It’s primary runoff election day in Texas. Here’s what we’re watching.

It’s primary runoff election day in Texas. Here’s what we’re watching.
1 month 2 weeks 5 days ago Tuesday, May 28 2024 May 28, 2024 May 28, 2024 4:19 PM May 28, 2024 in Election Coverage
Source: https://www.texastribune.org/
House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, surveys the chamber during a break in the action on May 11, 2023. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

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Texans are heading to the polls Tuesday to make their final selections for which Democrats and Republicans will run for various seats in the November election.

Primary elections were March 5, but a handful of down-ballot races for congressional, legislative and local seats went to a runoff after no candidate received a majority of the vote.

The consequences for these final races are significant — Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan is fighting for political survival and his ouster could turn up the far-right temperament of the already conservative Legislature.

The outcome of some of the legislative runoffs could also determine whether Gov. Greg Abbott will be able to pass school vouchers next year — a priority he was denied by House Republicans in the last legislative session.

Many of Texas’ districts are uncompetitive because they’ve been drawn to be safely Republican or Democratic. That means primary winners, in many cases, are likely to sail safely into office this November.

Here’s four things we’re watching.

House speaker race

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, is fighting for reelection in the District 21 runoff against former Orange County Republican Party Chair David Covey, who received the most votes in the first round of balloting in the Southeast Texas district.

The race is a proxy battle for the future of the Texas Republican Party.

[House Speaker Dade Phelan took a risk on Paxton’s impeachment. It may end his career.]

Phelan is backed by business-oriented conservatives who helped bring the Republican Party to power in the 1990s, while Covey has the support of an insurgency of far-right Republicans with a greater focus on social and cultural issues. No incumbent House speaker has lost a primary since 1972.

Covey has secured the endorsements of former President Donald Trump, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller. His campaign has been heavily bankrolled by Midland oil magnate and conservative activist Tim Dunn.

Phelan enjoys the backing of his two predecessors, former Republican speakers Dennis Bonnen and Joe Straus, as well as former Gov. Rick Perry, who has hit the campaign trail with Phelan. Gov. Greg Abbott, who shares a lot of big-dollar donors with Phelan, has remained notably silent on the race.

Phelan’s financial supporters include conservative groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Associated Republicans of Texas as well as some of the wealthiest business executives in the state.

Because of its importance in determining the future of the House, the race has become staggeringly expensive. Through May 20, the two campaigns had collectively spent $5.4 million on an election that will likely draw less than 30,000 voters. That figure excludes money spent by outside groups on each candidate’s behalf.

Abbott’s voucher crusade

In the March primaries, Abbott helped orchestrate the defeat of six House GOP incumbents who thwarted his push for school vouchers. He hopes to gain further ground, and perhaps even a pro-voucher majority, in Tuesday’s runoffs.

On the ballot are four contests featuring anti-voucher House incumbents who survived the March purge but failed to win a majority, forcing them into runoffs against Abbott-backed challengers.

[GOP leaders snubbed Katrina Pierson in her House primary. Now they need her to pass school vouchers.]

All but one of the GOP incumbents finished in second place in the March election, making them decided underdogs heading into the overtime round. The exception was state Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, who finished a few percentage points ahead of his top challenger, businessman Chris Spencer.

By Abbott’s count, voucher supporters are two votes shy of reaching a majority in the House, the chamber where a firewall of Democrats and rural Republicans has shot down attempts to provide taxpayer funds for private school tuition.

Despite the chamber’s historical resistance, Abbott adopted vouchers as his signature issue two years ago, declaring it a top legislative priority and playing hardball with members to try to pass it. He ultimately failed to break through, vexed by a bloc of 21 Republican holdouts — some of whom Abbott and his allies have already ousted or, in the case of retiring members, replaced with pro-voucher successors.

The embattled incumbents have faced a torrent of attack ads seeking to depict them as soft on border security, even after they fully supported Abbott’s immigration crackdown. Some voucher groups have also accused the anti-voucher Republicans of killing a school funding bill — without mentioning that the measure died because, following a vote to strip vouchers from the bill, the author withdrew the entire proposal, citing Abbott’s threat to veto any education spending that did not include vouchers.

Along with VanDeaver, three other anti-voucher Republicans are on Tuesday’s ballot: state Reps. DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, Justin Holland of Rockwall and John Kuempel of Seguin.

Burns faces Helen Kerwin, a former Glen Rose mayor and Somervell County commissioner, who finished with 49% to Burns’ 41% in the first round.

Holland is up against Katrina Pierson, the former tea party leader and Trump spokesperson. He received 39% in March, finishing a few hundred votes behind Pierson.

Kuempel’s runoff opponent is former state representative Alan Schoolcraft, who won 48% to Kuempel’s 45% in the first round.

Tony Gonzales vulnerable

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, is fending off a right-wing primary challenge from YouTuber and gun influencer Brandon Herrera. Gonzales’ reelection campaign is his first since being censured by the Texas Republican Party last year.

Gonzales faced a serious push from the right this year after months of beefing with cultural conservatives in Washington and Texas. The state party censured him over his support for gun safety legislation in the wake of the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, which is in his district. It also cited his opposition to House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Chip Roy’s hardline border bill in 2023 and Gonzales’ opposition to a House rules package negotiated between hardliners and then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.

[Gun rights YouTuber Brandon Herrera gains momentum in race against U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales]

Herrera is new to politics, using his prominent internet presence to get out his pro-gun message. Much of his support comes from out of state from small-dollar donors. Herrera also has the backing of the House Freedom Caucus.

Gonzales has a serious fundraising operation, raising over $4 million this cycle, including from business interests in West Texas and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. He has also been endorsed by major Republican leaders including U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, Abbott and Patrick.

The district was historically a swing district but became much more comfortably Republican after redistricting in 2021.

Democrats, too

Much of the attention this election cycle is on the Republican civil war, but there’s still a handful of Democratic races making waves.

In the House, Houston Rep. Shawn Thierry’s match-up against Laura Ashley Simmons emerged as a test of whether Democrats can vote against the LGBTQ+ community without paying the electoral price.

Thierry has been under fire among many of her House Democratic peers since she voted for a GOP-backed measure barring gender-transitioning care for minors. She fanned the flames by going on to deliver an emotional speech from the House floor explaining her vote.

[Heat intensifies around Houston Democrat Shawn Thierry ahead of bitter runoff]

Another House race to watch is in District 80, where Rosie Cuellar faces Cecilia Castellano, a former Laredo municipal judge, in the Democratic primary runoff.

Cuellar, who came in first in the March primary, is the Webb County tax assessor-collector and notably, sister of U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar — whose recent indictment along with his wife has drawn fresh attention to the family’s political connections.

The seat is open because Rep. Tracy King, D-Uvalde, did not seek reelection. But Republicans view the race as a pickup opportunity. The winner of the Democratic primary will go on to face former Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin in November.

In the Senate, state Rep. Jarvis Johnson is getting a rematch against newly sworn-in state Sen. Molly Cook in the Democratic runoff for Houston’s Senate District 15. The two are hoping to replace John Whitmire, who is now mayor of Houston.

In a signal of her strength, Cook — backed by a progressive fundraising group led by Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg — beat Johnson in a special election to fill Whitmire’s unexpired term through the end of the year with 57% of the vote.

The winner on Tuesday will face off against Republican Joseph Trahan in November for the four-year term.

Rebekah Allen contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/28/texas-election-primary-runoff/.

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