AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The 2022 midterm election season begins Tuesday in Texas, where voters will select their candidates for governor, attorney general, congressional seats and more.
With the next state primary not happening until May, Texas will be well ahead of the pack when it comes to providing a first glimpse of whether embracing former President Donald Trump remains a litmus test for Republicans and what messages are sticking for Democrats.
Of particular interest are congressional primaries in two districts where incumbents are under threat. Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar faces a progressive challenger just weeks after FBI agents raided his home. Republican Rep. Van Taylor is seen as vulnerable in his GOP-dominated district for criticizing the Jan. 6 uprising and voting to confirm Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election.
Statewide, Attorney General Ken Paxton is trying to survive a major Republican challenge while huddled under the cloud of an FBI corruption investigation.
What to watch as the Texas primary unfolds:
WHAT PROBLEMS ARE RACING IN TEXAS DRIVING?
Republican candidates in Texas are increasingly shifting to the right, and some have not stopped questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election — despite a broad coalition of senior government and industry figures they describe as the “safest in American history.”
That makes the Texas primary an early test of Trump’s enduring hold on the party and how much discredited claims of widespread voter fraud will motivate Republican voters this year. A Hearst Newspapers poll of Texas GOP congressional candidates found dozens contesting the outcome of President Joe Biden’s victory.
The primary also marks six months since Texas introduced the most restrictive abortion law in the United States in nearly 50 years. Democrats have said abortion rights will be a core part of their national strategy in the 2022 midterm election, but the issue was not a priority in the Texas primary.
ARE THE FIRST SHAKE-UPS IN CONGRESS BEFORE?
Cuellar and Taylor face tough primaries in their respective counties.
Cuellar, a nine-term incumbent and one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, has long defied his party by voting against abortion rights and gun control. That record has landed him again in a difficult re-election against progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros, who first faced Cuellar two years ago.
Cisneros, a former Cuellar intern, came 4 percentage points closer to a surprise in 2020. Cuellar could be more vulnerable this time after FBI agents raided his home in January as part of an investigation related to the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.
Cuellar has denied wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.
A Cisneros victory deep in South Texas would rank among the biggest upsets yet for the party’s progressive wing. It could also tempt Republicans to launch a sudden and more serious run to flip the district.
For Republicans, Taylor is on the defense after voting to set up an independent commission to investigate the Jan. 6 riot by a mob of Trump supporters. His predicament shows how the GOP downplayed the severity of the attack on the Capitol and sought to shift the blame to others.
IS THE TEXAS GOVERNOR’S RACE SET?
For months, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke have been looking past the primary and fighting each other.
Abbott has set his sights on a third term with Trump’s endorsement, an impressive $56 million in campaign funds and his signature to a long list of divisive new laws — on guns, abortion and immigration — that have skewed Texas hard to the right.
But that didn’t protect him from challengers on the far right, including former Florida Congressman Allen West, who served a term as a Tea Party arsonist. West and other key competitors angered within the GOP base over Abbott’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including an early mask mandate.
But there is little sign of a close race. If Abbott avoids a primary runoff by winning more than 50% of the vote, his win would demonstrate broad support within the GOP and keep him in the conversation with potential 2024 presidential candidates.
O’Rourke, who exited the 2020 presidential race early, has shown he can still draw crowds and raise money quickly in Texas. He has no serious competition on Tuesday, although his performance at the US-Mexico border will be closely watched.
During O’Rourke’s 2018 run for the United States Senate, he underperformed in both the primary and general election in South Texas. Republicans are making a strong push in that region after Trump flipped some border counties in 2020. High GOP turnout along the border during Tuesday’s primary could be a red flag for Democrats.
IS A TRUMP ALLY IN TROUBLE A TEXAS PRIMARY?
The most heated national primary is the Attorney General’s race.
Paxton, who is seeking his third term, led a failed lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election and has been dogged by securities fraud charges and an FBI investigation into corruption allegations. He has largely denied wrongdoing.
He carries Trump’s endorsement and has become one of the country’s most prominent attorney generals, filing lawsuits against the Biden administration and Big Tech.
His challengers, including Texas Lands Commissioner George P. Bush and US Rep. Louie Gohmert, are running with a message to restore order in an office that has seen upheaval under Paxton.
Bush, a son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a grandson of former President George HW Bush, has spent the final days of the race expressing confidence that he will force a May runoff. He is the only member of the Bush family still in public office.
WHAT WILL THE TEXAS ELECTION LIKE?
Turnout in primary elections is typically low in Texas, and this year has been no exception, with early voting in the low single digits among the state’s 17 million registered voters.
But this primary is also the first test of a GOP-led voting overhaul that Texas Republicans pushed through the state capitol last year. At least 17 other states will also hold elections under stricter rules this year, some fueled by Trump’s unsubstantiated claims about the 2020 election.
The rushed introduction of new early code rules in Texas has resulted in thousands of absentee ballot applications and actual ballots being returned for not containing new identification requirements.
Secretary of State John Scott has said voters are still learning the rules and expects future Texas elections to be smoother. But local officials are concerned the problems could result in some voters not casting a ballot.