Greg Abbott, Beto O’Rourke win nominations for Texas governor in first midterm contests

In a closely watched Democratic primary in the 28th Congressional District along the southern border, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) was in a tight contest with his more liberal 2020 challenger Jessica Cisneros in the most expensive Democratic Congressional fight of the cycle. Cuellar had dipped into his war chest after his home and campaign office were searched by the FBI. Cisneros has been supported by liberal from Texas and farther north, including the Justice Democrats.

Primary contests for attorney general, Congress and dozens of other local jobs such as county judge and justice of the peace were also on the ballot in a state where Republicans have found their footing after some setbacks during the 2018 midterm elections.

Besides determining the nominees — or setting up runoffs — the results Tuesday will help determine the political staying power of the Bush family name, the potency of former president Donald Trump’s endorsements and the state’s future representation on Capitol Hill.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Trump endorsee who faces an FBI investigation and an indictment on state securities fraud charges, was seeking to avoid a runoff in his quest for his third Republican nomination against Land Commissioner George P. Bush, a grandson and nephew of former presidents, as well as retired state Supreme Court justice Eva Guzman and US Rep. Louie Gohmert.

Republican strategists entered Election Day bullish on their prospects in November. Early-voting totals show Republican interest much higher than Democrats’ in what appears to be shaping up as a low-turnout primary affair. More than 1 million Republicans had cast ballots through Friday, compared with about 628,000 Democrats, according to a tally kept by the Texas secretary of state.

“Their turnout is going to be dwarfed by our turnout,” said David M. Carney, a Republican consultant who is advising Gov. Greg Abbott on his reelection campaign. “The EPA should be down here protecting Democrats as an endangered species.”

Democrats countered that they were well positioned to hold their ground and potentially make gains in the fall, even as they complained that new voting laws have been keeping some of their voters from turning out. Those include rules requiring specific types of voter identification that have led to a higher number of rejected mail-in ballots.

In Harris County, which includes the city of Houston, officials announced counting delays because damaged ballot sheets needed to be duplicated to be scanned properly, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Precincts across the state reported light traffic in the early morning hours, with only four people voting by midmorning at the Iglesia Palabra de Amor community center on Fort Worth’s far north side — two Republicans and two Democrats. Fifteen minutes after polling sites opened at 7 am, voting officials were at the ready but no voters had yet arrived in Kingsville, a town of about 25,000 some 45 miles southwest of Corpus Christi.

“Our main concern is low turnout,” said Pressy Garza, Precinct 43 voting judge in Kleberg County.

Later in the day, long lines appeared along with voter frustrations as Texans struggled with new voting equipment, reduced polling locations and other changes to the voting process.

Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chairman Patrick Eronini said he originally had about 88 polling locations mapped out but was able to open only 41. He simply did not have enough workers.

“Many judges have died of covid, and one got sick with covid at the last minute,” Eronini said. “The county did not provide us with the proper training. They gave us one day to train people on the new machines.”

Fred North, 74, of Richardson in Dallas County was one of the first people to cast his vote at the Richardson Civic Center on Tuesday. He said he blamed the low turnout on the more restrictive voting laws in Texas.

“Voting used to be much easier. Finding the right place to vote was a bit confusing for me,” North said. “It’s hard enough to vote, and we should find every way possible to help people vote. It doesn’t make sense to make it harder.”

Cuellar, The incumbent in the Laredo-based district, has denied any wrongdoing but vanished from the trail campaign after the FBI raid, encouraging liberal groups who see a chance to unseat one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.

Republicans, who have never seriously competed for the district, had a less expensive primary for the seat.

On the Republican side, Rep. Van Taylor, who represents a suburban district north of Dallas, faces a primary challenge from the right after he voted with Democrats to support a bipartisan investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol.

Trump has stayed out of that race, while endorsing more than 30 other Republican candidates in the state, a wide array that runs from Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign to a candidate for Tarrant County judge. Many of his endorsements have come in the past few weeks and have gone to incumbents or candidates not facing serious opposition, suggesting he is hoping to burnish his win-loss record in GOP primaries, a statistic he often boasts about.

He has also proudly endorsed state Rep. Ryan Guillen, another border politician, who recently switched parties to become a Republican after state leaders redrew his district. Republicans have been running local candidates at a clip not seen in recent memory in historically Democratic strongholds in southern Texas.

“I am almost unblemished in the victory count, and it is considered by the real pollsters to be the strongest endorsement in US political history,” Trump said in a statement on Feb. 13.

Abbott, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, and former congressman O’Rourke (D), were long expected to win their parties’ nominations for the top job in the state. Public and private polls had put them both well above the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a May 24 runoff in their respective contests.

