AUSTIN, Texas – Republican Gov. Greg Abbott will face Democrat Beto O’Rourke after voters in Texas opened what could be a lengthy, bruising primary season poised to reshape political power from state capitals to Washington.
Both easily won their party’s nomination for governor on Tuesday. Abbott is now in a commanding position as he seeks a third term, beginning his run with more than $50 million and campaigning on a strongly conservative agenda in America’s largest Republican state. That leaves O'Rourke facing an uphill effort to recapture the magic of his 2018 Senate campaign, when he nearly ousted Ted Cruz.
“This group of people, and then some, are going to make me the first Democrat to be governor of the state of Texas since 1994,” O’Rourke told supporters in Fort Worth, where in 2018 he flipped Texas’ largest red county. “This is on us. This is on all of us.”
Abbott said, “Republicans sent a message.”
“They want to keep Texas on the extraordinary path of opportunity that we have provided over the past eight years,” his campaign said in a statement.
The GOP primary for state attorney general was more competitive. Former President Donald Trump's endorsement wasn't enough to prevent incumbent Ken Paxton from being forced into a May runoff. He'll face Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, the nephew of one president and grandson of another, after neither captured a majority of the votes cast. While Paxton won more votes than Bush on Tuesday, his failure to win outright could raise questions about the power of Trump's endorsement as he seeks to reshape the party in his image in other primaries later this year.
Democrats faced challenges of their own. Nine-term U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar was trying to avoid becoming the first Democratic member of Congress to lose a primary this year. He will instead head into a runoff against progressive Jessica Cisneros.
The primary season, which picks up speed in the summer, determines which candidates from each party advance to the fall campaign. The midterms will ultimately serve as a referendum on the first half of President Joe Biden’s administration, which has been dominated by a pandemic that has proven unpredictable, along with rising inflation and a series of foreign policy crises. The GOP, meanwhile, is grappling with its future as many candidates seeking to emerge from primaries, including a sizable number in Texas, tie themselves to Trump and his lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Tuesday marked the state's first election under its tighter new voting laws that, among other changes muscled through by the GOP-controlled Legislature, require mail ballots to now include identification — a mandate that counties blamed for thousands of rejected mail ballots even before Election Day. More than 10,000 mail ballots around Houston alone were flagged for not complying. Technical issues also caused problems in Texas’ largest county: Paper jams and paper tears in voting machines would take a couple days to work through while counting, said Isabel Longoria, Harris County’s elections administrator.
Several voting sites around Houston were also short-staffed, she said, causing tensions in some locations.
“Democrats and Republicans bickering with each other, stealing each other’s machines, hiding each other’s paper,” Longoria said. “At the end of the day, they were able to help voters.”
The primary also tested Republican efforts to more aggressively court Hispanic voters. Counties along the state's border with Mexico, long a stronghold for Democrats, were on track to smash Republican turnout levels compared with recent elections.
That was the latest warning sign for Democrats who are trying to hold the line with Hispanic voters who swung toward Trump in 2020.
Republicans are betting that the Texas primaries will be the first step toward them retaking Congress in November, pointing to Biden’s low approval ratings, inflation and anger about the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Russia's war with Ukraine could also have deep political implications.
Monica Carter, who voted at a polling station in River Oaks, one of Houston’s wealthiest neighborhoods, cast her ballot in the Republican primary and said she thought rising rates of crime in many parts of the country are “out of hand.”
“The police force needs to be reinforced,” said Carter, 66.
History is also on the GOP’s side. The party controlling the White House has lost congressional seats in the first midterm race every election cycle this century except in 2002, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The fight over the GOP's future is much fiercer than it was 20 years ago, though.
U.S. Rep. Van Taylor of North Texas, for instance, became a target for some on the right after he voted to certify Biden's electoral victory and to create an independent commission to investigate the Capitol insurrection. The Republican was forced into a runoff after facing four primary challengers who largely refused to accept Biden's victory and tried to minimize the mob's Capitol attack.
National Democrats say Trump's outsize GOP influence and an economy roaring back from the pandemic may help them counter political precedent. Still, disagreements between the party’s progressive and more moderate congressional wings helped doom Build Back Better, a sweeping, Biden-backed spending and social programs package.
Cisneros is among the Texas progressives who could secure Democratic nominations in House districts blue enough to all but guarantee they’ll be headed to Congress. A 28-year-old immigration attorney who supports Medicare for All, Cisneros nearly toppled Cuellar during Texas' 2020 primary.
Cisneros has been endorsed by progressive stalwarts Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who campaigned with her and with Greg Casar, an Austin City Councilmember who championed a $15 citywide minimum wage and won the Democratic primary for the open House seat representing Texas' capital.
Weissert reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Juan Lozano in Houston, Jamie Stengle and Jake Bleiberg in Dallas, Acacia Coronado in Austin and Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.