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Elections 2018

“Bathroom Bill” Fizzles as Republican Primary Issue

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

The “bathroom bill,” once touted as a surefire issue for the 2018 Republican primaries, is barely registering in them with less than a month until Election Day. 

Last year, state lawmakers waded into an intense, emotional debate over whether the state should restrict which bathrooms transgender Texans could use, a priority of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that ultimately factored into a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott. Amid months of all-night hearings and boisterous protests — culminating in the bill’s failure — Republicans on both sides of the issue were bracing for every candidate’s position on the “bathroom bill” to be a sort of litmus test in the 2018 primaries.   

Yet as of now, it is hard to find a GOP nominating contest for the Legislature where a candidate’s position on the issue has emerged as a major point of contention, a far cry from the tone set the last time lawmakers met under the pink dome. 

“Let them go home and face the voters for the next 90 days,” Patrick said on the last day of the special session, referring to lawmakers who had not been thoroughly supportive of the bathroom bill’s various forms. 

Patrick also recalled a recent conversation he’d had with House Speaker Joe Straus — the bathroom bill’s biggest obstacle — toward the end of the special session. “I said to the speaker, ‘Pass this bill. Put this issue in the rear-view mirror. It’s not going away. It’s going to be a campaign issue in primaries and the general election.'” 

There could be a few reasons for the issue’s low profile in the primaries so far.  

For starters, its biggest champion, Patrick, is no longer promoting it with remotely the same level of enthusiasm he did before and during the 2017 sessions. In October, he declared bathroom bill supporters had “already won” by sending a message to any school or business thinking about providing the kinds of accommodations that led to the push for the proposal in the first place.  

Furthermore, the two Republicans most closely associated with the legislation’s death — Straus and state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee — are not seeking re-election, avoiding primary challenges that could have been shaped by their opposition to the proposal. 

For some bathroom bill supporters, the Cook and Straus retirements are enough proof that the failure of the legislation had political consequences.   

“Let’s not forget Speaker Straus and Byron Cook were two big figures that are not coming back to the Texas House due in large part to their opposition to the privacy bill as well as other conservative reforms that are supported by Republican voters,” said Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values, a social conservative group. 

Cook and Straus provided other reasons for retiring, but had long been under pressure from their caucus’ most conservative members to advance their priorities. 

At the end of the day, it was Cook and Straus who shielded the other 93 Republicans in the House from taking politically perilous votes on the most high-profile versions of the legislation — votes that could come back to haunt members in their primaries. The only time the issue actually made it to the House floor — in the form of an amendment that Patrick later deemed inadequate — only one House Republican opposed it. 

That was state Rep. Sarah Davis of West University Place, whose primary challenger, Susanna Dokupil, appears less than eager to make an issue out of it. Asked twice about it in an interview that aired Sunday on Houston TV, Dokupil shifted attention to property taxes and school choice before acknowledging it. 

“The bathroom bill was also a bill that got a lot of attention, consumed a lot of energy, but you know, I don’t know if [it’s] going to be coming back or not,” Dokupil said. “What we do know is coming back is Gov. Abbott’s property tax reform proposal.” 

To be clear, bathroom politics is not entirely missing from some primaries. In the open-seat race for Senate District 8, there was recently a skirmish over the decision by the Texas Association of Business to endorse Angela Paxton, leading her opponent, Phillip Huffines, to link her with “radical leftists” who fought the bathroom bill. She later clarified that as a mother, she supports “efforts to ensure privacy and I will make sure our children’s safety will never be compromised.” 

Even in primaries with incumbents who openly opposed the bathroom bill, challengers appear to be prioritizing other issues. In most races, they would much rather attack the incumbent for being insufficiently committed to property tax reform or border security.  

Take for example state Rep. Ken King, R-Canadian, who had denounced the bathroom proposal as a “solution in search of a problem” and suggested Abbott made it part of the special session only to “prove he can be as far right as Dan Patrick.” The campaign of King’s primary opponent Jason Huddleston said it has bigger fish to fry.  

“Ken King is such a liberal Republican when it comes to border security, protecting the unborn and allowing government to grow that the bathroom bill is fourth or fifth on his most egregious stances with the Democrat Party,” said Luke Macias, a political consultant for Huddleston. 

