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'Even A Small Uptick' In Turnout Makes A Difference In Texas, UTA Political Scientist Says


In just three and a half weeks, Texans will begin voting in the nation's first political primary of the year.

And the stakes will depend on what happens next. Just this week, we came out of a federal government shutdown. Now, there's a lawsuit in Dallas County to remove more than 120 Democratic candidates from the state's primary ballot.

KERA talked with political scientist Rebecca Deen at UT Arlington for our Friday Conversation.

Interview Highlights

On the Dallas County GOP lawsuit

Dallas County Republicans filed a lawsuit last week to remove 128 Democratic candidates from the March 6 primary ballot. 

The lawsuit alleges that Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Carol Donovan didn’t sign the petitions of the candidates before sending them to the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, which is required by law.

Dallas County Democrats call the lawsuit “completely baseless” and have filed a legal response of their own.

Deen says since the start of the century, there’s been a rise in “litigation as political strategy.”

“What it forces the person against whom you’ve brought this suit to do is to focus energy and time on it, when they’d much rather be worrying about who their voters are and raising campaign funds,” she said.

On the open seats in Congress

Eight congressmen won’t seek re-election this year. Five planned on retiring at the end of their terms. Two aren’t running again after scandals: Republican Reps. Joe Barton of Ennis and Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi. Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke is stepping down to run for Senate.

It’s rare for this many seats to be open in Texas.

“There’s a couple of things at play here,” Deen said. “For a couple of those representatives, the Republican internal processes on term-limiting for committee chair positions meant that they were going to have to give up their chair position of important committees.

“And I tell my students, ‘Congress operates like little fiefdoms,’ and so once you have that power of being chair, it’s hard to go back to not being chair.”

That loss of power along with the two separate sex scandals and the number of senior congressmen has created a “perfect storm” for open seats this election year.

On managing expectations in 2018

The conventional wisdom of politics and elections got turned on its head in 2016. As a political scientist, Reed says she focuses on voter turnout as she forecasts how 2018 will play out.

“Especially in a state like Texas, where turnout is traditionally low, even a small uptick can really make a difference,” she said.

She said turnout for Donald Trump when he was a presidential candidate was underestimated. But it could be the reverse this election cycle as some Republican frustration influences voting.

“That kind of dissatisfaction that is a function of that unusualness can actually behave in a pretty predictable way,” she said.

Rebecca Deen is a political scientist at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Former KERA staffer Krystina Martinez was an assistant producer. She produced local content for Morning Edition and She also produced The Friday Conversation, a weekly series of conversations with North Texas newsmakers. Krystina was also the backup newscaster for the Texas Standard.
Rick Holter was KERA's vice president of news. He oversaw news coverage on all of KERA's platforms – radio, digital and television. Under his leadership, KERA News earned more than 200 local, regional and national awards, including the station's first two national Edward R. Murrow Awards. He and the KERA News staff were also part of NPR's Ebola-coverage team that won a George Foster Peabody Award, broadcasting's highest honor.