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Texas’ Toxic Primary Problem Gets Worse

In Texas, 95% of districts will be determined by the small fraction of people who turnout in Tuesday's primary. It's the primary problem, and it won't stop in Texas.

Unite America
February 28, 2022

Texas’ primary voters will be heading to the polls on March 1st, and what they decide to do will effectively determine the outcome in 36 of 38 of the state’s congressional districts. Just a handful of voters will have the power to determine the winners in 95% of races, distorting representation and fueling partisan division — and it’s a problem we can expect to see across the country this year.

In Texas and nationally, a small and unrepresentative set of voters are determining most electoral outcomes. Only 7.8% of all eligible voters in Texas effectively elected 81% of the state’s representatives in Congress in 2020, according to the Unite America Institute. Nationally, it’s projected that primary voters could decide as much as 91% of the US House. 

What’s the problem?

The combination of partisan primaries along with gerrymandering has made it so the majority of voters don’t have any say in the November election in their district. As general election voters have less of a voice, elected officials are less accountable and more incentivized to pander to the base of their party — a group that’s far from representative of the rest of the district . This “Primary Problem” is on track to be worse this year in Texas and nationally. Only four states have set up different systems; Alaska being the latest to reform.

New coverage: 

With such outsized influence in outcomes, coverage of these races and understanding their impact is critical. That’s why, building on their initial report last year, Unite America has launched a new project tracking the Primary Problem in 2022 in real time, to highlight how partisan primaries disenfranchise voters, distort representation, and fuel political division. A new website will be launched soon to share results of Texas primary and the primaries following.

State solutions:

“Gerrymandering and the primary problem are caustic cousins that are dividing our country and driving our democracy into a ditch,” writes Unite America’s Executive Director NIck Troiano in today’s RealClearPolitics. Troiano points to four states that have addressed the Primary Problem: Alaska, California, Louisiana, and Washington.

TEXAS: 5 things to know before the state’s primary election tomorrow

  1. General who?  Only 2 of the 38 congressional races in Texas are currently rated as competitive by Cook Political Report, down from six in 2020 thanks in part to Texas’ new Congressional maps (graded an “F” by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project). This means the partisan primary will be the election of consequence for 95% of the state’s elections. 
  1. Houston, we (already) have a problem: In 2020, just 8% of Texas voters effectively elected 81% of the state’s congressional delegation. The problem will be even worse in 2022, as midterm turnout will be lower and there are fewer competitive seats.
  1. Primary punishment: Texas lawmakers are being “primaried” for putting country over party. 
  • Blue Dog Democrat and Problem Solvers Caucus member Rep. Henry Cuellar (D, TX-28) is being challenged by Jessica Cisneros, who is endorsed by Justice Democrats.
  • Rep. Van Taylor (R, TX -03) who voted for the January 6th commission has four challengers that believe President Trump won the last election. Rep. Anthony Gonzales (R, TX-23) also voted for the commission and one of his opponents was an insurrectionist at the capitol.
  1. Statehouse blues: There are hardly any choices for Texas voters at the state legislative level. Of the 300 state house seats up tomorrow, only 82 races have more than one candidate; of the 62 state senate primaries, only 14 have more than one candidate.
  1. Texans will foot the bill: Texas uses runoffs if no candidate receives 50% of the vote in the primary, which further distorts representation while costing taxpayers money.
  • Turnout has averaged just 4.4% in runoff elections since 2010 (BPC)
  • In 2020, 13 congressional elections were decided in runoffs. 
  • Runoffs are estimated to have cost the state $6M to administer in 2018 and $11M in 2020 (Third Way)

NATIONALLY: 5 things to know about the Primary Problem in 2022

  • Primary power: In 2020, just 10% of Americans effectively elected 83% of Congress. Only 17% of general elections were competitive, leaving just 23M Americans to cast decisive ballots in competitive primaries. 
  • Prognosis, poor: The Primary Problem will be worse in 2022, due to both gerrymandering and lower midterm turnout. Cook Political Report is currently projecting only 40/435 competitive U.S. House races — meaning 91% of elections will be decided in the primary this year: that’s 91% of representatives in Congress. 
  • Incumbent problems: At least 56% of incumbents have challengers filed to run against them, the highest number since 2014.

    A new peer reviewed article found that one-fourth of the rise in partisanship that occurred from the 1980s to the 2010s can be attributed to the increased threat of a primary challenger.

    Primary polarization:
    Former President Trump has endorsed 14 new  candidates running for U.S. House, including three candidates running against these Republican incumbents: Rep. Tom Rice (SC-7), Rep. Peter Meijer (MI-3), Rep. Liz Cheney (WY-AL)

    Justice Democrats have endorsed six new candidates  running for U.S. House, including three candidates running against these Democratic incumbents: Rep. Caroline Maloney (NY-12), Rep. Danny Davis (IL-7) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (TX-28)
  • A better way: Four states won’t have partisan primaries this year. Alaska’s “top four” nonpartisan primary will be used for the first time in the country’s history — with all candidates competing on an August ballot and the top four finishers advancing to a ranked choice voting general election. 

    View recent commentary by Rick Pildes (New York Times), Ned Foley (Washington Post), and George Will (Washington Post)

    does not have a primary. A November general election will be used, with a December runoff when no candidate earns 50% of the vote.

    California and Washington use a “top-two system,” for all state and federal elections. (Nebraska uses the system only for its unicameral state legislature.)