King was among the 14 House Republicans during the regular session who did not sign on to House Bill 2899, the lower chamber’s version of the bathroom bill. Four are not running for re-election, either because they are retiring or seeking a higher office. Of the remaining 10, seven have drawn primary challengers — most of them credible threats but none of them staking their bids on the bathroom issue. 

In a small number of cases, primary challengers have sought to appeal to more moderate Republican voters by providing a contrast with incumbents who supported the bathroom bill. In her debut ad, Shannon McClendon, who’s running against state Sen. Donna Campbell of New Braunfels, said the incumbent “wants the government to intrude into our bedroom, our bathrooms and our boardrooms — I want to focus on our classrooms.” 

That’s about as far as it goes among Republicans who weren’t keen on the bathroom bill, though. Even the political arm of the TAB, among the legislation’s biggest opponents last year, has kept talk of the issue at a minimum as it has sought to play a more aggressive role in the primaries. It snubbed a number of bathroom bill supporters in its primary endorsements, but it also backed some who unapologetically voted for it, like Campbell.  

While Straus has not sought to make the bathroom bill a central issue in primaries, he has cited its defeat as a success for the business community — and a reason why the community should remain politically active. He’s made that argument in a slew of speeches to chambers of commerce since the special session and while announcing a House Select Committee on Economic Competitiveness in October. 

However, the timeline for that committee’s findings — originally due Dec. 12, the day after the candidate filing deadline for the primaries — has been extended indefinitely, leaving its political impact uncertain. 

Outside the Republican primaries, the bathroom bill is catnip for Democratic candidates looking to prove Texas’ GOP leaders are out of step with the priorities of average Texans. Lupe Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff running for governor, likes to refer to the bathroom bill as one of many “charades” Texas Republicans have manufactured while giving short shrift to more pressing issues.  

Disclosure:  The Texas Association of Business has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image: Lupe Valdez gives her victory speech after defeating Andrew White in the Democratic runoff for governor on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. / photo credit: Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson / The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

Patrick Svitek is the primary political correspondent for The Texas Tribune, and editor of The Blast, the Tribune's subscription-only daily newsletter for political insiders. Patrick logged countless miles on the 2016 campaign trail, covering the many Texas angles of the momentous presidential race. He previously worked for the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau. He graduated in 2014 from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. He originally is from Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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Elections 2018

In Texas, “Rainbow Wave” Outpaces the Blue One

Fourteen of 35 LGBTQ candidates won their races Tuesday night, and activists say the 2018 election will carve a path for a future “rainbow wave” in Texas.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

Fourteen of the 35 gay, bisexual and transgender candidates who ran for office in Texas during the midterms claimed victory Tuesday night — a 40 percent success rate in deep-red Texas — and national and state activists say they’re confident this election cycle carved a path for a future “rainbow wave” in Texas.

The historic number of Texas candidates who ran for offices from governor down to city council positions joined a record-shattering rank of more than 400 LGBTQ individuals on national midterm ballots this year.

“It shows that politics are changing and that more LGBTQ people feel comfortable to step out and run openly,” said Sean Meloy, political director at Victory Fund, a Washington D.C.-based LGBTQ group that fundraised for several Texas races.

LGBTQ candidates had plenty of fuel to inspire their campaigns and galvanize supporters, from Texas’ controversial “bathroom bill” to the Trump administration’s plans to eliminate “transgender” from legal terms.

Julie Johnson, a lesbian candidate from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, defeated Republican incumbent Matt Rinaldi of Irving; LGBTQ candidate Jessica González ran uncontested for a Dallas-area seat after defeating state Rep. Roberto Alonzo in the Democratic primary; and Erin Zwiener, a bisexual House candidate, won a Central Texas seat by defeating Republican Ken Strange. They will more than double the number of openly LGBTQ women in the Texas House of Representatives.

In Harris County, five LGBTQ judicial candidates defeated Republican incumbents Tuesday. Jason Cox, Jerry Simoneaux, Shannon Baldwin, James Kovach and Beau Miller will join the three openly gay judges in Houston. Charles Spain, a gay man, also won a seat on the 14th Court of Appeals over Republican incumbent Marc Brown.

