It’s primary election day. Here are six things to watch.

It’s primary election day. Here are six things to watch.
2 months 2 weeks 5 days ago Tuesday, March 05 2024 Mar 5, 2024 March 05, 2024 10:53 AM March 05, 2024 in Election Coverage
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
A voter walks into the Hays County Government Center Elections Office to cast their vote in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022 in San Marcos. Credit: Eli Hartman for The Texas Tribune

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It’s election day in Texas, and voters are heading to the polls to choose their Republican and Democratic nominees to face off in a number of races in November.

At the top of the ticket are the candidates running for president, where Joe Biden and Donald Trump are overwhelmingly expected to win their respective primaries.

But down ballot, Texans will also weigh in on dozens of state and federal races, where the primary winner is often assumed to be the eventual winner because of noncompetitive matchups in November.

Many of the races are expected to go to a runoff on May 28.

The primaries come as divisions among Republicans are in stark display, some of Texas’ most senior members of Congress are retiring and Democrats are competing with the hope of unseating Sen. Ted Cruz.

Here are six things to watch for.

Will Paxton and Abbott-backed challengers prevail?

Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are deeply upset with Republicans in the Texas House — Abbott because representatives killed his school voucher bill and Paxton because they impeached him. The pair have endorsed dozens of challengers to incumbents across the state, forcing many unaccustomed to competitive primaries into expensive — and sometimes ugly — campaigns.

For Abbott’s part, he’s putting his money where his mouth is. With the help of a $6 million campaign contribution from pro-voucher billionaire Jeff Yass, Abbott has spent mightily on ads, canvassing and polling for his candidates.

Paxton, whose campaign money is tied up in mounting legal debts to lawyers defending him in his impeachment and criminal case, has relied more heavily on the value of his own campaign appearances. He’s also leaned on allied groups funded by oil billionaire Tim Dunn to finance his supporters.

This primary has become a referendum on the influence of statewide leaders in local House districts (others like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have also picked sides, usually the challengers). Even Donald Trump has endorsed some of them. The incumbents, like Stan Lambert of Abilene, say they know their districts better than these Republicans. Tuesday evening will show if they’re right.

“The average voter here is torn,” said Neal Coates, a political science professor at Abilene Christian University. “They like the governor and they also really like Donald Trump, but they also like Stan Lambert.”

Seven House members are particularly on notice Tuesday night, facing opposition from both Abbott and Paxton: Gary VanDeaver, Glenn Rogers, Hugh D. Shine, Steve Allison, Land & Resource Management Committee Chair DeWayne Burns, Stan Lambert and Higher Education Committee Chair John Kuempel. See the full breakdown of who voted for and against vouchers and impeachment, along with how Abbott and Paxton endorsed, here.

But Paxton’s ire extends beyond the House.

Angered that the Criminal Court of Appeals ruled that his office could not unilaterally prosecute voter fraud, Paxton endorsed the primary challengers of three of the court’s judges. The three jurists, Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, Judge Barbara Hervey and Judge Michelle Slaughter, say they were simply following the state Constitution in ruling against Paxton. Nevertheless, his involvement in what are normally sleepy judicial races has turned the contests into some of the most intriguing in this primary.

Coates said that Paxton’s argument may not resonate even with Republican primary voters, as local district attorneys have always had the ability to prosecute voter fraud, and the three judges have sterling conservative credentials.

“I think the negative communication about them from the attorney general has come too late,” Coates said.

Who will challenge Ted Cruz?

U.S. Rep. Colin Allred and state Sen. Roland Gutierrez are the frontrunners in the Democratic primary to challenge Sen. Ted Cruz. Allred is leading by far in fundraising, reporting raising over $21 million this cycle compared with Gutierrez’s $1.3 million.

Allred is hoping to win the primary outright. But with 10 candidates running for the nomination, the race could easily go to a runoff, which would be held on May 28.

Allred is the favored candidate among Washington Democrats, who have witnessed his bipartisan ethos firsthand. National Democrats are rooting for Allred to pick up the seat in an unfavorable Senate map this cycle where a number of Democrats in conservative states are up for reelection. Democrats can lose only one seat and maintain their majority in the Senate.

Gutierrez is running as a progressive, underdog candidate. He has elevated his name in Texas by being the most outspoken voice for gun control and police accountability in the Legislature after the Robb Elementary shooting in Uvalde.

