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How To Watch Texas’s Primaries Like A Pro

Texas has found itself making headlines pretty frequently these days. Last fall, it dominated much of the news cycle with back-to-back stories about the state’s heavily gerrymandered congressional map, coupled with a stringent abortion law. And, just last week, the governor made headlines after he announced an order that would effectively penalize people who provide gender-affirming medical care to transgender children, in addition to classifying gender-affirming care as child abuse.

But now, the Lone Star State has another reason to stay in the limelight: After months of campaigning and prognostisticating, Texas’s primary Election Day is finally (almost) here. Texas is not only the first state to hold its primary election this year, but it’s also one of 36 states hosting a gubernatorial race in 2022. And — to no one’s surprise — former President Donald Trump hasn’t shied away from endorsing a number of Republican candidates in the traditionally red state. 

Of course, there’s a lot to keep an eye out for, but here are the five main threads we’ll be tracking as results trickle in tomorrow evening: 

Can Abbott beat opponents on his right flank?

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is running for what on paper should be an easy third term: He has a colossal war chest, the endorsement of the Republican Party’s current kingmaker (Trump), and an incumbency advantage. 

Still, there are a few wrinkles in his plans for reelection.

For starters, he has a handful of Republican opponents on his right flank. And Abbott’s two most formidable challengers — former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West and former state Sen. Don Huffines — have arguably pushed the governor further right, forcing him to confront questions about whether he’s the right fit to lead Texas.


Texas may have the worst gerrymander in the country | FiveThirtyEight

In the last two presidential elections, Texas has inched toward Democrats, but this hasn’t stopped Abbott from signing a number of racist and illiberal bills into law since 2020 that restrict everything from what is taught in the classroom to the manner in which Texans can vote. Yet this might not be enough for some conservatives in the state. The Texas Tribune reported in February that some Republican voters have begun to question whether Abbott has done enough to deliver on his initial campaign promises. And if that wasn’t enough to cast doubt on Abbott’s reelection chances, it’s possible that a local man challenging Abbott named Rick Perry — no, not the state’s former governor — will distract voters on the ballot who mistake him for the wrong person.

There’s arguably more working in Abbott’s favor, though. Since late last year, he’s led in every reputable, public statewide poll we could find that measured him against his Republican opponents — and by wide margins, too. According to an October 2021 University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, 58 percent of the state’s Republican voters said that Abbott would get their vote for governor. West, meanwhile, netted 12 percent of the vote, while Huffines received 7 percent. Chad Prather, a conservative commentator, earned 4 percent. And since then, Abbott’s standing among voters has only improved. Per a January and February University of Texas/Texas Politics Project statewide survey, Abbott led all of his Republican challengers with 60 percent of the vote. No other Republican — including West, Huffines, Prather or Perry — received more than 15 percent of the vote among likely GOP primary voters. Moreover, in a recent University of Texas at Tyler/Dallas Morning News survey, a majority of Republicans indicated they like the way Abbott is handling his job as governor. Per the survey, 80 percent of Republicans said they either “strongly approve” or “approve” of how Abbott is doing his job. 

Beyond the Republican primary, all eyes on the Democratic side will be on former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who entered the gubernatorial primary with a splash last fall. Given O’Rourke’s initial fundraising haul, high name recognition and polling advantage, winning the Democratic nomination should be an easy feat. But in 2018, the last time O’Rourke ran a statewide race in Texas, he fell short of expectations during the Democratic primary — especially around the state’s border area counties. Plus, the dynamics this time around are much different: In the past four years, O’Rourke has run in — and lost — two high-profile races. And during his presidential run, he took controversial stances that could hurt his political standing in Texas. O’Rourke’s run for governor still tests a somewhat interesting proposition, however: Can a politician whose shine has dulled considerably over the last few years salvage his reputation enough to not only clear the Democratic field — something that is still an open question — but also win a general election in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to a statewide office since 1994?

Can Trump save Paxton from a runoff?

As we’ve documented previously, Trump has issued a number of endorsements for this year’s midterm primaries — including at least 20 Republicans in Texas. For the most part, many of these statements of support have gone to sitting members of Congress (with a few notable exceptions). There is one race, however, where Trump’s endorsement will really be put to the test. In the race for attorney general, embattled incumbent Ken Paxton (who is endorsed by Trump) faces a number of challengers that could make his reelection bid more difficult. Arguing he’s unfit for office due to his ethical and legal baggage, there are three Republicans challenging Paxton this year: Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Rep. Louie Gohmert (who, for what it’s worth, is one of the fiercest Trump supporters on Capitol Hill).