“I think we are on a new path,” said Chuck Smith, CEO of Equality Texas, an Austin-based LGBTQ nonprofit. “[One] that demonstrates equality is a mainstream value and that extremists who seek to oppose equality are not in the mainstream.”

Perhaps the most recognizable LGBTQ candidate in Texas, Lupe Valdez, garnered national attention as the first openly gay candidate and first Latina to win a major party nomination in a Texas gubernatorial race. Valdez, a Democrat and former Dallas County sheriff, lost to Republican incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott by 13 points on Tuesday.

Valdez talked frequently about her race, gender, sexuality and socioeconomic background during the election.

“I’m Hispanic, female, lesbian, Democrat,” Valdez said in an interview with the Tribune in May. “Diversity is what made this country strong. Diversity is what will make Texas strong.”

In Texas’ 23rd Congressional District, Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones — a former Air Force intelligence officer, Iraq War veteran and lesbian candidate — fought incumbent U.S. Congressman Will Hurd to a virtual tie. Hurd remained less than a percentage point ahead of Ortiz Jones on Wednesday morning and the race is still too close to call.

Meloy, whose Victory Fund organization contributed nearly $9,000 to Ortiz Jones’ campaign and raised more than $53,000 on her behalf, said Ortiz Jones’ run represents a historic moment that gives hope to those fighting for equality.

“I think it represents not only her perseverance but that a queer woman of color who is also a veteran should not be underestimated,” Meloy said.

Below is the complete list of winning candidates (candidates with an asterisk won re-election).

  • Erin Zwiener, Texas House, District 45
  • Celia Israel, Texas House, District 50*
  • Mary González, Texas House District 75*
  • Jessica González, Texas House, District 104
  • Julie Johnson, Texas House, District 115
  • Charles Spain, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 4
  • Shannon Baldwin, Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law No. 4
  • Jerry Simoneaux, Harris County Probate Court-at-Law No. 1
  • Jason Cox, Harris County Probate Court-at-Law No. 3
  • James Kovach, Harris County Civil Court-at-Law No. 2
  • Rosie Gonzalez, Bexar County Court-at-Law No. 13
  • Tonya Parker, 116th Judicial District, Harris County*
  • Beau Miller, 190th Judicial District, Harris County
  • Sara Martinez, Dallas County Justice of the Peace, Precinct 5, Place 1*

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Elections 2018

Texas’ Largest Counties Have Doubled Voter Turnout So Far Compared to 2014

Soon, more Texans will have voted early in 2018 than in all of 2014’s early voting period, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

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Long lines for the start of early voting snaked around the parking at the Metropolitan Multi-Service Center near downtown Houston on Monday, Oct. 22, 2018. Photo credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune

*Correction appended.

Early Friday morning at a Fiesta Mart in Austin, voters dodged hurried grocery shoppers and their shopping carts and rushed to line up to vote in a tucked-away cove of the store. By mid-morning, the line to vote stretched past the nearby ice machine and into the butter and milk section several feet away. 

Susan Gredler, the early voting deputy at Fiesta Mart, said she has seen “huge” numbers of people – about 900 per day – at her polling place all week since early voting began on Monday. At times, she said the line has wound around the inside perimeter of the store and past the meat section in the back. 

“We’ve been really worried they’re waiting too long,” said Gredler. “But nobody’s really been discontented to the point that they want to leave.” 

The bustling scene at Fiesta Mart is a common one. Voters across the state have come out in massive numbers during the first five days of early voting, and soon, more Texans will have voted early in 2018 than in all of 2014’s early voting period, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. 

The state’s five largest counties have all nearly doubled the turnout compared to the same point in 2014. By the time the polls closed Thursday, 13.2 percent of registered voters in Harris County, the state’s largest county, had voted, compared to 6.4 percent at the same time in 2014. That number comes close to the 16.4 percent voter turnout seen at the end of the fourth day of early voting in 2016, a presidential year. 

