The first primary elections of 2022 are underway in Texas, and political observers across the country are paying attention because what happens here could shift the balance of national politics.
Joseph Ax, national affairs reporter for Reuters, tells Texas Standard that while the governor’s race will get a lot of attention, he’s more focused on six congressional races that will help determine the makeup of the next Congress. Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about why Ax considers one race to be a “Trump loyalty test,” and why another could be an opportunity for Republicans to gain ground in South Texas.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: Can you tell us about the race in Texas you described in your reporting as a “Trump loyalty test”?
Joseph Ax: Yeah. In the 3rd District in Texas, which is in the northeast of Dallas, you’ve got a guy named Van Taylor who’s the incumbent there. He won fairly comfortably last time around even though the district itself was almost a toss-up between Biden and Trump. But the district’s been redrawn to be a little more conservative.
He’s now facing a challenge from the right, in part because of his vote — he was one of the first few Republicans to vote in favor of creating an independent commission to look into the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Of course, that’s something that Trump has been very much opposed to. And there’s a guy named Keith Self, a former judge who’s running against Van Taylor, who claims that voting for the commission shows he’s insufficiently loyal. And so it’s a really good test to see how strong Trump’s hold remains on Republican base voters.
Why did you describe the Democratic primary in South Texas’ 28th District as a “rematch” to watch?
That’s Henry Cuellar’s district. Cuellar is maybe the most conservative Democrat in the House, and a couple years ago, a woman named Jessica Cisneros — a progressive who’s backed by folks like [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] — tried to take him down and came quite close. So, she’s up for a rematch this year.
One of the complicating factors is that the FBI recently raided Cuellar’s house. We don’t know exactly what that’s about. I know ABC [News] reported it might have something to do with a probe involving Azerbaijan. But Cuellar said he’s confident that he’s done nothing wrong. But of course, that’s not a great look for a sitting congressman, and I think Cisneros kind of smells blood in the water and thinks she may be able to take him down this time.
Can you tell us about the primary race you described as “a test” of the Democratic party’s left wing, in the 35th District that stretches from San Antonio to Austin?
This is another kind of ongoing battle in the war between the party’s progressive wing and the more mainstream, institutional wing. The 35th District is solidly Democratic, so whoever wins the nomination will go on to be the representative in that district. Greg Casar, who’s a Democratic Socialist and former Austin City Council member, is running against a couple of more establishment-style candidates.
Again, it’s going to be interesting to see if the more progressive, left-wing candidate can emerge there. He’s probably the most liberal Democrat that you’re going to see in a state like Texas. So that’s one we’re definitely keeping an eye on.
There are two new congressional seats in Texas. One of them, the 38th District, which stretches northwest from Houston, was drawn by Republicans to be safely conservative, you reported. Who’s running in this race and why does it interest you?
The front-runner appears to be a guy named Wesley Hunt, who came pretty close to flipping the Democratic seat a couple of years ago. He was a top recruit for the Republican Party, in part, because he’s a combat veteran from the Army. He’s also Black, and he’s exactly the kind of candidate that I think the Republicans want to see more of.
There are only two Republicans in the House of Representatives who are Black right now. I don’t want to reduce it just to that, but I do think that someone like Wesley Hunt, with his résumé and his background, is the kind of person that the Republicans feel they need to have in their caucus in order to kind of show that they’re interested in being more diverse and having a greater range of backgrounds and viewpoints.
Kevin Brady held 13 terms representing the 8th District north of Houston. Why is the primary race for his successor one to watch?
It’s been a long time since Kevin Brady was not an important member of the Republican caucus, and the two leading candidates to replace him have basically split the state’s Republican heavyweights. You’ve got a guy named Morgan Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL who’s backed by Republican congressional leaders like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former Gov. Rick Perry. And if his name sounds familiar, it’s because his twin brother, Marcus Luttrell, is the guy that wrote “Lone Survivor,” the best-selling memoir about his own Navy SEAL experiences.
The other guy that’s running is a conservative who’s supported by some of the more conservative elements in the House – folks like, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who’s the very controversial Trump supporter from Georgia. So that’s another interesting kind of test to see where the Republican Party stands.
In the 15th District, which stretches from the San Antonio area to the Rio Grande, the incumbent, Vicente González decided to run for reelection in a neighboring district. Tell us a little bit about how this could be key to understanding whether Republicans might be gaining some ground in South Texas.
After the Republican redistricting that’s going into effect this year, this is maybe the only district that is truly in play in November. Republicans really feel as though they’ve got a great chance to flip this to their side of the column. The Republican front-runner is Monica De La Cruz Hernandez. She ran two years ago and almost beat González. And with González not running in this district, there’s no clear-cut Democratic leader that has emerged so far, so Republicans, on a national level, are eyeing this district as one where they can maybe rack up a win.