While Paxton has the largest war chest, according to various reports, polls suggest a close race among the four Republicans, and it’s not clear whether Paxton can make it through tomorrow without avoiding a runoff (a reality even he’s acknowledged.)1 Per a February University of Texas at Tyler/Dallas Morning News poll, Paxton led Bush, 39 percent to 25 percent. Guzman landed in third with 13 percent of the vote, while Gohmert netted 7 percent.

Trump, of course, is no stranger to butting into competitive elections and calling out Republicans he deems insufficiently loyal to him, especially those who haven’t vocally accepted his false claims that the 2020 election was unfairly stolen from him. What’s interesting in this race, however, is that Paxton isn’t the only Republican to have the former president’s back. So, it’ll be especially interesting to see whether Trump’s endorsement is enough to save the incumbent from a runoff. And while we shouldn’t put too much stock in Trump’s standing in the GOP based on the results of just one Texas race, remember: The former president already suffered a small setback last year when Republican Susan Wright — his choice candidate for a special election in Texas’s 6th Congressional District — narrowly lost her race in July to Rep. Jake Ellzey.

Who will win control of Texas’s newest districts?

Thanks to Texas’s population growth over the last decade, the state gained two additional congressional seats — more than any other state — during the reapportionment process. The question now, though, is: Who will win control of these new districts? 

As my colleague Geoffrey Skelley and I wrote in September, the two new seats (one in Austin’s metropolitan area, another in Houston’s) aren’t that competitive. In fact, following the redistricting process, there’s only one competitive seat left, near the border. This is in large part because legislators made a number of Republican incumbents’ seats even redder, while Democrats were packed into traditionally liberal — or once competitive — enclaves, like Austin and Dallas. As a result, the newest seat in Austin will be bright blue, while the Houston seat was intentionally drawn so that it’s favorable for a Republican. 

GOP incumbents are protected in Texas’s new proposed map

Change in partisan lean in Texas congressional districts held by Republicans, from the current map to the new plan for 2022 to 2030

DISTRICT PARTISAN LEAN
GOP INCUMBENT OLD NEW OLD NEW CHANGE
Dan Crenshaw TX-02 TX-02 R+9.1 R+29.7 R+20.7
Beth Van Duyne TX-24 TX-24 R+3.5 R+22.3 R+18.8
John Carter TX-31 TX-31 R+11.2 R+27.3 R+16.1
Troy Nehls TX-22 TX-22 R+8.3 R+23.7 R+15.3
Michael McCaul TX-10 TX-10 R+9.2 R+23.7 R+14.4
Chip Roy TX-21 TX-21 R+10.2 R+24.4 R+14.2
Roger Williams TX-25 TX-25 R+16.4 R+30.0 R+13.6
Jake Ellzey TX-06 TX-06 R+11.2 R+24.2 R+13.0
Van Taylor TX-03 TX-03 R+10.5 R+23.0 R+12.5
Randy Weber TX-14 TX-14 R+24.6 R+35.2 R+10.6
Pete Sessions TX-17 TX-17 R+18.2 R+27.1 R+8.8
Tony Gonzales TX-23 TX-23 R+5.1 R+12.8 R+7.7
Michael Burgess TX-26 TX-26 R+23.3 R+26.1 R+2.8
Jodey Arrington TX-19 TX-19 R+52.1 R+53.3 R+1.3
Louie Gohmert* TX-01 TX-01 R+50.3 R+50.0 D+0.3
Michael Cloud TX-27 TX-27 R+28.8 R+27.8 D+1.0
Lance Gooden TX-05 TX-05 R+29.8 R+26.8 D+3.0
Kay Granger TX-12 TX-12 R+30.2 R+24.3 D+5.9
Brian Babin TX-36 TX-36 R+50.7 R+34.8 D+15.8
Ronny Jackson TX-13 TX-13 R+65.9 R+45.1 D+20.8
August Pfluger TX-11 TX-11 R+64.3 R+40.9 D+23.4
Kevin Brady* TX-08 TX-08 R+49.7 R+25.7 D+23.9
Pat Fallon TX-04 TX-04 R+56.3 R+30.6 D+25.8

*Incumbent is retiring or seeking another office.

Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

What’s interesting, though, is that the favorites for both seats are household names in Texas political circles: In Austin, Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a 27-year incumbent who has the backing of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is largely seen as the front-runner for the seat adjacent to Texas’s capital. He announced the decision in October to run in the newly created 37th District versus his current 35th District which, thanks to new redistricting lines, now runs through San Antonio. 

