By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - After record-high early voter turnout, Democrats hope Texas' primary election on Tuesday will show that anger over U.S. President Donald Trump’s policies could help them flip congressional seats from Republican control in November.
Democrats need to gain 24 seats nationwide to retake the U.S. House of Representatives, a feat that would allow the party to block the Republican president's legislative agenda.
In the first U.S. primary of the 2018 midterm election season, Texas Democrats were fielding their largest contingent of congressional and legislative candidates in a primary in several decades, and were encouraged the strong early turnout was a sign of electoral success to come in the most populous Republican-held state.
Texas Democrats, however, have not won a statewide race for posts such as governor or U.S. senator in more than two decades, and analysts expect overall Republican turnout to top that of Democrats.
"Every two years the Democrats find some sort of factoid to fixate on and convince themselves that this is the year where they make Texas competitive - and every two years it falls flat," said Chris Wilson, a pollster for U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott, both Texas Republicans.
Democratic primary turnout in the state's largest 15 counties hit 465,245 in early voting, according to the Texas secretary of state.
That was double the party's early voting totals for the 2014 midterm election and surpassed the 420,329 people who voted early in this year's Republican nominating contest.
"On a national scale we have the power to change things, because it’s a deep red state and we can turn it blue or even purple," said Vincent Andreas, who voted in the Democratic primary on Tuesday in the border city of El Paso.
Trump has been divisive in Texas, where he receives about 83 percent approval among Republican respondents and 85 percent disapproval among Democrat respondents, according to polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
Some of the issues that helped Trump nationally, such as reworking trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), can be vulnerabilities in Texas, where the state’s economy is heavily dependent on trade with neighbor Mexico. His plans to crack down on immigrants have spurred political activism among Latinos, who make up about 40 percent of the state's population and tend to support Democrats.
"Donald Trump’s presence in the White House is motivating a subset of Democratic voters and independents to turn out to vote to express their opposition to his administration," said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Texas.
For the first time in more than 25 years, Democrats will be contesting each of Texas' 36 U.S. congressional districts, the party said.
Texas Democrats see the party's best opportunities in the six Republican-held districts where incumbents are not seeking re-election. They also are targeting at least two Republican incumbents whose support bases have weakened, in part due to shifting demographics.
Runoff elections are expected on May 22 in some of the most heavily contested districts where one candidate is unlikely to receive the majority required to win outright. In central Texas' 21st Congressional District, for example, 18 Republicans and four Democrats are vying for the seat vacated by Republican Representative Lamar Smith.
Cruz and Abbott, the top Republicans facing primaries on Tuesday, have used the Democratic surge in early voting in appeals to party faithful to go out to the polls.
The two incumbents are expected to easily win and then drive the party ticket in November. Abbott already has a war chest of about $43 million, more than the combined funds at this point of every Democratic candidate running in the state for governor, lieutenant governor and the U.S. Congress.
The best-funded Democratic candidate is Beto O'Rourke, a U.S. House member running for the U.S. Senate. Fluent in Spanish, O'Rourke has been drawing big crowds across the state as he calls for universal healthcare, new restrictions on gun ownership and immigration reform.
Cal Jillson, a political analyst at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said that although O'Rourke is a long shot to beat Cruz, Democrats are poised to narrow the electoral gap in Texas.
"If Democrats are able to pick up one or two U.S. House seats previously held by Republicans and cut into Republican margins in the state legislature ... that would show that the party's 'blue wave' is no mirage," he said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; additional reporting by Jim Forysth in San Antonio and Julio-César Chávez in El Paso; editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jonathan Oatis)