(AUSTIN, Texas) — Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will face Democrat Beto O’Rourke after voters in Texas opened what could be a lengthy, bruising primary season poised to reshape political power from state capitals to Washington.
Both easily won their party’s nomination for governor on Tuesday. Abbott is now in a commanding position as he seeks a third term, beginning his run with more than $50 million and campaigning on a strongly conservative agenda in America’s largest Republican state. That leaves O’Rourke facing an uphill effort to recapture the magic of his 2018 Senate campaign, when he nearly ousted Ted Cruz.
“This group of people, and then some, are going to make me the first Democrat to be governor of the state of Texas since 1994,” O’Rourke told supporters in Fort Worth, where in 2018 he flipped Texas’ largest red county. “This is on us. This is on all of us.”
Abbott said, “Republicans sent a message.”
“They want to keep Texas on the extraordinary path of opportunity that we have provided over the past eight years,” his campaign said in a statement.
More competitive was the GOP primary for state Attorney General. The incumbent Ken Paxton hoped that an endorsement by former President Donald Trump could help him defeat several challengers. This included George P. Bush (Texas Land Commissioner), the grandson and nephew of one of Trump’s presidents.
Paxton was part of an unsuccessful suit to invalidate the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s failure to win the election would have been a major setback. Trump has fought for conservative Republicans across the country in his efforts to strengthen his grip on the national GOP.
Each party’s candidates will be able to advance to the next stage of the campaign in their primary season. This starts earlier than usual during the summer. The midterms will ultimately serve as a referendum on the first half of President Joe Biden’s administration, which has been dominated by a pandemic that has proven unpredictable, along with rising inflation and a series of foreign policy crises. As many of the candidates in Texas’ primaries tie their hands to Trump, and claim that the 2020 election is stolen, the GOP struggles with its future.
Tuesday marked the state’s first election under its tighter new voting laws that, among other changes muscled through by the GOP-controlled Legislature, require mail ballots to now include identification — a mandate that counties blamed for thousands of rejected mail ballots even before Election Day. Houston was the only city that flagged more than 10,000 non-compliance mail ballots. Technical issues also caused problems in Texas’ largest county: Paper jams and paper tears in voting machines would take a couple days to work through while counting, said Isabel Longoria, Harris County’s elections administrator.
She said that several voting locations in Houston had also been left without staff, which caused tensions.
“Democrats and Republicans bickering with each other, stealing each other’s machines, hiding each other’s paper,” Longoria said. “At the end of the day, they were able to help voters.”
Although the focus was largely on Republicans in this GOP-dominated state, Democrats also faced many challenges. The party hasn’t won a statewide office since 1994. Henry Cuellar, a nine-term U.S. Rep. was trying to prevent becoming the first Democratic member to lose a primary in this year’s election. He’s facing progressive Jessica Cisneros and is contending with the fallout of a recent FBI raid on his home, though he’s denied wrongdoing.
Republican efforts to court Hispanic voters more aggressively were tested during the primary. Counties along the state’s border with Mexico, long a stronghold for Democrats, were on track to smash Republican turnout levels compared with recent elections.
It was the latest signal for Democrats trying to maintain a line with Hispanic voters that voted in Trump’s favor in 2020.
Republicans are betting that the Texas primaries will be the first step toward them retaking Congress in November, pointing to President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings, inflation and anger about the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Russia’s war with Ukraine could also have deep political implications.
And history is also on the GOP’s side. With the exception of 2002 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, every other election cycle since 1900 has seen the White House party losing congressional seats.
Monica Carter, who voted at a polling station in River Oaks, one of Houston’s wealthiest neighborhoods, cast her ballot in the Republican primary and said she thought rising rates of crime in many parts of the country are “out of hand.”
“The police force needs to be reinforced,” said Carter, 66.
The fight over the GOP’s future is much fiercer than it was 20 years ago, though.
U.S. Rep. Van Taylor of North Texas, for instance, became a target for some on the right after he voted to certify Biden’s electoral victory and to create an independent commission to investigate the Capitol insurrection. The Republican faced four primary challengers who largely refused to accept Biden’s victory and have tried to minimize the mob’s Capitol attack.
National Democrats say Trump’s outsize GOP influence and an economy roaring back from the pandemic may help them counter political precedent. Still, disagreements between the party’s progressive and more moderate congressional wings helped doom Build Back Better, a sweeping, Biden-backed spending and social programs package.
Cisneros is among the Texas progressives who could secure Democratic nominations in House districts blue enough to all but guarantee they’ll be headed to Congress. A 28-year-old immigration attorney who supports Medicare for All, Cisneros nearly toppled Cuellar during Texas’ 2020 primary.
Cisneros has been endorsed by progressive stalwarts Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned with her and with Greg Casar, an Austin City Councilmember who championed a $15 citywide minimum wage and is seeking an open House seat representing Texas’ capital.
Weissert was reporting from Washington. This report was contributed by Jill Colvin and Jamie Stengle, Houston, Jamie Stengle, and Jake Bleiberg, Dallas.