In Houston, Republican Wesley Hunt, who made national headlines during his race against Democratic Rep. Lizzie Fletcher in 2020, is also favored to win the GOP primary in Texas’s new 38th District. Beyond his fundraising edge, internal polls also give him the upper hand. And beyond that, he has the support of some notable members of the GOP establishment, like Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz. If both Hunt and Doggett win their respective primaries, they’re both expected to sail through a general election. 

Will Hispanic voters near the border gravitate toward Republicans?

Hispanic voters, on average, tend to support the Democratic Party. But in 2020, Trump made decisive gains among Hispanic voters living along Texas’s border, winning 14 of the 28 counties there and flipping eight counties from blue to red. Of course, without Trump on the ballot it’s hard to tell just how much Texas’s Hispanic population will continue its rightward shift. But reporting so far suggests that at least Abbott and O’Rourke are paying close attention to get-out-the-vote efforts in South Texas, especially now that the state’s new redistricting lines make the area less competitive for the GOP.

Beyond the marquee governor’s race, Republicans are also determined to flip the 15th District, whose Democratic incumbent, Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, decided to seek reelection in a neighboring district (the 34th District) after redistricting made his original seat more competitive. What’s more, the Republican candidate who gave Gonzalez a surprisingly close race in 2020, Monica De La Cruz, is running in the 15th District again and national Republicans, including Trump, have lined up to support her. The Democratic primary in that district, on the other hand, has been rather quiet. While a handful of Democrats are running for the seat, arguably none have gained quite the amount of traction De La Cruz has.

There’s at least one other border-area congressional primary that’s drawn national attention in recent months, too: the rematch between Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar and progressive Jessica Cisneros, a human rights lawyer, in the 28th District. In 2020, Cuellar narrowly eked out a win, but his odds this time around are less certain. While Cueller has incumbency on his side, his home and campaign office were raided last month, as he is reportedly under federal investigation for connections he might have to companies or organizations connected to Azerbaijan. (In reviewing subpoenas associated with the investigation, ABC News found that many subjects had ties to the former Soviet Republic.) Cisneros, meanwhile, has the backing of notable fundraisers and congressional progressives, like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders. She has also attempted to focus her campaign on local issues impacting the district versus national progressive talking points that pundits (and Cuellar) previously warned might turn off Hispanic voters in the state. Still, beyond the FBI’s reported probe into Cuellar, this race could, once again, serve as a litmus test to how far left Hispanic voters living in the district are willing to go. Cuellar so far has campaigned as a moderate with more experience, but it’s unclear whether that’ll be enough to overcome a potential scandal. 

How will new voting laws affect turnout?

Texas is one of at least 21 states that enacted a new voting law since the 2020 election. But even before these latest restrictions, it was hard to vote in Texas: According to the cost of voting index, which evaluates state voting guidelines in their entirety, Texas in 2020 had the most restrictive electoral climate in the country. Taken together, that leaves a big question mark over how things like voting by mail, registering to vote and in-person voting will impact this year’s races. 

The law, which among other provisions requires absentee voters to provide specific information about their Social Security or driver’s license numbers on their absentee-ballot application and gives more power to partisan poll watchers, is already creating some new barriers for voters and election administrators, too. In some of the state’s biggest counties, like Harris and Tarrant, many Texans deemed eligible to vote by mail initially saw their mail-in ballot applications rejected due to new — and more strict — proof of identity requirements. Moreover, according to recent reports, some mail-in applications were submitted to the wrong office, which local officials said derailed the process of getting mail-in ballots to the right people in time. Other issues, like a shortage of voter registration forms have plagued the state, too.

Of course, it’s difficult to say with any certainty how many people might not vote as a result of Texas’s law (the state is already known for its historically low voter turnout). But early voting numbers so far suggest that a number of voters are sitting out this year’s races — likely due to the voting law, a lack of enthusiasm or, probably, a mixture of both.


Whew, that’s a lot to watch. But if you’ve read this far, then I bet you’d be interested in keeping up with our live blog of the election results that’ll kick off tomorrow evening. Starting Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, join us at FiveThirtyEight as we discuss all things Texas and dissect the results.

Footnotes

  1. If no candidate in a Texas primary receives at least 50 percent of the vote, plus at least one additional vote, the top two vote-getters advance to a head-to-head runoff election on May 24.

Alex Samuels is a politics reporter at FiveThirtyEight.

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