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Election 2022: Texas primary tests GOP’s rightward shift

Posted at 12:06 PM, Mar 01, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-01 13:06:14-05

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Voters in Texas will usher in the midterm campaign season with primaries that will test just how far to the right the Republican Party will shift in a state where many in the GOP have already tightened their embrace of former President Donald Trump.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Greg Abbott appears well positioned to secure his party’s nomination for another term after Tuesday’s voting. Starting the campaign with more than $50 million, he has built hard-line positions on guns, immigration and abortion.

The GOP primary for attorney general may be more competitive as incumbent Ken Paxton seeks a third term in office. He’s facing several challengers, including Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, who are vowing to restore order to the office. Paxton led a failed lawsuit to overturn the 2020 election and has for years faced securities fraud charges and an FBI investigation into corruption allegations. He has broadly denied wrongdoing.

Democrats face challenges of their own after nearly three decades of statewide losses. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke has little competition for the party’s nomination for governor, but he faces uphill odds going into the fall. Nine-term U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, meanwhile, is hoping to avoid becoming the first Democratic member of Congress to lose a primary this year. He’s facing a much-watched challenge from progressive rival Jessica Cisneros and contending with the fallout of a recent FBI raid on his home. Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing.

Still, in America’s largest Republican state, much of the focus will be on the GOP’s rightward lurch. The evolution is especially pronounced in Texas, where rapid growth — driven by more than 4 million new residents — has shifted once solidly red suburbs away from Republicans. But the GOP has countered that with redrawn maps that left fewer competitive congressional districts along with dramatic new restrictions to voting.

Already, thousands of mail-in ballot applications — and actual ballots — have been rejected under the state’s new requirements. Most of those were due to voters not including newly mandated identification, worrying local elections officials that many won’t correct problems to have their vote count.

“Just common sense will tell you there is going to be a number of people who don’t cure that ballot,” said Bruce Sherbert, the nonpartisan election administrator in Collin County, which is in Dallas’ northern suburbs.

This year’s primary season is beginning at a pivotal moment in American life.

The U.S. is steadily moving out of the deepest lows of a pandemic that has raged for nearly two years. But that’s tempered by inflation reaching a decades-high level and a burgeoning war in Europe. And there are persistent questions about the country’s commitment to basic democratic principles after many GOP leaders have tied themselves to Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen — a phenomenon especially acute in Texas.

“There really isn’t a candidate on the Republican side who is someone who is standing up for the rule of law and supporting the fact that the 2020 election was free and fair and accurate,” said Christine Todd Whitman, a former Republican governor of New Jersey who is critical of Trump and is the co-chair of States United Democracy Center, a nonprofit that works to safeguard elections. “It’s Texas. What can I say?”

Still, the results Tuesday could have lasting implications. After Texas, primaries in other states won’t resume until May. That means results here could be viewed for months as a measure of the nation’s political mood.

Republicans are betting that Tuesday will be the first step toward them easily retaking Congress in November, pointing to President Joe Biden’s low approval ratings, spiking inflation and the anger about the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan.

“I don’t know how you can fix the incompetence issue,” Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a recent interview. “I don’t think that’s going away.”

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, amid the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, under President George W. Bush.

But the fight over the party’s future is much fiercer than it was 20 years ago.

U.S. Rep. Van Taylor of North Texas, for instance, has become a target for some on the right after he voted to certify Biden’s electoral victory and to create an independent commission to investigate last year’s insurrection on Jan. 6. The Republican now faces four primary challengers who have largely refused to accept Biden’s victory and have tried to minimize the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Full Coverage: 2022 Midterm elections

Businesswoman Suzanne Harp, one of the Republicans aiming to unseat Taylor, says the left “is using the divisive language of ‘domestic terrorism’ to subvert attention away from the fraudulent election” and ultimately trying to ensure “President Trump can never run for political office again.”

One of the most storied dynasties in Republican politics could also reach its end Tuesday. George P. Bush, whose father was Florida governor and whose uncle and grandfather were president, is the last of his family in office but may not be able to garner enough support to force a runoff against Paxton, who has been endorsed by Trump.

National Democrats say Trump’s still-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 one of three 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 fully government-funded health care under Medicare for All, Cisneros nearly toppled Cuellar during Texas’ 2020 primary. She still has to overcome long-serving Cuellar’s strong name recognition, though.

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 Council member who championed a $15 citywide minimum wage and is favored to win the Democratic nomination for an open House seat representing Texas’ capital.

In Dallas, civil rights attorney and state lawmaker Jasmine Crockett has denounced “puppets” of the Democratic establishment and is running for a seat being vacated by longtime congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who has endorsed her.

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party advocacy group, which has joined leading national progressive organizations in endorsing Cisneros, Casar and Crockett, said all three are young and championed by grassroots organizers in their deeply diverse communities. He said they prove progressive ideas can be popular in a conservative state like Texas and, rather than fueling intraparty squabbles, all might energize Democratic voters.

“They’re both rising stars for the progressive movement and rising stars for the Democratic Party,” Mitchell said. “If you want to push back on those historical headwinds, you need to be able to produce candidates that can animate your base. And these are three candidates that can do that.”