A blue wave may be rising in … Texas?

Signs mark a polling site in San Antonio, Texas

Signs mark a polling site on March 2, 2018, as early voting begins, in San Antonio, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Welcome to the 2018 election season! It starts today with congressional primaries in Texas, but hundreds of thousands of people have already voted early. And the turnout stats have triggered a full-scale Republican freakout.

If these were normal times, we wouldn’t bother to look at early-voting numbers in red Texas. It’s been a virtual one-party state since the mid-1990s, typically with anemic Democratic turnout. But even in Texas we’re now starting to see the makings of a national blue-wave backlash against the very stable genius.

As Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said last week, in a four-alarm email to GOP insiders, “I’ll be blunt. Democrat voter turnout is surging statewide. [It] should shock every conservative to their core … We had always hoped the liberal blue wave would never hit Texas.”

Granted, early voting means it’s still early. But seasoned Texas political operatives have never seen stats like this. The Texas secretary of state tracks early turnout in the 15 highest voting counties, and, after measuring apples to apples — early voting turnout for these midterm primaries, compared to early voting turnout for the 2014 midterm primaries — the office found that participation on the Republican side jumped 15 percent. A standard increase for the GOP.

Early voting on the Democratic side spiked 105 percent.

That’s why Republicans are freaked. They typically have twice as many voters during the early phase; this year, for the first time, they had fewer than the Democrats.

Under Texas rules, all voters can choose either party’s primary ballot; if they want to be Democrats for a day, they’re free to do so. In other words, the Democratic early-voting surge was fueled by Texans who wanted to go blue. And one Texas firm that works for Republicans, having crunched the numbers, discovered that one-fourth of the people who voted blue early had never voted before. In the words of Texas Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak, the “surprisingly high” early Democratic turnout “could prove an enthusiasm advantage.”

None of this means that Democrats will sweep the Texas congressional races in November (although two GOP incumbents, Pete Sessions in suburban Dallas and John Culberson in suburban Houston, are vulnerable). But it definitely means that, just as Republicans are feeling the heat in their swing-state bailiwicks (including southwest Pennsylvania, which has a special congressional election next Tuesday), they’re also under the gun in normally red enclaves. It’s no coincidence that the early-voting stats that have triggered Texas Republican panic come at a time when Gallup is pegging Trump’s popularity at 39 percent — in Texas.

As Ted Cruz, who’s up for re-election to the Senate, recently warned, grassroots Democrats would “crawl over broken glass in November to vote …. We could get obliterated at the polls.”

He probably said that in order to stoke donations to his ’18 campaign, but guess what: He needs to stoke donations, because lately his Democratic opponent, El Paso congressman Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, has kicked Cruz’s butt on the money front. It’s hard to imagine that Cruz would actually lose his seat in November (Texas hasn’t elected a Democratic senator since 1988), but it’s a true enthusiasm metric that during the last quarter of 2017 and the first six weeks of 2018, O’Rourke out-raised Cruz by nearly two to one ($4.7 million to $2.6 million).

Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University, framed the big picture for NPR: “Going into this year, there was an expectation following the Women’s March, in the wake of the elections in New Jersey and Virginia and all these special elections, that something similar was likely to happen in the first-in-the-nation Texas primary, and I think it has. It signals a Democratic electorate that is motivated to make a statement against Donald Trump.”

But fear not, GOP, because Trump is on the case. As dawn broke on another day in dystopia, he worked his thumbs and came up with this: “The new Fake News narrative is that there is CHAOS in the White House. Wrong! People will always come & go, and I want strong dialogue before making a final decision. I still have some people that I want to change (always seeking perfection). There is no Chaos, only great Energy!”

Yup, he’s always seeking perfection. Feel better now, Republican voters?

That should be enough to stoke your turnout and blunt the blue wave.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.