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The primary is once again the big show in Texas.
After the state’s Republicans defeated an all-out Democratic offensive in the 2020 general election, they used redistricting to dramatically reduce the number of competitive races in November. And that has returned Texas partisans to a familiar position: treating the primary as the most consequential part of the election cycle.
Voters are heading to the polls Tuesday with a lot of decisions to make about who will represent their parties going forward into November. Most statewide officials are up for reelection, including Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott, who have had to contend with vocal intraparty opposition for the better part of the past year. Several congressional primaries are reflecting spirited debates about what kind of Democrat and what kind of Republican Texas should send to Congress with the House majority on the line. And there is a series of primaries for the Texas House that illustrate the fallout from a year of contentious legislative sessions under new GOP House Speaker Dade Phelan.
And, of course, for Republicans, former President Donald Trump still looms large, with his endorsement ubiquitous in primaries.
Here are five questions that the primaries will answer:
Is Ken Paxton going to a runoff — and if so, against who?
The hottest statewide primary is easily the Republican race for attorney general. Paxton faces three well-known challengers in Texas politics: Land Commissioner George P. Bush, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler and Eva Guzman, a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court.
They are all assailing Paxton over his legal problems, which include a 2015 securities fraud indictment that he is still fighting, plus a more recent FBI probe of claims by former deputies that he abused his office to aid a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
Paxton, who boasts the endorsement of Trump, is hoping for an outright win, but polls show that is not certain. Bush is confident he is headed for a runoff and has been speaking about it as a foregone conclusion in recent days.
However, the primary has turned into a political fog of war in its homestretch. Paxton has been attacking Gohmert, who is most ideologically similar to the incumbent, while Bush and Guzman have been brawling against one another.
Paxton piled on against Guzman on Friday with a last-minute TV ad backed by nearly $1 million. The commercial accuses Guzman of organizing a “woke critical race theory summit” when she was a judge, a reference to a 2016 summit on race and law enforcement that the state’s top two courts hosted after the fatal shooting of a group of Dallas cops earlier that year.
Guzman pushed back with a bevy of digital ads over the weekend, saying, “I oppose CRT — period.” And she has said Paxton’s own office sent a representative to the 2016 event.
Regardless, the late target on her back has raised speculation that she is rising at the end.
“Judging by the actions by my opponent, I think we are doing extremely well,” Guzman told Lubbock radio host Chad Hasty on Friday. “What are you so afraid of, Ken?”
Can other state GOP leaders deliver a knockout punch to their intraparty critics?
No other Republican statewide official faces as big a runoff risk as Paxton, but they still face meaningful competition Tuesday. Among them is Abbott, who is up against a group of challengers from his right including former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas and former Texas GOP Chair Allen West.
Abbott has publicly ignored the challengers throughout the election cycle while taking striking steps to shore up his right flank. Those moves include his order last week telling state health agencies to consider medical treatments for transgender kids as “child abuse,” an issue the governor’s primary opponents have harped on for months.
While polls show Abbott is in a good position to win outright Tuesday, he is no doubt looking for a big vote share — and his campaign has been spending like it, unloading over $15 million since late January. The primary has amounted to the most persistent opposition that Abbott has faced from within his own party in his long career in Texas politics.
Huffines made his closing arguments at a Houston rally Thursday with U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a family friend who has endorsed him. Referring to Abbott as “old King Greg,” Huffines repeatedly referred back to his impetus for running: the early stages of Abbott’s COVID-19 response, which included a statewide mask mandate and business closures.
“We’ve lost more liberty in the last 22 months than I thought was ever possible, and it was done to us by a Republican governor of Texas — Texas,” Huffines said.
Abbott continued to disregard his GOP opponents during a primary eve rally in San Antonio.
“We are going to win tomorrow night, and then after that, we are going to beat Beto and keep Texas red,” Abbott said, referring to his likely Democratic opponent, Beto O’Rourke.
Like Abbott and Paxton, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has also been enduring persistent criticism from inside his party. His top challenger is state Rep. James White of Hillister, who has painted the choice as between “conservative” or “corrupt.” Ethical questions have long followed Miller, and his former political consultant was indicted in January on felony charges in connection with a scheme involving the sale of hemp licenses that Miller’s office handles.
Finally, another top Texas Republican, Phelan, is overseeing his first primaries behind the gavel. Some of them have become referenda on his administration, including its adherence to the chamber’s longtime tradition of having committee chairs from both parties. Like Abbott and Miller, Phelan is also getting a major opportunity Tuesday to punch back at his nagging intraparty critics.
Can progressives deliver decisive wins in congressional primaries?
Progressive Democrats are playing big in three congressional primaries where they would like to notch victories with national reverberations.
The top prize is the 28th Congressional District, where centrist U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Laredo is in a rematch against Jessica Cisneros, who came up a few percentage points short in 2020. This time, she has been helped by a January raid of Cuellar’s home by the FBI, the reason for which remains unknown.
In the 35th Congressional District, Greg Casar, the former member of the Austin City Council, is trying to prevail over three other Democrats for an open seat. And in the 30th Congressional District, state Rep. Jasmine Crockett of Dallas is pushing for a first-round victory against eight other Democrats vying to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas. Johnson has endorsed Crockett.
