By Justin Cox
Killeen Daily Herald
The toughest decision some voters face in Tuesday's primary election is not over competing candidates but rather competing parties.
In the primary election, voters must pick along party lines, which poses a particular problem for District 55 residents, many of whom have shed party affiliation to vote in either the high-profile, tightly contested local House race or take part in the polarizing Democratic presidential race.
Through early voting, 11,008 voters have cast a Democratic ballot, more than the last three Democratic primaries combined, and 7,816 have voted Republican in Bell County, nearly the party's total from 2006. In the past three elections, the early voting number accounts for a little more than one-third of the total vote. County and party officials expect these totals to double with the anticipated turnout on election day.
Many argue that the District 55 race could be adversely affected as traditional Republican voters are casting their ballots in the Democratic election, some for the first time. But only those who vote Republican on Tuesday can take part in the likely event of a runoff election for District 55.
The runoff would take place Tuesday, April 8 between the top two vote-getters in the field, which includes Harker Heights' Mike Pearce and three Temple candidates, Martha Tyroch, Ralph Sheffield and John Alaniz, unless one of them pulls in 50 percent of Tuesday's vote.
Democratic candidate Sam Murphey, who is unopposed March 4, will take on whichever Republican emerges as the party's nominee. Murphey is understandably excited to see the energy sweeping in to his party in Bell County. Murphey said he believes the latest total is more representative of the county's politics than recent elections have shown because Democrats have better options this time around.
"I think the presidential race is pulling people away from the District 55 (race)," Murphey said. "I think it could make a difference. People who may not have liked the options historically presented to them in the Democratic race, and some have tended to go to the Republican primary and been labeled as Republicans. It's a history making election. People are excited about it."
Some political strategists believe that the core Republicans will still represent well, but the voters they stand to lose are those who lean more moderate. If that's the case, Murphey said Pearce is in a position to lose fewer potential voters since he's seen as further right than the other three candidates. He said the Democratic presidential race may not dramatically affect the District 55 turnout, but it's going to be a close election, and "it could change the arithmetic."
"My Republican associates ? they prefer Pearce," Murphey said. "Most people I've talked to are convinced there is going to be a runoff, but it may not be the two people they are expecting, which is Sheffield and Tyroch."
Austin political strategist Kelly Fero has been monitoring the District 55 race closely, along with several other hotly contested House races across the state. He said that big-time presidential elections have an adverse effect on the opposing primaries; that's just the way it is.
"It's a dilemma and one that local races face, and that is that the possibility that their voters are going to disappear on them," Fero said Friday. "That's what happens in these hot presidential primaries. I believe there is going to be lower turnout because of so many voters going to the Democratic side."
He said several districts who have traditional Republican roots are dealing with it.
"We're seeing this sort of thing all over the state," Fero said. "There's not a lot of oxygen on the Republican side of the ballot right now. They will lose moderates and independents."
Fero held off from predicting a winner or even the potential runoff pair, but did note advantages two candidates could use.
"One thing that bodes well for Tyroch in the case is that the primary electorate is skewing female," he said. "In most areas around the state (comparable to District 55), the turnout is 56 percent female. In general, the electorate has a female majority. If she wins, it will be the female vote that wins it."
But if any of the District 55 candidates is hoping for a boost by picking up some of the African-American voters in Temple, Fero doubts that many will choose a local race over the historical potential of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.
"Voters like to have two bites of the apple," he said. "But voting patterns do not change much from one election to another. My guess is that the top two vote-getters are going to move on with a low total of votes."
That makes those candidates in the District 55 voter pool smaller, he said, which likely gives more weight to traditional Republicans.
Mike Pearce, who is attempting to pull in that vote, said he is disturbed by some of the decisions of his Republican colleagues, many of whom, he said, voted for the wrong reasons this year.
"The Republican crossover rate is enormous," Pearce said. "A lot of people I'm talking to are telling me that they're voting for Obama just to stop Hillary, not for their attraction to him, but because of their disdain for Hillary. I think that's a terrible reason to vote."
A lot of these new voters are hard-line Republicans, Pearce noted, who have no intention of voting for a Democrat in the White House. But he said it's difficult to gauge how the crossovers will affect the race.
"A lot of independent voters are coming out who are motivated by Obama's rhetoric or their cause for Hillary to stop the nomination," Pearce said Friday. "To a degree I'm concerned. But we don't know."
Bell County Republican Party Chair Nancy Boston believes that the increase in the voting numbers is directly related to the overall sentiment people have toward government.
"A lot of people are frustrated at government right now," she said Thursday. "When people get concerned, they go vote. If you look at two years ago, we already have had more vote early than all of the election. I think we will have a strong turnout. This time we have a lot of first-time voters, a lot of young people voting ? Any time people get involved in the election process, it's a good thing."
The Rev. Rosco Harrison of Eighth Street Baptist Church in Temple is a self-proclaimed Democrat, though he said he has voted Republican in the past. He's a classic case of a "Texas ticket splitter," he said.
"I do know that people have been driving the black vote in east Temple to the polls," Harrison said. "Martha Tyroch specifically ? has a friendship with people in Temple. They've shoved aside the fact that she's Republican."
But this could be a segment of the vote affected most by the Democratic presidential race. The majority of independents could be removed from the equation, he said, who would normally vote for a Temple candidate they know and trust.
"They're confused because they want to vote for Martha, but at the same time they want to vote for Obama," Harrison said. "It has created a lot of confusion, especially for first-time voters. They like the candidates in the District 55 race, but they also like Obama. We need a lot of voter education. Some of them get so confused, they get frustrated and just don't vote. 'I'll wait till November instead.'"
But at the same time, his congregation, and his community, are being energized by an urge to go out and vote in the Democratic election.
"I haven't seen this kind of voter turnout since 1960 when JFK ran," he said. "I talked to a woman who said she had never voted in a presidential election. I haven't seen college kids this enthused about the election since Kennedy. This has traditionally been a Republican seat, but I don't know what's going to happen."
Contact Justin Cox at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (254) 501-7568