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Texas Primary Elections: What They Are and Why They Matter

Texas holds primary elections tomorrow. Here’s what you need to know about them, according to Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project and UT/Texas Tribune Poll.

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The eyes of the nation are on Texas and our primary elections, but why?

Texas’ primary is the first state primary of the 2018 midterm election season. Voters will select candidates competing to represent the political parties in the general election Nov. 6.

For nonpoliticos, trying understanding why that is important may raise some questions.

Who’s on the ballot? What could these elections mean for Texas? What could they mean for the nation?

To provide some answers ahead of the March 6 primary election day, we talked to Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at UT and co-director of the UT/Texas Tribune Poll on Texas politics.

Why are primary elections important?

Jim Henson: These elections offer the public a chance to participate in the selection of candidates who will represent their political parties. Prior to the widespread adoptions of primary elections, political parties’ methods of selecting candidates were frequently dominated by party elites with little direct input from voters.

View the latest data on Texas public opinion gathered in the UT/Texas Tribune Poll. 

What’s different about primaries in Texas versus other states?

JH: Texas is one of 15 states with what is often called an “open primary.” In Texas’ open primary system, voters don’t register with a party ahead of time, as is required in some states. Instead voters choose a party when they go to their polling place and request a ballot.

However, most voters interested enough to vote in a primary election can be expected to be loyal to one of the parties and have decided what primary they will be voting in long before they walk into their polling place.

So, does that mean voters can support candidates from different parties in different races?

JH: No. Voters cannot vote in different parties’ primaries in the same election. They have to wait for the general election to vote for candidates from any party.

“Texas is witnessing the most congressional retirements in the last 20 years, resulting in a large number of Republican and Democratic candidates vying to fill those seats, which we call “open seats” because there is no incumbent.” — Jim Henson

What positions are on the ballot?

JH: In Texas, all statewide elected offices in the executive branch will be on the ballot, as well as all seats in the Texas House of Representatives and 15 seats in the Texas Senate. All 36 Texas seats in the U.S. Congress will be up for election, as well as one of Texas’ two U.S. Senate seats (the one currently occupied by the state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, who is seeking his party’s nomination to run for re-election).

Why are midterm elections a big deal?

JH: Presidential elections are a big show, but midterm elections are just as important. Congress is a co-equal branch in the American political system, and state and local governments make many decisions that are critical to people’s everyday lives.

The entire U.S. House of Representatives and a third of the U.S. Senate are up for election in every midterm election, in addition to governorships (39 this year), state legislative seats and local government offices across the country.

What are the races to watch in the Republican Primary?

JH: It’s widely expected that statewide Republican elected officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, will recapture their party’s nominations, with races for agriculture commissioner and land commissioner less certain because, unlike the races at the top of GOP ticket, respective incumbents Sid Miller and George P. Bush are facing more than token opposition from other candidates.

What are the races to watch in the Democratic Primary?

JH: The most interesting race in the Democratic Primary is the nominating contest for governor, pitting nine candidates against each other. While former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez and Andrew White, son of late Texas Gov. Mark White, are considered the race’s two favorites, the only thing that seems certain is that the Democratic nominee will be decided in a runoff.

We’re watching this race to see how much interest the first seriously contested race in more than a decade generates among Democrats, and to see whether it signals progress for the Democrats in their efforts to become more competitive in Texas in the long run.

What else is interesting about these primary elections?

JH: Texas is witnessing the most congressional retirements in the last 20 years, resulting in a large number of Republican and Democratic candidates vying to fill those seats, which we call “open seats” because there is no incumbent. Who makes it out of their party primary is definitely worth watching when handicapping Texas’ place in the 2018 Election and beginning to make early judgments about the potential for more competitive races in the open seats in November.

“In recent years, conservative policy ideas are often developed or tested early in Texas. Texas also regularly produces political figures who play a role in national politics.” – Jim Henson

Why does the rest of the country care about what happens in the Texas primaries?

JH: People care about what happens in Texas for two major reasons.

First, because of its large population, Texas has a large delegation to the House of Representatives, which of course gives Texas a large voice in one of the chambers of the body that writes laws for the entire country.

Second, Texas has a large voice in the national political conversation, particularly though certainly not exclusively in the Republican Party. In recent years, conservative policy ideas are often developed or tested early in Texas. Texas also regularly produces political figures who play a role in national politics. Three presidents in the last century called Texas home (Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush). (Dwight Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas, but moved away as a very young child.) Several candidates with Texas ties sought the Republican nomination for the presidency in the last election, including former governor and current Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and current U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

You can find more information on how to vote here.


Jim Henson


Jim Henson directs the Texas Politics Project, a collection of enterprises designed to encourage informed interest and engagement in Texas politics and government. In that role, he founded and co-directs the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, the only open-access, public survey of public opinion in Texas. The data sets for those surveys are available in the polling section of the Texas Politics website.

He also writes about politics for The Texas Tribune and is a frequent resource for news media, researchers, and civic and interest groups on Texas politics and government. He also coordinates the Government Department’s internship program. He is the principal author of Texas Politics, a webtext that incorporates original media and polling data, that is used in introductory Texas government courses across the state.

He also serves as associate director of the College of Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services unit at UT, where he has helped produce several award-winning instructional media projects.

He’s on Twitter at @jamesrhenson.