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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Takeaways from the Texas primary elections

Gov. Greg Abbott in Corpus Christi after winning his primary on Tuesday.

By Reid J. Epstein

For nearly a decade, the refrain from Texas Democrats has been that they are on the verge of making their state competitive, even though no Democrat has won a statewide race since 1994.

Tuesday’s primary results illustrated that Democrats still have a long way to go.

With more than three-quarters of the votes counted, nearly 800,000 more Republicans than Democrats voted for a candidate for governor — a gap far larger than the one in 2018, the last midterm primary election in Texas.

To be sure, Republicans had a more competitive primary than Democrats. Gov. Greg Abbott’s contest against Republican challengers from his right may have been more of a draw than Beto O’Rourke’s glide path to the Democratic nomination. And Democrats will be quick to note that primary turnout is not always a predictor of big turnout in November.

Still, Republicans demonstrated they are energized — even when divided between far-right and mainstream factions — and hardly ceding their hold on the state.

Abbott’s right turn paid off.

Before this year, Abbott had never faced a competitive Republican primary in his 25-year political career. But in a moment of conservative energy, with Republicans furious about the 2020 election and President Joe Biden’s immigration policies, a field of Republicans bet that Abbott would be vulnerable to a challenger from his right.

Turns out they were wrong.

Armed with a $60 million campaign fund, Abbott easily dispatched seven Republicans, taking more than two-thirds of the vote. It was a win that was a year in the making. Abbott has spent much of last year placating the state’s conservative base by passing new restrictions on abortion, easing gun laws and enacting new limits on how Texas schools teach about the history of racism. Days before the primary, Abbott directed state health agencies to classify medical treatments commonly provided to transgender adolescents as “child abuse.”

Abbott’s record was a striking demonstration of how a primary threat can help the right wing of the Republican Party drive the agenda, even in a state that has been trending toward Democrats.

In the general election, Abbott will again be a heavy favorite, this time against O’Rourke, the Democrat and former congressman who narrowly lost a 2018 race to Sen. Ted Cruz and then flopped in the 2020 presidential primary.

Beto O’Rourke put up a big number.

Four years ago when he ran for the Senate, O’Rourke took just 61% of the 2018 Senate primary vote even though he was running against little-known, poorly funded candidates.

Now, after O’Rourke has become the best-known figure in Texas Democratic politics, he easily dominated a field of four Democratic primary opponents.

O’Rourke took more than 90% of the primary vote, carrying nearly all of the 254 counties in Texas after losing 76 of them four years ago.

O’Rourke’s broad win was a reminder that he enters this race as a far different candidate than the plucky underdog who became a national star in 2018. Now running for governor, O’Rourke has name recognition and the state’s largest fundraising network, but also baggage from his previous races. His call for government confiscation of some firearms will continue to appear in Republican attacks against him, and he also has to overcome significant GOP advantages in the state.

Trump picked (easy) winners.

As the first primary contest of 2022, Texas previewed what will be a dominant theme of the primary season: Can Donald Trump play kingmaker?

Trump’s record was mixed. The former president endorsed 33 Texas Republicans before their primaries, but virtually all of them were widely expected to win before receiving the Trump seal of approval. As of early Wednesday morning, all of Trump’s picks for Congress were on pace to win their nominations.

But other races raised doubts that Trump’s approval alone could secure a victory. Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was endorsed by Trump, and Dawn Buckingham, Trump’s choice for land commissioner, were both headed to runoffs in May, after failing to get more than 50% of the vote.

“Big night in Texas!” Trump said late Tuesday. “All 33 candidates that were Trump endorsed have either won their primary election or are substantially leading in the case of a runoff.”

There were also signs that it can be perilous for Republicans to cross Trump. Rep. Van Taylor, a two-term incumbent from the Dallas exurbs who voted to confirm the 2020 election results and for a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, was in danger of being forced into a runoff as votes were still being tallied early Wednesday. Taylor outspent his competitors nearly 10 to 1.

The Squad may get reinforcements.

Progressives frustrated by Biden’s stalled social policy agenda were looking for a boost in Texas and got one — possibly three.

Greg Casar, a former Austin city councilman, won easily Tuesday night and appears poised to go to Washington next year from his safely Democratic district. Another progressive contender, Jessica Cisneros, forced a runoff with Rep. Henry Cuellar, a moderate who narrowly defeated her in the 2020 primary but is now under investigation by the FBI.

Jasmine Crockett, a state lawmaker who was among the ringleaders of Texas Democrats’ flight to Washington to delay new Republican voting laws last summer, has a large lead but appears bound for a runoff in a Dallas-area district. Crockett was endorsed by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who has represented the district for 35 years. Crockett leaned into the endorsement: Her campaign slogan was “passing the torch, fueling the fire.”

Together, Casar, Cisneros and Crockett would bring new energy to the liberal wing of the House and to “the Squad” of progressive Democrats. Last month, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York came to Texas to campaign for Casar and Cisneros.

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