The primary problem with Texas elections

Low voter turnout in the critical Republican primary election means the state ends up electing extremely conservative statewide office holders who don’t represent the majority of Texans.

Feb. 14 is the start of early voting for Texas' March 1 primary. This is when Democrats and Republicans choose their party's candidates to run in the November general elections. If this year is anything like past primary elections, who actually makes it onto the final ballot will be determined by a very small portion of Texas voters. This could be the "primary" problem in Texas politics.

People often call Texas a very conservative, deep red state. But is that true? Opinion polling of the state's general population tells a different story. Most Texans back the expansion of Medicaid, want climate change addressed, and don't think abortion should be completely unavailable.

"If you see polling on the quality of schools or on access to health care, border control, guns, any series of issues, opinions are far more moderate than policy ends up being," said Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Jillson says there's a vast disconnect between what the majority of Texans want from their state government and what the state's leaders are doing. He says that's because elected officials take their directions from the people who vote for them.

In Texas, that's the voters in the Republican primary, said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics project.

"If you look at turnout in the last midterm Republican primary in 2018, you had fewer than 1.6 million voters. So that means when you’re talking about statewide elected officials, you’re talking about a candidate needing to get it in that election... 800,000 votes got you a win out of a state of now almost 30 million people," he said.

That gives a very small fraction of the state's population — about 3.5 % — an outsized influence on Texas. For proof, Henson says, look at last year.

"We saw very clearly in the 2021 legislative session in Texas, which is gone down in the books as one of the most conservative sessions in at least the modern history of the legislature. There was no expectation among most Republicans that they had to worry about their Democratic challenger in the general election," he said.

What Republicans do worry about is other Republicans during primary elections. Incumbents are constantly looking over their right shoulder for another Republican who could sneak up and claim they're the "real conservative" choice.

That's what's been happening with Gov. Greg Abbott, says Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute of Public Policy. Abbott faces seven challengers in the Republican gubernatorial primary.

"The governor — by shifting to the right on a host of different policy issues ranging from Second Amendment rights to abortion, to election fraud, to LGBTQ population, to transgender students — by moving to the right on all of those issues Gov. Abbott effectively blocked off any access on the right lane," Jones said.

He also notes the pool of typical Republican primary voters isn't reflective of what Texas looks like overall.

"What we know about the Republican primary electorate [is that] it’s about 70% white, 20% Latino, and then about 10% other. So we know that the Republican primary electorate is older, much wealthier. And on average, better educated," Jones explained.

So what to do about a political system where a small and extremely conservative portion of the population is basically picking the leaders for the rest of the state? In theory, it's supposed to be a self correcting system that's reliant on general election voters restoring balance when either party goes too far astray. But Henson says the problem is Texas Democrats.

"The weakness of the Democrats as a balancing factor in general elections has gone from being a temporary condition to almost a structural feature of the political system right now," he said.

This means if the Democrats don't start winning statewide offices, then Texas politics will shift even further to the right. Another solution is for more Republicans, the moderates in the party, to start showing up to vote in their primary.