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What to watch for in Texas’ primary elections

▶ Watch Video: Thousands of mail-in ballots rejected in Texas after new voting law

The 2022 primary season for this year’s midterm elections officially launches Tuesday in Texas, where voters will cast ballots in several statewide races and all 38 congressional districts. Polls are open until 8 p.m. ET. 

Texas allowed early voting until February 25, and 1,651,483 people opted to use it; more than 1 million Republicans and about 628,000 Democrats voted before primary day. Republican turnout was up slightly, compared to 2018, while Democratic early voting turnout remained the same. A majority of voters chose to cast their ballot in person — 88% of Democrats and 95% of Republicans.

Candidates must win at least 50% of the vote to win a primary outright. If no candidate wins 50%, the top two candidates will compete in a runoff on May 24.

Here are some stories we’ll be watching as the primary unfolds.

New elections law in force

The primary presents the first major test for the state’s new elections law. The hotly contested, sweeping elections bill known as SB1 was passed by Texas Republicans last year. Ahead of the primary voting, the law has caused some confusion among voters applying for and returning mail ballots. Voters now must provide either a driver’s license, state ID or Social Security number, and it has to match what’s on their voter registration file. That file can be updated online, but many voters have encountered problems in filling out that information when returning their ballots. 

As of Monday, Harris County, home to Houston, reported that 29% of the 37,268 mail ballots received were flagged for rejection because voters did not fill out ID information correctly. 

Travis County, home to Austin, found that about 12% of the 7,000 mail ballots received were flagged for rejection, mostly due to missing ID information. 

In Williamson County, north of Austin, 690 of the 3,067 ballots returned were flagged for issues. As of Monday, 250 of those ballots had been corrected, according to the county. 

Voting by mail is down, compared to the last midterm primary elections in the state. About 7.5% of voters in Texas’ 15 largest counties voted by mail as of February 25. Four years ago, 14.3% of voters in the largest counties cast mail ballots by the end of early voting. 

Congressional primaries

Democrats

The Democratic primary in Texas’ 28th District is the blockbuster House race to watch on Tuesday. Incumbent Henry Cuellar, who’s been in office since 2005, faces a tough primary challenge from progressive Jessica Cisneros, his former intern. And that was before the FBI raided his home in January. 

This race is the first test of progressive challengers in elections this cycle, and can tell us a bit about what Democratic voters want in historically moderate districts like this. Cisneros came within 2,700 votes of beating Cuellar in her 2020 run, and argues her name identification and changes to the district through redistricting boost her chances. Progressive figures including  Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are supporting and have campaigned for Cisneros while House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer of Maryland is backing Cuellar.

Other Democratic primaries to watch include the race for Texas’ 30th District — that seat was left open by Democratic Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson’s retirement and Texas’ 35th District, which stretches from Austin  to San Antonio. In the state’s 35th District, former Austin City Council member Greg Casar is the progressive pick and leading candidate on fundraising. He’s backed by the Justice Democrats group as well as Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Texas’ 30th District has a crowded Democratic slate, with ten candidates including Biden’s Texas campaign director, Jane Hope Hamilton.

Republicans

For Republicans, the crowded primary in the open 8th District has shown splits of support among the party. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has backed Morgan Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL, while Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia has backed Christian Collins, a far right activist. 

In Texas’ 3rd District, incumbent Republican Van Taylor has a slate of GOP challengers who have highlighted his vote for the January 6 committee

Congressman Dan Crenshaw in Texas’ 2nd District also has some primary challengers farther to his right who highlight his refusal to support any of the baseless claims that the 2020 election was “stolen” from former President Trump.

Trump endorsements
Trump has endorsed all but five incumbent Republicans who are seeking reelection: Crenshaw, Taylor, Pete Sessions, Chip Roy and Tony Gonzales. Overall, he has endorsed 36 candidates in Texas in federal, statewide and local races. 

Redistricting
Texas Republicans took nearly all competitive House seats off the map during redistricting. Twelve seats were considered competitive in the old map, while only one (Texas’ 15th District) is competitive in the new map. This means that Texas’ congressional delegation will mostly be settled after Tuesday’s elections, if not formally, short of any primary runoffs in May.

GOP gains in South Texas

Republicans saw a boost in support in south Texas’ Hispanic community during the 2020 elections. That has continued into 2021, when a Republican candidate for the state House flipped a district that is 73% Hispanic and a Republican mayor was elected in McAllen, a 85% Hispanic town in a county Biden won by about 17 points in 2020. 

Republicans attribute that to their immigration and energy messaging resonating with Hispanic communities. A high GOP turnout for primaries in this region, Texas’ 15th District in particular, could signal that those shifts will continue in 2022. 

Governor Greg Abbott faces primary challenge

Polling shows Republican Governor Greg Abbott is expected to surpass the 50% mark and avoid a runoff in his bid for a third term, but he is among the many Republican governors facing primary challenges this year. Conservative former state Senator Don Huffines and former Congressman and Texas GOP chair Allen West are Abbott’s two most notable challengers, running to his right. The two candidates have tapped into the anger that some Texas conservatives have with Abbott over his handling of COVID, such as initially instituting a mask mandate at the start of the pandemic and not outlawing COVID-19 vaccine mandates, and not shutting down the southern border completely.

Despite the challenges, and pressure from some conservatives not to do so, Trump endorsed Abbott. A Dallas Morning News poll from mid-February and a University of Texas poll from late January/early February both showed Abbott hitting 60%. A more recent Emerson poll put Abbott at 64%. 

A test for the Bush family 

Attorney General Ken Paxton has faced no shortage of scandals and legal issues, earning him a crowded GOP primary. His best known challenger is George P. Bush, the commissioner of the Texas General Land Office and son of Jeb Bush. Paxton is also being challenged by Representative Louie Gohmert and former Republican Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. His challengers sing from a similar hymnal: if Republicans nominate Ken Paxton, it will give Democrats a chance to win that seat in November because of past controversy over allegations of bribery and abuse of office.

A University of Texas poll released in early February showed Paxton at 47%, Bush at 21%, Guzman at 16% and Gohmert at 15%. Trump endorsed Ken Paxton in this race. The Dallas Morning News poll showed Paxton hitting 39%, while the Emerson poll showed Paxton hitting the 51% mark when they forced undecided voters to make a choice. 

Beto tries again

While Democrat Beto O’Rourke is expected to cruise through the primary – the primary offers a window into his improbable run for governor. He has tried to distance himself from national Democrats, acknowledging inflation as he campaigns  and dropping his last campaign’s emphasis on gun control — his remark, “Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15,” cost him support in his presidential campaign. 

But after the power grid failure and the shift of the state legislature’s agenda to the right — enacting a controversial abortion ban and election law overhaul —, Democrats believe they have a fighting chance in November, in spite of Abbott’s formidable cash and polling advantage. The University of Texas poll showed Abbott well ahead of O’Rourke 47%-37%. The Dallas Morning News and Emerson polls showed Abbott with high single-digit leads over O’Rourke.



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