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 today. 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.
A more competitive race was the GOP primary for state attorney general. Incumbent Ken Paxton is hoping an endorsement from former President Donald Trump will help him fend off several challengers, including Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the nephew of one president and grandson of another.
Paxton led an unsuccessful lawsuit to overturn the 2020 presidential election. His failure to win outright would be a setback for Trump, who has championed conservative Republicans in races around the country as he seeks to reinforce his control over the national GOP.
The primary was the first under tighter new Texas 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. More than 10,000 mail ballots around Houston alone were flagged for not complying. 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.
Several voting sites around Houston were also short-staffed, she said, causing tensions in some locations.
“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.”
The first primary of the 2022 campaign began as the U.S. slowly moves out of the deepest lows of a pandemic that has raged for nearly two years. But that’s tempered by inflation reaching a decades-high level and a burgeoning war in Europe. There are also persistent questions about the country’s commitment to basic democratic principles after many GOP leaders, including candidates across Texas, have tied themselves to Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Texas’ rapid growth — driven by more than 4 million new residents — has shifted once solidly red suburbs away from Republicans. But the GOP has countered with new restrictions on voting and redrawn maps that left fewer competitive congressional districts. That means the primary winners mostly had strong chances to cruise in November and head to Congress next year.
While much of the attention in this GOP-dominated state was on Republicans, Democrats faced challenges of their own. The party hasn’t won a statewide office since 1994. And today, nine-term U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar was trying to avoid becoming the first Democratic member of Congress to lose a primary this year. 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.
The primary also tested Republican efforts to more aggressively court Hispanic voters. 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.
That was the latest warning sign for Democrats who are trying to hold the line with Hispanic voters who swung toward former President Donald Trump 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, spiking inflation and anger about the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
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 is “out of hand.”
“The police force needs to be reinforced,” said Carter, 66.
History is also on the GOP’s side. The party controlling the White House has lost congressional seats in the first midterm race every election cycle this century except in 2002, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
But the fight over the party’s future is much fiercer than it was 20 years ago.
U.S. Rep. Van Taylor of North Texas, for instance, has become 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 of Trump supporters who overran the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection of January 2021.
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.