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Analysis: In Texas elections in 2020, national issues could trump local ones

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President Donald Trump campaigned at an October rally in Dallas. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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The week behind us and the week ahead could foreshadow the next year in Texas politics. In spite of election filings and news happening here, national events and federal politics dominated the conversation.

As dangerous as it is to predict the future, we are beginning an election year that will almost certainly be more about Washington, D.C., than home.

Donald Trump, impeachment, trade and the economy dominate political conversations. And much of the strategic talk about Texas elections is national. Is the state in play in the presidential race? Is it true that a half-dozen seats in the congressional delegation could flip to the Democrats from the Republicans? Are national groups really going to start the 2021 redistricting fights by fighting over which party is in the majority in the Texas House?

All politics are local, except when they’re national.

The Texas candidate lists were finalized, with a couple of exceptions, last Monday, presenting plenty to chew on even without the national spin on issues.

Like the Republicans four years earlier, Democrats running for president will come into the Texas primary election without a clear nominee already chosen. Instead of coasting through, those candidates will have to spend money and engage with voters here, potentially raising turnout and also sucking up attention that might go to candidates in races lower on the ballot.

In some cases, the sheer number of candidates will test voters’ patience. A dozen relatively unknown Democrats are vying to take on U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. Numbers like that virtually guarantee runoffs and make it easy for voters and donors to withhold their loyalties in the first round.

Some of the races right behind that one are also crowded. The numbers are crazy. In the six congressional seats where Republican incumbents aren’t seeking election, there are 24 Democratic candidates and 65 Republican candidates. That’s 89 candidates in six races, without counting third parties.

In four of those races, the number of GOP candidates is in the double digits, led by the 15 people who want the nomination for the spot left when U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, ends his term; the 13 Republicans who hope to replace U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land; and the 12 who want the seat held by U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan.

Thornberry’s seat is safely Republican; it would take a real mistake to open that spot for another party’s entrant. But at least three of the empty seats could go either way. In Olson’s 22nd Congressional District, five Democrats are running. In the 23rd Congressional District, where U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-Helotes, is the incumbent, nine Republicans and five Democrats are trying to get to the general election. U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell, is retiring, and five Republicans and seven Democrats are running to replace him.

Voters will be busy.

The issues, however, could be identical in each of those congressional districts, from the Panhandle to the Texas-Mexico border to south of Houston to Central Texas to the suburbs north of Dallas.

It’s a presidential election year. It will start, apparently, with a sitting president who is awaiting Senate action on the U.S. House’s articles of impeachment. On the other hand, that president and his party are bragging about a growing economy with low unemployment, an overhauled trade agreement with Mexico and Canada, and if it holds, a deal on tariffs with China.

To some extent, the political money in Texas will be chasing issues of national interest, like the makeup of the Texas House and how that body’s majority will have a strong say in congressional redistricting. A handful of seats here could have a large impact on the majority in Washington — just as it did when Republicans redrew the Texas maps in 2003.

The 2018 races at the top of the Texas ballot were closer than usual, raising questions about how strong Republicans are in a state they’ve effectively owned for decades. No Democratic presidential candidate has won here since Jimmy Carter, but Donald Trump visited seven times in 2019, checking the state’s pulse and providing Republican booster shots.

Local issues will be around, but in the background. This time, the eyes of Texas voters are going to be on national concerns and personalities.

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