Parties’ activist wings see mixed results in Texas as Abbott advances, progressives fall short of goals

People wait in line to cast their votes in the primary election at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Dallas on Tuesday. (Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune, Shelby Tauber For The Texas Tribune)

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The activist wings of both major political parties entered the Texas primary hoping to shake up state leadership. But as the votes kept rolling in Wednesday morning, it became clear the results would fall short of ushering in a sea change.

Texas’ top Republicans mostly fended off challengers in the GOP primary Tuesday. Meanwhile, a slate of progressives made inroads in Democratic primaries for Congress — but fell short of their goal of an immediate sweep that would reshape Texas’ U.S. House delegation.

Gov. Greg Abbott decidedly trounced right-wing opponents Don Huffines, a former state senator, and Allen West, former head of the Texas GOP and one-term Florida congressman — solidifying his hold on the Texas Republican base. Abbott will face Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke, a former El Paso congressman, in the general election after O’Rourke easily won his party’s nomination for governor.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Comptroller Glenn Hegar also cruised to their party’s nominations in their reelection bids, and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller won his primary race early Wednesday.

At least one sitting GOP statewide incumbent didn’t avoid a runoff: Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has been under indictment since 2015 and is under investigation by the FBI for accusations that he abused his office to help a campaign donor.

But Paxton snagged the most votes in the crowded primary field. He’ll enter what is likely to be the highest-profile Texas runoff of 2022 against Land Commissioner George P. Bush. The race pits a two-term incumbent backed by former President Donald Trump against a member of a Bush family dynasty that stretches back decades in the state.

Republican incumbent Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian was leading his challengers, but it was unclear early Wednesday if he would avoid a runoff.

In the one open statewide seat, state Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, received the most votes in her bid for the GOP nomination for land commissioner. She’ll enter a runoff with Tim Westley, a pastor and former congressional candidate. There will also be a runoff on the Democratic side between conservationist Jay Kleberg and Sandragrace Martinez, a relatively unknown candidate who was the top vote recipient.

Meanwhile, the status quo was largely preserved in the Texas Legislature. No state Senate incumbents lost their seats Tuesday night. In the House, one sitting Democrat — Art Fierro — lost, and no incumbent Republicans were knocked out, though a few were forced into runoffs. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan both saw the vast majority of their favored candidates win primaries in the chambers they preside over.

Abbott took his win as a mandate after conservatives had bashed him for enacting statewide COVID-19 restrictions early in the pandemic.

"Tonight, Republicans sent a message they want to keep Texas the land of opportunity and prosperity for absolutely everybody, the prosperity that we have delivered over the past eight years," Abbott said at his election night rally in Corpus Christi.

Backed by Trump, he neutralized his challengers by adopting hard-right positions on red-meat issues dear to the Republican base — like barring employers from requiring workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and compelling a state agency to open child abuse investigations into parents who reportedly allow their transgender children to access some gender-affirming care.

“Abbott responded to those criticisms and took action immediately to shore his right flank up,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a GOP strategist and professor of political science at St. Edward’s University in Austin. “I think you couple that with the power of name ID, approval rating and money, and the other guys — nobody really knew who they were — and there you go.”

Trump also endorsed Paxton. But to Corbin Casteel, a Republican consultant who was Trump's state campaign director, the fact that Paxton faces a runoff is a sign that his alleged misdeeds caught up with him.

“He has been an embarrassment to the Republican Party, and voters pay attention,” Casteel said.

Paxton has been in this position before, however. In his first campaign for attorney general in 2014, he bested then-state Rep. Dan Branch, a Dallas-area Republican, in the primary — but not enough to avoid a runoff, in which Paxton prevailed. Paxton also won his 2018 primary and the general election that year while under indictment.

This time, nearly three-fifths of the Republican electorate voted against Paxton. But Bush may have a hard time convincing his voters to turn out for a runoff election in which party activists who back Paxton will be highly motivated to show up, Steinhauser said.

“It's the activists that show up,” Steinhauser said.

On the Democratic side, a slate of progressive candidates made headway in three congressional races — perhaps signaling a new path for Democrats in Texas, political experts said Tuesday night.

Greg Casar, a former Austin City Council member who pushed the city leftward on issues of homelessness and police funding, edged out state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez to be the Democratic nominee in a new congressional district that heavily favors Democrats.

In Dallas, it wasn't determined early Wednesday whether state Rep. Jasmine Crockett — who drew U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s backing Monday — would avoid a runoff in her bid to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, who endorsed Crockett.

But the banner race for progressives ended the night with uncertainty in South Texas. Jessica Cisneros, a left-leaning lawyer, trailed U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat from Laredo who has held his seat since 2005. But it was unclear whether the race would go into a runoff; it was too close to call early Wednesday morning. Cisneros, who lost to Cuellar in 2020, had hoped to capitalize on an FBI raid in January on Cuellar’s home and office to deprive the nine-term congressman of an easy 10th win.

Casar and Cisneros each drew the backing of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who flew to Texas to campaign for them.

To Democratic observers, the trio of progressives made progress, which was an indicator that the state’s Democratic voters want more stridently progressive and aggressive candidates as Texas Republicans move further to the right. That, in turn, could firm up the party’s platform and drive enthusiasm in November, said Manny Garcia, former executive director of the Texas Democratic Party.

“They don’t play politics as usual from the perspective of, ‘Hey, if we’re nice to Republicans, maybe we’ll get some crumbs off the table,’” Garcia said. “That approach does exist in Texas. There’s a lot of folks in the Democratic Party that get frustrated by that.”

Jen Ramos, a State Democratic Executive Committee member who pressed state party officials for changes after the party’s dismal 2020 performance, echoed that.

“We have attempted to play it safe for a very long time,” Ramos said. “And that has not necessarily yielded us the results that we have wanted and has not yielded us the results that we’ve needed to inspire change.”

But a Cisneros victory in particular could spark worries for Democrats. Republicans have made gains in recent years in South Texas, and the nomination of a more progressive Democrat could be seen as an opportunity for the GOP to flip the seat.

Democratic races for lieutenant governor, attorney general and land commissioner are all headed to runoffs because no candidate gained a majority of votes.

As the state’s streak of low voter turnout during the primaries continued, the first statewide election since Texas enacted sweeping restrictions on voting access was marked by widespread rejection of mail-in ballots and considerable confusion at polls in the state’s large urban areas like Harris County.

Patrick Svitek contributed reporting.

Disclosure: St. Edward’s University 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.