O’Rourke, whom Democrats spent months urging to enter the race, faced challengers who’ve raised little money, including public radio reporter Joy Diaz. Abbott’s challengers included conservative YouTuber Chad Prather, former state senator Huffines and former state GOP chairman Allen West, all of whom have accused the two-term governor of acting on conservative priorities only when forced. A mindful Abbott in recent months has floated conservative measures on voting, abortion and transgender rights.

lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a close ally of Trump who like Abbott is seeking a third term, has drawn only little-known challengers, while Democrats will pick from a field that includes 2018 Patrick challenger Mike Collier and state Rep. Michelle Beckley.

Paxton, who trailed other Republicans in his 2018 reelection race, had the best-funded challengers of any Republican on the ballot. He has run ads attacking Guzman and Gohmert, but polls suggest he is likely to be forced into a second round, with Bush as the most probable runner-up.

“I’m still reaching out to Trump supporters, and I still subscribe to his policies,” Bush said. “They work for Texas, whether they’re securing the border, energy independence or getting tough on crime. He still likes me — he’s said so publicly.” Bush also pointed out that National Border Patrol Council President Brandon Judd, an early Trump supporter, endorsed him and was featured in his ads.

Trump also backed state Sen. Dawn Buckingham in the primary to replace Bush, helping her lead the field for that influential statewide job. She raised nearly $2 million for the race; Jay Kleberg, a Democratic conservationist leading the contest for his party’s nomination, had stockpiled $500,000, more than any of the Democrats running for attorney general. In the race for agriculture commissioner, Trump endorsed incumbent Sid Miller, another early backer of his 2016 presidential campaign.

New congressional districts approved by Texas’s Republican-led legislature last year drastically shrank the number of competitive seats, with swing districts around Houston, Dallas and Austin redrawn into districts safe for one party.

Lawmakers also created a new open seat on the border, the 15th District, stretching north from McAllen, where Republicans in Washington were hoping a local business executive, Monica De La Cruz, wins the nomination with Trump’s endorsement. She faced challenges from her right from Mauro Garza, another Republican businessman, who recently received the endorsement of Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) and has attacked De La Cruz as a representative of the establishment.

Democrats were divided between a few candidates, with Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.) backing Army veteran Ruben Ramirez and some national liberal groups supporting activist Michelle Vallejo. She’s run unabashedly from the left, while Ramirez has argued that the Republican-trending district is more inclined to elect a moderate in November.

“The way you get lasting change is to have bipartisanship,” Ramirez said while greeting early voters last week in McAllen. “It’s unfortunate that the Republicans are too busy playing politics instead of coming up with viable solutions.”

Ramirez, who served in Afghanistan, said he would support hearings on the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal of US forces from that country last summer, during which 13 American service members were killed.

The rest of Tuesday’s House primaries will determine who will represent safe seats, or which candidates will compete for them in the May runoffs. The bitterest Republican primary has unfolded in the 8th Congressional District, where longtime congressman Kevin Brady (R) is retiring. A candidate for that seat, ex-Navy SEAL and Trump administration official Morgan Luttrell, has faced criticism for his friendship with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a fellow veteran. Christian Collins, a former aid to Sen. Ted Cruz (R), has attacked Luttrell over a $5,000 donation from Kinzinger, even though the candidate returned it.

“I’ve spent my life intimidating other people, like that empty suit,” Luttrell said during a televised debate with Collins last month.

Luttrell had the support of Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R) and former governor Rick Perry, both political mentors, while Collins rallied during the early-voting period with Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Madison Cawthorn (RN.C.).

The most expensive Democratic fight for an open seat was unfolding in the 35th Congressional District, where former Austin city councilman Greg Casar had locked up labor and endorsements, rallying with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (DN.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — though he lost the support of a local Democratic Socialists of America chapter over his rejection of its Israel policies.

Polling has put him ahead of state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and lesser-known candidates, But supporters of both Casar and Cisneros are trying to push them over 50 percent Tuesday, a wary of runoffs that could give moderate Democrats time to regroup and spend money against them.

“This is about making sure that we send a message: Do not mess with Texas progressives,” Ocasio-Cortez told voters at a San Antonio rally last month with Casar and Cisneros.

Democrats were also battling for another safe seat, the 30th Congressional District in Dallas, where Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) is retiring and has endorsed state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a former public defender. Crockett has swept up endorsements from liberal groups but has trailed two other candidates in fundraising: former state staffer Abel Mulugheta and party operative Jane Hamilton.

Democrats argued that while the state remains challenging ground, the party is poised to show that Texas is growing more blue after the 2018 burst of energy, as they seek to ride shifting demographics.

“Texas has been a hard state for Democrats for 25 years,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a group focused on recruiting and supporting Democrats in Texas. “The fact that [Republicans] are able to hold on in a Republican state is not a show of strength.”

Jack Douglas in Fort Worth, Annette Nevins in Richardson and Mary Lee Grant in Kingsville contributed to this report.

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Andrew Naughtie

News reporter and author at @websalespromo