe this election, maybe another election after that. He's got plenty of money and plenty of popularity. And the democrats haven't got a candidate yet who has produced the kind of money and the kind of program to make this a race. It's not to say they won't. They've got their own fight right now. There's nine democrats vying for the nomination to run against Greg Abbott. When we see who that is, probably after a May runoff, then we'll start to access a race between Greg Abbott and a challenger, but from this distance, he's the guy to beat."

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Goudeau: "When we look at Austin and the district here in our area, obviously the big race is the Dawnna Dukes, defending her seat against Sheryl Cole, Chito Vela and several other Democrats who want to run against her. What are your thoughts there?"

Ramsey: "You know, she's in trouble. Dawnna Dukes has been in that job for a long time. The pluses here are she's really well known in the district, a lot of people really like her, she's been pretty good at constituent services over the years, she's done a lot for a lot of people, she has her fan base. She's been through a bunch of legal difficulties and personal difficulties and attendance difficulties; not showing up at the legislature last session that put some, you know, kind of bruised the fruit here. And the question is whether the voters are looking at this and saying it's time for a change. They have two very strong candidates in a, you know, whole group of candidates. And part of the reason that there's a pile of challengers here is that Dawnna Dukes won her last election saying 'I'm not going to run again. Vote for me now and I'm out,' so a lot of people jumped into the race. She changed her mind, they didn't change their minds. We'll find out Tuesday how that comes out."

Goudeau: "I think another race that is particularly interesting is when we look at congressional, Lamar Smith's seat, 18 republicans running for his seat."

Ramsey: "It looks like the choir at church doesn't it? They have to have risers. If you have an hour-long debate with people like that everybody gets three or four minutes. It's crazy. And it's one of those races where really you're looking to see who the top two finishers will be because then you get it down to a May runoff. You could win a place in that runoff with 10 percent of the vote. It's a real roll of the dice."

Goudeau: "And the reality is, there's going to be a May runoff."

Ramsey: "There's going to be a May runoff. It's very, very difficult even in a four- or five- or six-person race to get 50 percent. In an 18-person race it's crazy hard."

Goudeau: "Well not only that race but when we look at the democrat for governor, likely Dawnna Dukes' seat, a lot of these races are potentially going to go to a runoff."

Ramsey: "Yeah, I think the May elections, the runoff election in May, are really going to be kind of active and pretty busy. And give us a second look at this. And back to your very first question, we were talking about what kind of year is this, what are we seeing with the first primary in the country, we'll get a reading or a sounding here in March, we'll get another one in 12 weeks in May. And that might give us a clearer idea of what we're headed into in November."

Goudeau: "The big thing that we want to encourage people to do, of course, is to go out and vote right?"

Ramsey: "Nobody votes. You know, this state has a terrible voter turnout problem. It looks like the turnout in the early voting has been okay and the democrats have had something of a surge, but we're still waiting to see. We'll know Tuesday if those were votes borrowed from Tuesday, people just voting early for convenience or whether there's new people voting. But turnout in Texas, particularly in primaries, is awful and you know a very few people get to choose all the people in charge."