By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - Hispanic voter turnout surged in the Texas primary election on Tuesday and two Latinas emerged as likely the first from the state to be elected to the U.S. Congress, offering Texas Democrats some hope of closing their wide gap with Republicans.
Republican voters still outnumbered Democratic voters, by roughly 1.5 million to 1 million, in the first U.S. primary of the 2018 midterm elections.
But Democrats showed gains in urban areas and with a rising Hispanic turnout, which political analysts attributed in part to dynamic Latina, or Hispanic women, candidates leading the resistance against Republican President Donald Trump.
The population of Texas is about 40 percent Hispanic, and it has the longest border with Mexico of any U.S. state. Trump has angered some voters with his insults of Mexican immigrants and hard line on immigration combined with his past statements about grabbing women or barging in on their dressing rooms.
"It's not just that the Hispanic intensity was up, but that intensity was heavily led by Latinas," said James Aldrete, head of Austin-based MAP Political Communication, which led former Democratic President Barack Obama's Hispanic media campaign.
Across the United States, Hispanics are expected to be a crucial constituency in the November general election, when control of the U.S. Congress will be at stake. Democrats need to gain 24 seats nationwide to retake the House of Representatives.
In Texas, Democrats nearly doubled their turnout in the top 15 counties in the state compared to the last midterm primary in 2014, outnumbering Republican voters by about one percentage point in those areas, according to Matt Barreto, co-founder of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions.
Based on early voting totals, Hispanic voter turnout soared compared to the 2014 primary, albeit from a low base, Aldrete said. Hispanic turnout historically lags behind that of the wider electorate, so any uptick is closely analyzed.
Hispanic voting in this Democratic primary versus 2014 was up 225 percent in Harris County, which includes Houston, and 122 percent in Dallas County, Aldrete estimated by applying the ratio of Hispanic voters in the state Democratic Party's database to official data released by the state.
Latinas may have led that surge. Hispanic women typically outpace Hispanic men by 2 to 3 percentage points in terms of registration or voter participation, said Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the nonpartisan Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a Latino voter mobilization group based in San Antonio.
Two Latina candidates are poised to make state history, easily winning Democratic primaries to seal nominations for House of Representatives seats that the party is expected to carry in the November vote.
In Houston, state Senator Sylvia Garcia won in the 29th congressional district, while former El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar won her primary in the 16th congressional district.
In the gubernatorial race, Lupe Valdez, the Latina former sheriff of Dallas County, led the field of nine candidates with 43 percent of the vote, advancing to the Democratic primary runoff against Andrew White, who won 27 percent.
Republicans called Democratic celebrating premature, however, noting the strength of the two men at the top of their ticket, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott, both of whom will be heavily favored to win re-election in November.
Though Hispanics lean Democratic nationally - by roughly 70 percent to 30 percent in the 2016 presidential election - Republicans are more competitive among Hispanics in Texas.
Cruz won 43 percent of the Hispanic vote in his 2012 election and Abbott won 44 percent in his 2014 election, and both will run intense Hispanic outreach campaigns this year, said Chris Wilson, a pollster for the politicians.
"Both Senator Cruz and Governor Abbott have said to me they expect to win the Hispanic vote," Wilson said. "That's not hyperbole. I will be so bold as to predict that one of the two will win the Hispanic vote, and the other one's going to come damn close."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in New York; Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, and Julio-César Chávez in El Paso, Texas Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Rosalba O'Brien)