Progressives are hoping to celebrate outright wins in at least two of the three primaries, and they have dispatched considerable cavalry to ensure the results are decisive.
Casar and Cisneros have both been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. On Monday, Warren also backed Crockett.
“I think that these three wins [would be] … an amazing rebuttal to the criticisms that the corporate wing of the party has been leveling at progressives for the last couple of months,” said Natalia Salgado, director of federal affairs for the Working Families Party. “What we have in these three candidates are folks that have governed effectively, folks that are beholden to communities of color and working-class communities and folks that are going to go to Congress and are gonna stay true to those roots.”
The more centrist wing of the Democratic Party was already trying to pump the brakes Monday on reading too much into the Texas primary, where the progressive candidates are running in already safe Democratic districts. Matt Bennett, executive vice president of the moderate think tank Third Way, argued in an email that progressives still have not proven they can make a difference in congressional seats that are important to the House Democratic majority.
“A handful of wins in a low-turnout congressional primary doesn’t change that basic fact,” Bennett said.
Will Trump sweep his endorsements?
Trump has handed out copious endorsements for this Texas primary, with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick regularly in his ear about who to support.
Many of the Trump-backed candidates on the ballot Tuesday are expected to win outright, but a few could end up being a riskier bet for the former president. Of course, there is Paxton, who is staring down a possible runoff. But some Trump-backed candidates farther down the ballot, like state Senate candidate Pete Flores, could also be at risk of a combative runoff despite boasting the support of the most influential Republican in the country. Similarly, in the Tarrant County judge’s race, Trump-backed Tim O’Hare is not a sure bet to knock out former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price in their first round.
On Sunday, Trump issued statements reiterating his support for four Texas candidates, raising the possibility that they are in need of a boost after early voting. The candidates included Flores and state Rep. Ryan Guillen, the South Texas Democrat who switched parties last year and now faces two Republican primary challengers.
The primary marks the first major electoral test of Trump’s popularity among Texas Republicans since he left the White House — and it comes after he suffered embarrassment last year in Texas when his endorsed candidate lost in a special congressional election.
“While Trump remains incredibly popular with the base, [Tuesday] we will see how much his popularity translates over to his endorsees,” said Aaron Harris, a Texas GOP operative. “At the end of the day, Texas Republican primary voters are looking for the most conservative candidate regardless of endorsements.”
Trump’s endorsement record in Texas is important going forward, as he nears another presidential run and could benefit from having plenty of allies in the biggest red state in the country. Patrick’s credibility with Trump is also on the line, as it has become increasingly obvious that the lieutenant governor has been Trump’s No. 1 counsel on Texas endorsements.
Notably, Trump never endorsed in two of the state’s most contentious congressional primaries. He did not take sides in U.S. Rep. Van Taylor’s reelection contest, where the Plano Republican faces four challengers attacking his vote last year for a Jan. 6 commission. Trump also stayed out of the primary for the open seat in the 8th Congressional District, where some of the biggest GOP names in the state and country are split between former Navy SEAL Morgan Luttrell and political operative Christian Collins.
Will big players get their way in usually sleepy SBOE races?
Primaries for State Board of Education, which are usually low-profile, have become a new battleground this year as charter-school supporters spend big and as Republicans continue their crusade on restricting how race-related issues can be discussed in classrooms.
The 15-member board — split between nine Republicans and six Democrats — sets standards for the state’s public schools, including curriculum. Given the number of public schools in Texas, the SBOE’s decisions can have outsized sway over the textbook industry nationally.
At least two new political action committees, Texans for Excellent Education and the Freedom Foundation of Texas PAC, have raised over $600,000 since Jan. 1 and poured the money behind GOP primary candidates who are vowing to fight critical race theory. That is despite the fact that the Legislature passed two different laws last year claiming to ban it.
One of the PAC recipients, Aaron Kinsey, has collected Patrick’s endorsement as he challenges incumbent Jay Johnson. Another recipient of the PAC funding, LJ Francis, has been looking to win his primary with a TV ad that says he will “oppose any teaching of critical race theory, stand strong against ‘woke’ politicians and be a conservative voice for parents’ involvement in education.”
Charter school supporters are also spending lavishly in the primaries, sometimes finding common ground with the candidates railing against critical race theory. As early voting started in February, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings gave $1.5 million to a PAC that then gave $640,000 to another one, Charter Schools Now, that supports various SBOE candidates, including Kinsey and Francis.
The most striking recipient was Omar Yanar, an El Paso charter-school operator who is one of three Democrats running for an open SBOE seat. In-kind donations from Charter Schools Now made up almost all of Yanar’s over $200,000 in fundraising on a recent campaign finance report covering Jan. 21 through Feb. 19.
It is a lot of money by the sleepy standards of SBOE primaries, and public education groups are especially up in arms at the play by charter school boosters.
“Candidates who accept these outrageous charter-school PAC donations are marking themselves as bought, ready to grease the wheels and pave the way for massive charter-chain expansion—all at the expense of our true public schools,” Zeph Capo, president of the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.