The story is similar in Dallas County, which recorded a voter turnout of 16.9 percent at the end of Thursday, compared to 5.9 percent at the same point in 2014, and in Tarrant County, which recorded a voter turnout of 16 percent at the end of Thursday, compared to 7.3 percent at the same point in 2014. 

In Travis County, where the Austin Fiesta Mart polling location is, Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant reported on Facebook that as of 4 p.m. Friday, 22 percent of registered voters had cast their vote. The number hovered around 7 percent at the same point back in 2014. 

“After just five days of early voting, the 2018 voter turnout will likely have passed the entire Early Vote turnout for the 2010 and 2014 elections,” Elfant wrote. 

Some counties — like El Paso, Williamson and Cameron — have already surpassed the overall voter turnout during the entire two-week early voting period in 2014. Overall, by the time the polls closed on Thursday, 16.3 percent of the 12.3 million registered voters in the 30 counties with the most registered voters had cast ballots. 

“It’s pretty remarkable to double or triple voter turnout,” said Renée Cross, the senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. 

While she said the popular Senate race pitting U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz explains some of the increase in voter turnout, she said “it’s got to be more than the Senate race.” 

“It’s also national politics,” Cross said. “People on one side are driven to the polls because they want to vote against the party of Trump, and, on the other side, people are energized to vote because of the [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh nomination hearings.” 

Cross said it’s been a “very long time” since Texas voters from both political parties have been as energized as they are. 

Many early voters who lined up on the black-and-white checkerboard floor of the Fiesta Mart, near the constant beeping of checkout counters, said they were focused on both local races and national races. 

“We’re all voting in the Senate race,” said Robby Earle, a 26-year-old law student who was asked by election officials to zip up his burnt yellow hoodie to cover up his “Beto” t-shirt underneath. “But we’re also sending a message two years after 2016 that the current Congress is not getting a seal of approval.” 

Norris Ferguson, 68, a retiree proudly waving around her “I voted” sticker, said she is “fed up” with elected officials in Washington. 

“We can’t take it anymore,” Ferguson said. “We need to do something.” 

Ferguson, along with scores of early voters at the Fiesta Mart, said she had heard reports of massive voter turnout earlier in the week and wanted to avoid those long lines as well as lines on Nov. 6, Election Day. 

Mark Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said the long lines at polling places are “notable,” but he said that “almost any voter turnout should be above 2014.” 

Jones also said it is too early to draw conclusions about whether strong early voting turnout will mean strong overall turnout. Early voting could be “cannibalizing Election Day turnout, ” he said. 

“More and more people are voting early,” said Jones, who estimates that between 60 and 75 percent of registered voters will cast their vote before Election Day. “People have gotten used to it, and campaigns have been encouraging it.” 

He noted that a greater proportion of voters this year will be under the age of 35. 

“Beto O’Rourke has spent quite a bit of money and time targeting millennials and post-millennials with the correct belief that they support him more than any other age group,” Jones said. 

Cross said grassroots groups across the state have also been aggressively targeting young voters. In Travis County, 39 percent of registered voters this year are younger than 35, according to the county’s voter registration data. That’s up from 33 percent of registered voters in 2014. But high voter registration numbers do not always translate into high voter turnout, Cross said. 

Kelsey Scarborough, a 27-year-old who works in the tech industry, said Friday at the Fiesta Mart polling location that she had never voted in an early election before. She said her sister and her friend convinced her to vote. 

“I’m not actually really involved in politics,” Scarborough said. “But the people around you help you get to the polls.” 

Early voting runs until Nov. 2. 

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Renée Cross’ title. She is the senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs. 

Disclosure: The University of Houston and Rice University have been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Elections 2018

Lupe Valdez Becomes First Openly Gay & First Latina to Win a Major Party Nomination for Texas Governor

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[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-flag” type=”color-background” background=”#ffcc20″ color=”#000000″]This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

After a tight race throughout much of the evening Tuesday, Lupe Valdez pulled ahead late to comfortably defeat Andrew White in the Democratic runoff for governor, according to unofficial returns. 

Valdez goes into the November general election as the first openly lesbian and first Latina candidate to win a major party gubernatorial nomination in Texas. She told cheering supporters in Dallas that she’s not deterred by conventional wisdom that she faces long odds against Gov. Greg Abbott, a well-funded incumbent. 