Who will replace the long-timers in Congress?

Two senior Republicans in the Texas congressional delegation are retiring, and candidates are leaping at the chance to represent their solidly red districts. U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, is retiring as the longest-serving Texas Republican in Congress, and Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, is retiring after 11 terms.

Both Granger and Burgess were known for their influence among House Republicans. Granger chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Burgess is among the most senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Both are some of the most coveted committee assignments in Congress.

In the race to succeed Granger, state Rep. Craig Goldman is backed by the local political and business establishment who say they are seeking candidates who will prioritize practical policymaking over national culture wars. He leads the field along with Paxton-backed candidate John O’Shea who said he best aligns with the far-right House Freedom Caucus.

The frontrunners to replace Burgess include two far-right candidates: Brandon Gill, a newcomer to politics and the district whose campaign is backed by Trump and his father-in-law Dinesh D’Souza, and John Huffman, the Southlake mayor who helped spark a national war against diversity, equity and inclusion policies in education. Former congressional chief of staff Luisa Del Rosal and former Denton County Judge Scott Armey are also in the race, which is likely to go to a runoff.

Granger and Burgess have so far not endorsed in the primaries, but Burgess said he might if it goes to a runoff.

Will Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan be forced into a runoff?

The marquee primary in the Texas House is that of Speaker Dade Phelan, who is facing a well-funded, Paxton-backed opponent in David Covey. A House speaker hasn’t lost a primary in more than 50 years, though polling has shown Phelan has become the most-despised Republican leader in Texas.

Phelan has the full might of the far right against him led by Paxton. Patrick has campaigned actively against Phelan in ads, and Trump has come out in favor of Covey. Phelan has for years been a target of the state Republican party, which continues to criticize him for including Democrats as House committee chairs.

Phelan voted for Paxton’s impeachment, but he didn’t cast a vote on school vouchers, leaving voters to wonder where he stood on the issue. (He later told The Texas Tribune he would have supported a limited voucher program.) Likewise, Abbott has remained silent on Phelan’s future, ostensibly ambivalent about his political survival.

Phelan merely needs to remain in the good graces of the 200,000 residents of his Beaumont-area district, where he has strong family ties and a history of delivering funding for local projects. Covey, however, has tried to position himself to be the true conservative in the race, a major plus for Republican primary voters.

How will Tony Gonzales’ censure impact his reelection?

This is U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales’ first election since being censured by the Republican Party of Texas last year. The state GOP objected to his votes supporting gay marriage and gun safety legislation, and his opposition to U.S. Rep. Chip Roy’s border security proposal and a right-wing House rules package crafted to get Kevin McCarthy elected House speaker.

Four candidates are challenging Gonzales from the right, including Julie Clark, the Medina County GOP chair who first launched the censure motion. Gonzales’ willingness to work with Democrats and openly criticize his own party’s right flank has soured relations with members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Members of the right-wing group have met with Gonzales’ challengers.

Gonzales still comfortably outraised all of them by a wide margin, with almost $2.9 million raised ahead of the primaries. His highest-raising challenger comes shy of raising a third that amount.

All eyes on Houston Democrats

Houston Democrats are facing a handful of high-profile challenges this year. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, who is tied for the title of longest-serving Texan currently in Congress, will face off against former Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards after failing to win the city’s mayoral election last year. It’s her first serious primary challenge in her 30 years in office.

State Rep. Shawn Thierry faces backlash from her party for her support of Senate Bill 14, which bars gender transition care for minors. It was a stunning break with her party’s support for LGBTQ+ Texans, and her reelection has become a litmus test on how viable Democrats can be in the state without full-throttle support for LGBTQ+ causes. Several House members have endorsed one of her challengers, labor organizer Lauren Ashley Simmons.

Meanwhile, Harris County Democrats are similarly questioning the ideological bona fides of District Attorney Kim Ogg as she seeks a third term. Supporters of her primary challenger, former prosecutor Sean Teare, are frustrated over her alleged ties to Texas Republicans, her war with Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and insufficient action on criminal justice reform. Ogg ended decades of Republican control of the county’s DA’s office — the third-largest in the country.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/05/texas-primary-elections-biden-trump-abbott-cruz-paxton/.

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