McLennan County voters showed more support for Democratic candidates than they have in recent years, which may mean a new local approach for the 2020 presidential election, said Jon Ker, chairman of the McLennan County Republican Party.
The county shifted 4 percentage points toward the Democratic side in the U.S. Senate race. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, took almost 38 percent of the county’s vote in his challenge to incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, compared with 34 percent for Cruz’s last Democratic challenger. Statewide, the shift was even more pronounced than in McLennan County, according to an analysis by The Washington Post. Cruz’s statewide margin of victory fell from almost 16 percentage points in 2012, to less than 3 percentage points this year.
Early turnout was high in the county, and the early voting returns kicked Tuesday night off to a tense start, Ker said.
“With the voter turnout being so high, I expected early voting to be a much broader separation and I was quite surprised it was as close as it was,” Ker said.
Total local turnout reached 54 percent, with 75,742 of the 139,837 registered voters casting a ballot. Turnout in the 2016 presidential election reached 59 percent.
But most surprising was the narrow margin by which Republicans won certain races, Ker said.
“I think it will affect how we approach the election in 2020,” Ker said.
McLennan Community College history professor Ashley Cruseturner, a longtime political observer, said he saw Republicans doubting anyone could challenge Cruz in his re-election bid, and yard signs provided an interesting measure of how the race progressed. It was a “crazy, cool, fantastic yard sign war” across the county, Cruseturner said.
O’Rourke yard signs started flooding the area, and then “I felt like Cruz people suddenly woke up to the fact that this was a real race no one expected,” Cruseturner said.
“Almost every other race really did track the closeness, the slimness, of the Cruz-Beto race,” he said.
Ker said he admits he was surprised by how close the race between Cruz and O’Rourke was.
“I was a little anxious at a few points in time but glad in the end Cruz pulled it out,” he said.
It's possible straight-ticket votes played some role in local races lower on the ballot, but he knows plenty of people who voted on both sides of the ballot, Ker said.
Tuesday’s election will keep a Democrat in the Precinct 2 seat on the McLennan County Commissioners Court, a position that has been in Democratic hands for decades.
Ker said the result was a surprise to him, but that both Mart Republican D.L. Wilson and Waco Democrat Pat Chisolm-Miller fought hard for the position.
Chisolm-Miller won with 6,446 votes, or 58 percent, to Wilson’s 4,612, or 42 percent.
Chisolm-Miller has worked as outgoing Commissioner Lester Gibson’s administrative assistant for more than 22 years. Her term starts Jan. 1.
In a Facebook post, Wilson attributes his loss to straight-ticket Democratic votes for O’Rourke.
Of the 44,212 McLennan County residents who cast a straight-party ballot, 28,303 voted Republican, 15,716 voted Democrat and 193 voted Libertarian.
The Precinct 2 race was the most competitive local race, said Patrick Flavin, an associate political science professor at Baylor University. Even the footprint of Precinct 2, with urban East Waco and more rural areas in eastern McLennan County, made the race interesting, Flavin said.
“Wilson definitely made the argument during the campaign that the rest of the district was being neglected by the previous county commissioner,” he said. “Usually, you don’t see that sectional or regional divide during a county commissioner's race.”
McLennan County may have shown more blue than usual Tuesday, but not enough to change any big races, he said. But the midterm election results across the state may indicate Texas is slowly becoming more politically competitive, Flavin said.