“Please tell me when I didn’t have an uphill battle,” she said. 

Valdez, 70, also said she’s tired of politicians not looking out for everyday people. 

“Let me find a path for you,” she said. “Let me find a path for your health care. Let me find a path for your living wage.” 

It was a closer race than expected, with Valdez ahead of White by just over 5 percentage points as the final precincts were coming in. By 10 p.m., White had called Valdez and conceded the race. 

“Tonight was a tough, tough night, but I’ve enjoyed getting to know so many people around this state,” White told reporters at the Harris County Democratic Party headquarters in his hometown of Houston. “I wouldn’t trade this for the world.” 

White pledged his full support to Valdez and said he is “ready to help in any way I can to give Greg Abbott an early retirement party.” 

Valdez rode a strong showing in Dallas County, where she had served as sheriff, and neighboring Tarrant County. She also won big in populous border counties like El Paso, Hidalgo and Webb. 

White, the son of late Gov. Mark White, saw a big boost from his home county of Harris, but it wasn’t enough to overtake Valdez. 

Valdez’s supporters said her campaign style of focusing on kitchen table issues resonated with voters, even though White had more campaign cash throughout the year. They also said her professional career as a federal agent and previous political experience in Dallas County made a difference. 

“I’ve always been a fan of how she represented herself and held her own in the community,” said supporter Brandon Vance. 

The victory by Valdez is an important sign of change, another supporter said. 

“The country’s changing, we’ve just got to pull them out of the darkness,” said Paul Aguon of Carrollton, adding that he and his husband Mark Patterson supported Valdez for sheriff when she first ran in 2004 — back when Dallas County was a Republican stronghold. 

“I never projected she’d be governor,” Patterson said. 

To become governor she’ll have to topple Abbott, who boasts high approval ratings and a $41 million war chest. Abbott’s campaign wasted no time attacking Valdez, releasing a video Tuesday night that recapped some of her stumbles during the nominating contest. Among them: Her backtracking on whether she’d be open to raising taxes as governor.  

“Lupe Valdez’s inability to articulate a clear vision for Texas, coupled with her lack of leadership in Dallas County, proves that she is wrong for Texas,” Abbott spokesman Alejandro Treviño said in a statement. “As she continues in her struggle to give definitive answers on questions like whether or not she would raise taxes on Texans, Governor Abbott will be crisscrossing the state articulating his message of economic freedom and individual liberty.” 

Valdez said she’s confident that she’ll have an easier time raising money now that she has the nomination. 

“He may have all that money, but we’ve got the grassroots,” she said. “For sure, no one is going to buy this election.” 

Valdez finished ahead of White in the March primary, getting 43 percent of the vote to White’s 27 percent, as both emerged from a crowded field that included seven little-known candidates.  

The runoff period was highlighted by White’s weeks-long push for a debate with Valdez, which she ultimately agreed to earlier this month after a tumultuous stretch that saw her lose an endorsement to White from a group of young Hispanic activists. At the debate, they clashed over long-simmering issues in the race: Valdez’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities as sheriff, White’s personal opposition to abortion and whether Democrats should nominate a self-styled “moderate” in White. 

With the nomination in hand, Valdez will also be up against recent Texas history: The state’s voters have not elected a Democrat to statewide office in more than two decades.  

Aguon said he still believes Valdez has a shot at toppling Abbott. 

“I hope so,” he said with a sigh. “We held our breath for same-sex marriage and look what happened: We saw it in our lifetime.” 

Valdez painted the GOP-controlled state government as one that cares more about special interests than the needs of their constituents. She also said the Republican Party, which is heavily dominated by white men, is out of touch with the changing demographics of the second most populous state in the U.S. 

“There’s a change coming in Texas and a lot of people are ready for it,” she said. 

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

[gdlr_space height=”20px”]
[gdlr_notification icon=”fa-camera” type=”color-background” background=”#999999″ color=”#ffffff”]Top image: Lupe Valdez gives her victory speech after defeating Andrew White in the Democratic runoff for governor on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. / photo credit: Leslie Boorhem-Stephenson / The Texas Tribune[/gdlr_notification]

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