RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are broadcasting live from Texas again this morning. We're at our member KERA in Dallas, and we're analyzing results from the first primary in this year's midterm elections. Turnout was high across the board, but Democrats in particular are feeling good this morning. They fielded a record number of candidates here in all 36 congressional districts. And Democratic vote totals nearly doubled those from 2014, reaching a level not seen in a midterm primary for the party since 2002. And Democrats hope that they can turn that early enthusiasm into enough votes to flip seats come November. Republicans like Kevin Harrison are taking notice.
MARTIN: We met up with him last night at his home outside Fort Worth. He was 1 of 11 Republicans vying to fill the seat left vacant by Congressman Joe Barton. Harrison didn't come out on top in the end, but he said the Republicans who did win in these primaries last night can't take anything for granted in this political moment.
KEVIN HARRISON: The 2016 election, it ignited the other side. If Republicans rest on their laurels and we just say, hey, you know, we won, we're going to take care of everything and they don't show up to the polls in November - we're going to lose.
MARTIN: It is the job of the National Republican Congressional Committee, or the NRCC, to prevent that from happening. I am joined now by Jesse Hunt. He's the press secretary for the NRCC. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.
JESSE HUNT: No problem. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: So Democrats have their sights set on flipping, in particular, three congressional districts here in Texas. As I noted, they did turn out in record numbers for this primary. Are you worried?
HUNT: Well, I think as we look at some of the districts that, you know, the Democrats are looking flip, naturally, they're going to have a higher turnout in some of these competitive primaries because they're looking to turn the seats, whereas in some of the primaries that occurred last night, they are in deeply red conservative districts. So you would - naturally not as high of a turnout.
But I think what we did see was that the Democrats and the national organization, the DCCC, have their strategy backfired. You know, they tried to involve themselves in the Texas 7 primary. And they tried to torch one of their own Democratic candidates, Laura Moser. And she ultimately came out in the top two and will move on to the runoff in May. I think that was the kind of the opening salvo against progressive candidates that the national Democrats don't believe can win general elections.
MARTIN: Although we should say, I mean, the national Democrats weighed in on that particular race because they see that it is in their sights. Like, Democrats are competitive for the first time in Texas in decades. I mean, how do you meet that moment, especially when there are so many Texans within the Republican Party who, quite frankly, look at President Trump and they're not satisfied with his performance?
HUNT: Well, I think as we've seen, the Democrats, the national organization is trying to prevent candidates and lurching too far to the left. But that's inevitable because that's where their base is. Their base is demanding ideological purity. And they're forcing these candidates farther to the left to adopt positions like single-payer health care that just aren't tenable with a broader electorate, particularly in Texas. These positions that they're going to take are going to make them unelectable with general election voters.
MARTIN: I do want to ask though about President Trump's approval rating in Texas. It dropped below 40 percent recently in a Gallup poll. He also underperformed past GOP presidential nominees in this state. Is his performance making your job harder in red states?
HUNT: Well, I think the president still has a deep connection to his core supporters. And Republicans are able to use the president in a variety of ways. But I think where we've been successful in the last several cycles, it's really homing in on the local issues in these races. And I believe that's what a lot of our candidates are going to do.
The Democrats have a problem where they try to nationalize every election. That's not what voters in these districts care about. They want to talk about the pocketbook issues. They want to talk about the issues that have an impact on their daily lives. And if you focus too much on national issues, you lose track of what actually motivates voters to cast their ballots. So I think ultimately that's what this election is going to be about.
MARTIN: So that's going to be your strategy moving forward, to distance Republicans from Washington?
HUNT: It's focusing on local issues, not distancing or anything strategic like that but more so focusing on issues people care about. If they're talking about, you know, what's happening with local water issues or they're talking about what's happening in local transportation issues, that's what's going to motivate them, not necessarily what's happening on cable news. Voters have a unique ability to cut through the clutter and focus on issues that actually have an impact on their daily lives.
MARTIN: In seconds remaining, there are 435 races for House seats this year. You're facing Democratic enthusiasm across the board. How do you choose where to focus your resources?
HUNT: You know, I think, you know, we've had record-breaking fundraising through the off-year and even at the outset of this year. So that enables us to play in a variety of races. You know, I think we have a unique opportunity to flip some seats that Democrats currently hold. I think Minnesota is a good opportunity. There's a couple seats up there that we can flip. And I think ultimately, you know, we're going to have the resources necessary to hold the House. And the issues are on our side. And the Democrats continue to tear themselves apart.
MARTIN: Jesse Hunt of the NRCC feeling confident there. Thanks for your time this morning.
HUNT: No problem. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.