Texas is the first state to hold primary elections for the 2022 election cycle. Early voting ends Friday and Election day is March 1.
The results in Texas could have broader consequences for national politics. Who wins in Texas could shift the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives. Results could also indicate whether Texas Democrats are willing to embrace more progressive candidates, and whether former President Donald Trump still holds sway over conservative voters.
Two political reporters following the Texas primaries spoke with Texas Standard about what they’re paying attention to this week and beyond next Tuesday: Stephanie Murray of Politico and Julian Aguilar of The Texas Newsroom. Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Stephanie, as a political reporter outside of Texas, you recently wrote about what the primaries in Texas might signal for national midterm elections in November. Could you say a little bit more about that?
Stephanie Murray: I think the biggest race that I have my eye on right now is Texas’ [28th Congressional District] – the Democratic primary matchup between Congressman Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros – a progressive backed by Justice Democrats who lost to Cuellar in 2020 but is running again this cycle. I think how that primary pans out will say a lot about where progressives have momentum heading into the rest of the midterm calendar as we get through big primaries in other states across the spring.
Cisneros ran against Cuellar previously; she was a former intern of his, and came rather close to winning, is that right?
Murray: Yeah, that’s right. She lost by fewer than 3,000 votes in 2020. And, you know, there are a few factors that seem to stack up in her favor. One of them is that the district became a little bit more blue in redistricting – that once-in-a-decade process when lawmakers redraw the congressional districts. And the other factor is that Cuellar’s home and his campaign office were recently raided by the FBI, which, of course, spurred a lot of questions from the press, a lot of attack ads on television. So it’s going to be a really fascinating race to watch.
Julian, looking at the statewide races, which ones have gotten most attention, and are you expecting any surprises or potential runoffs?
Julian Aguilar: At the top of the ticket, obviously, Gov. Greg Abbott: his opponents are running to the to the right of the governor, which seems kind of hard to do in this day and age, at least with the Texas GOP.
But I think there’s probably a lot more buzz about a potential runoff scenario for the Texas attorney general, where the incumbent Ken Paxton, is also facing a slew of challengers. He is not participating in a debate Thursday night, but Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and Congressman Louie Gohmert are all going to have a platform to say why they should be the next attorney general.
Obviously, Paxton is mired in some legal troubles. He’s been very, very busy the last week, week and a half, in his official capacity, announcing lawsuits, announcing settlements with pharmaceutical companies, and just kind of going out there and sort of saying, “This is what I do for the state of Texas.” But we’ll see. So I think most sides are probably on the GOP race for the attorney general to see what happens after Tuesday, which is the primary Election Day here in the state.
George P. Bush has been taking aim at Eva Guzman; it almost appears as if Bush thinks that a runoff is in the making. Is that your sense of of how things are shaping up?
Aguilar: That’s what the reporting is reflecting, sure. And then Congressman Gohmert is going after Paxton. So it’s almost like a semifinal bracket, where there’s one against another on one side, and another against another on the other side, and see who comes out. But we’ll see how that plays out.
I’m not sure why the attorney general declined to participate in the debate on Thursday evening, but it should be interesting to watch and see if that sways turnout numbers going into early voting on Friday, which is the last day, and then the primary Election Day, because primary turnout has been pretty dismal so far, as is pretty much the historical trend for midterm elections in Texas.
Not counting mail-in votes, something like 95% of registered voters as of yesterday had not cast ballots. Of course, there are a lot of mail-ins, and we won’t know exactly what turnout is until Tuesday or Wednesday. Stephanie, I know you focused a lot of your reporting on the six open House seat primaries in Texas, I presume with a view of Texas sort of tilting the balance of power in the house. Is that a possibility? And what other races are you watching?
Murray: Yeah, that’s certainly a possibility [in] Texas, a state with four lawmakers who are either retiring or running for another office, then gaining two congressional seats – one of only a couple of states in the United States to get new congressional seats this redistricting cycle.
I think another race that I’m looking at, another primary race, is the race between Morgan Luttrell and Christian Collins. They’re part of an 11-person primary to replace Kevin Brady, retiring congressman. But the two of them have kind of split conservatives and the Republican Party, with Luttrell not moving as far to the right as his opponent is, and national figures and the Trump “MAGA universe” weighing in, like Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia, Madison Cawthorn in North Carolina. And so that’s what I’m going to be watching, to see how far to the right voters embrace candidates in these primaries.
And I think the throughline there is that once you win a primary, you’ve still got to pivot and run in the general election. That’s something that I’m watching in the Texas [28th Congressional District] race, to go back to Cuellar versus Cisneros. If she is able to pull it out next week, then the challenge is, are you too far to the left to win in a district that’s still kind of a toss-up? It’s a safe Biden seat, but he didn’t win it by that much in 2020. And a Republican could certainly pull it off in November.
I know you’ve been tracking how much national money is coming into these Texas primaries. What have you found?
Murray: There is just an incredible amount of money being spent on the airwaves in Texas, that’s true, and all of the major states on the midterm map. In Texas right now, this number was up from a couple of days ago, so it’s probably gone up. But TV ads from campaigns and outside groups is at $67.4 million, according to Adimpact, which is a software service that tracks campaign-ad spending.
And the highest spender so far is Gov. Greg Abbott. He’s got those Republican primary challengers; he’s got to protect his right flank. He’s spent close to $8 million on TV so far, and his Republican challengers have certainly been battling him on the air. There was one ad from Allen West up this week saying that anybody who says that the border between the United States and Mexico is secure is just lying; those were his words. And he is really up on the air, spending all of this money before he gets to a likely general-election battle against former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, which will be another very, very expensive race.
Julian, I know you’ve been closely following all of the changes wrought by Texas Senate Bill 1, which is the change to election laws that passed during the last legislative session. We’ve been reading and hearing quite a bit about rejected mail-in ballots or ballot applications. How much turbulence is that going to cause when it comes to perceptions around this primary season?
Aguilar: I think it’ll be somewhat significant. Going back to the to the voter turnout, our reporting is based off the [Texas] secretary of state’s website, and even that there’s a discrepancy when you compare their totals for certain counties to what the counties’ own elections administrators have online. And that is because of the mail-in-ballot issue. Whereas the secretary of state counts all mail-in ballots received, a spokesperson at the office said that they don’t necessarily have an asterisk or a carveout on their data sheet for any mail-in ballots that have been flagged as unacceptable or need corrections. So I think that’s not only swaying the count, but it’s going to lead to some frustration as well.
There’s been a lot of coverage about the mail-in ballots, specifically in Harris County, which, as the largest county in Texas, would naturally have the most number of rejected ballots. Local officials there have asked the [U.S. Department of Justice] to intervene in certain aspects of what SB 1 is doing. So, although mail-in ballots are a smaller slice of the pie, I think when you do get into primaries, which, in some counties is the election because there is no either Democratic or Republican challenger in the Democratic election, some people are going to raise eyebrows and say that is a problem and it definitely needs to get fixed before the general election.