Election Day in Texas: Local 'Tea Party' primaries help drive heavy turnout in early voting 

Texans go to the polls today in state-level primaries. After spending more than $20 million between them, incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and his opponent U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison had no shortage of opportunities to get their message out on television, radio, and Internet. Now the voters get to pick.

The last third-party poll produced was a Rasmussen poll showing Perry at 48, Hutchison at 27, and Debra Medina at 16, with 9 percent undecided. Perry must get an absolute majority (50 percent plus one) to win outright. If he does not, the top two candidates move to an April 13 runoff. If the polls are correct, the main question on election night will be whether Perry needs a runoff to win, or Hutchison gets six more weeks to make her case to Texas voters. Texas polls close at 7 p.m. Central Time, except for El Paso whose polls close at 7 pm Mountain Time (8 pm Central).

During the final days of the campaign, both of the top candidates continued to hammer away at their core themes. Perry is trying to cast himself as the candidate of Texas, promoting the 10th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and bashing Washington DC. He continues to try to portray Hutchison as a DC insider. Hutchison is hammering away at ethics and cronyism as well as trying to remind Texas voters that she's been fighting the Democrats in Washington every step of the way.

Medina was hurt by her appearance on the Glenn Beck show last month, in which she expressed uncertainty as to whether the U.S. Government participated in the 9/11 attacks. Her supporters, whom she shares with Congressman Ron Paul, are extremely enthusiastic, and she will probably finish in double digits. This is amazing, given that her campaign budget is in six figures, compares with the eight-figure amounts spent by Perry and Hutchison.

One wildcard on election night is likely to be turnout. The Texas Secretary of State compiles early voting statistics for the state's 15 largest counties, showing how many Texans voted but not for whom they voted. Turnout in the GOP primary in those counties is triple that of 2006, and even exceeds turnout in the Presidential Primary from 2008. (The GOP nomination had been largely settled by then, whereas the Democratic nomination was still in play and getting saturation coverage from international media.)

Turnout is heavily weighted toward the Dallas-Fort Worth Metropolitan area. Dallas and Tarrant (Fort Worth) Counties are up, as a percentage of the urban county early vote, as is turnout in the suburban counties of Collin and Denton. In Collin County, turnout has skyrocketed, fueled both by the Rick vs. Kay primary as well as red-hot contested GOP primaries for County Judge (the chief administrative officer of a Texas County) and the County Commissioner's Court. 

By contrast, turnout in the Houston metropolitan area, while up in absolute terms, comprises a smaller share of metropolitan-area early vote than it did in 2006. Normally, this would favor Hutchison whose home base is in Dallas, but there's some question as to who these new voters are. Anecdotally, a lot of GOP activists are saying they are seeing people show up to the polls that don't usually vote in Republican primaries. In Tarrant County, there are some vigorous contested state legislative primaries pitting long-term incumbents against candidates preferred by the Tea Party movement. If lots of Tea Party activists vote, that may bode well for Medina or even Perry -- who has structured his campaign themes to appeal to Tea Party activists.

Bexar County (San Antonio) also reports a dramatic uptick in turnout, though what that means for the governor's race is less clear.

Will Lutz is Managing Editor of the Lone Star Report.

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