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Texas Primaries: What to Watch in the First Contests of 2018

March 6 will see several competitive primary races in the Lone Star State

Gina Ortiz Jones is a Democratic candidate in Texas’ 23rd District. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Gina Ortiz Jones is a Democratic candidate in Texas’ 23rd District. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call file photo)

As the saying goes, everything’s bigger in Texas. That includes congressional primaries.

The March 6 elections will be the first primary contests of 2018, and the initial tests of first-time candidates running for Congress — Democrats competing in newly targeted seats and Republicans vying to replace outgoing GOP lawmakers.

Early voting begins Feb. 20, and for many of these races, the primaries won’t end on March 6. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two contenders head to a May 22 runoff.

Outside groups

Both parties’ campaign committees have been hesitant (at least publicly) to take sides in the Texas primaries, opening the door for outside groups looking to shape the contests. A number of groups on both sides have already weighed in, and some strategists expect even more involvement in the runoffs.

There has been more activity on the Democratic side, particularly with EMILY’s List backing five candidates — including in three races that are top Democratic targets. The influential group backs female Democrats who support abortion rights, and an endorsement can connect candidates to its vast network of donors.

Bold PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, has backed four Democratic hopefuls in Texas, with one in a top target.

“Texas is definitely one of those big states we’re going to be involved in,” said California Democratic Rep. Tony Cárdenas, who chairs the group. Besides donations from the PAC, endorsees also get help on the campaign trail from members of the caucus.

Cárdenas said Texas holds new opportunities for Democratic gains — for example, voters could ;make history by electing the state’s first Latina congresswoman.

Other groups supporting Democratic candidates in the Lone Star State include VoteVets, which endorses veterans; End Citizens United, which supports candidates who want to overhaul campaign finance laws; NewDemPAC, which supports moderate Democrats; and Equality PAC, the political arm of the Congressional LGBT Equality Caucus.

A handful of groups have weighed in on the six open-seat primaries on the Republican side. The Club for Growth PAC has endorsed two candidates, and has not ruled out getting involved in more Texas primaries.

Watch: Fundraising Reports Say a Lot About a Campaign

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Democratic targets

Democrats are targeting three GOP-held districts in Texas that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, and all of them feature crowded primary fields.

One Democratic strategist working in Texas noted that each of these districts is a microcosm of other targets across the country.

The 23rd District, held by Rep. Will Hurd, is a consistent swing seat.

The seats held by Reps. John Culberson and Pete Sessions represent newly competitive opportunities for Democrats. They are both in expensive media markets — Culberson’s 7th District in Houston and Sessions’ 32nd in Dallas. Both include suburban areas, similar to other targets in California, Florida, Pennsylvania and Illinois.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has not openly thrown its weight behind individual candidates in Texas. None are listed in the committee’s “Red to Blue” program.

But Democratic leaders, including House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, have backed former prosecutor Jay Hulings in Texas’ 23rd District, signaling they see him as a viable challenger to Hurd. Hulings, who has been endorsed by Bold PAC, also has ties to Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro and his twin brother Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary.

Hulings is one of five Democratic hopefuls in the 23rd District, where the majority of the population is Hispanic. Operatives named Hulings and former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones as the top candidates who could make the runoff. They also lead the field in fundraising, according to reports released last week. Ortiz Jones has the backing of EMILY’s List and a few other Democratic groups.

In Sessions’ 32nd District, seven Democrats are competing in the primary. Ed Meier, a former Clinton campaign and State Department official, led the field in fundraising, ending 2017 with more than $500,000 in cash on hand.

Other candidates with sizable campaign hauls include ex-professional football player and HUD official Colin Allred, and former Agriculture Department ;undersecretary Lillian Salerno, who is backed by EMILY’s List. Television news reporter Brett Shipp was described as a “wild card” in the primary by one Democratic operative, given his name recognition, but he raised only $56,000 in the most recent fundraising quarter.

The 7th District race, one strategist warned, represents a potential dilemma for the Democrats: a more liberal candidate could win the primary, only to face a tough general election against Culberson for the GOP-leaning seat.

Nonprofit director Alex Triantaphyllis (who goes by “Alex T” in his campaign) has led the field in fundraising , raking in $927,000 so far. Lawyer Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, backed by EMILY’s List, and activist Laura Moser, have also raised credible sums. Moser, considered one of the more liberal candidates, started a text messaging service to engage those resisting President Donald Trump and the GOP Congress.

Ed Espinoza, the executive director of Progress Texas, said tacking to the left could be a winning strategy in the traditionally Republican Texas if it energizes Democrats to turn out and vote. The group is not expected to endorse House candidates.

“National Democrats need to know that this whole idea that Texas Democrats are conservative is based on a fantasy,” Espinoza said. “They have to wake up to the reality that we care about the same issues that everybody else cares about.”

Watch: How the Open Seats Are (or Aren’t) Creating Opportunities in the House

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More Democratic battles

Democrats are also targeting Texas’ 21st District, which is open now that GOP Rep. Lamar Smith is retiring. Trump carried the district by 10 points, but some Democrats say the race could be competitive, and point to entrepreneur and Army veteran Joseph Kopser’s impressive fundraising so far.

There are also crowded primaries in two open Democrat-held seats, though the party appears to be coalescing around a candidate in each of those races.

In the 16th, which Rep. Beto O’Rourke is vacating to run for Senate, El Paso County Judge Veronica Escobar has the support of EMILY’s List and Bold PAC. But Dori Fenenbock, a former chairwoman of the El Paso school board who has voted in GOP primaries in the past, had $50,000 more in the bank than Escobar at the end of 2017.

In the 29th, State Sen. Sylvia Garcia has the backing of EMILY’s List, Bold PAC and retiring incumbent Gene Green. But wealthy health care executive Tahir Javed could shake up the primary. He has already loaned his campaign $400,000 and told The Texas Tribune he will “spend whatever it takes” to win.

If elected, Escobar and Garcia would be the first Latina congresswomen to represent Texas.

Watch: What’s Next for Seats of Retiring Chairmen?

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Open GOP seats

Six Texas Republicans are retiring this year, causing a new wave of GOP congressional candidates.

“There’s no question that this is the most wide open and active primary cycle that I’ve experienced,” one Texas GOP operative said.

Five of the six races have competitive primaries, with fields ranging from six to 18 contenders. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates each of these seats Solid Republican, meaning the winner of the primary will be a heavy favorite heading into the general election.

The 21st District hosts the most crowded field, with 18 candidates vying to replace Smith. Former CIA officer William Negley led the candidates in fundraising (and has an eye-catching campaign sign that reads “Terrorist Hunter,” according to The Texas Tribune).

Chip Roy, a former chief of staff to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, also raised more than $200,000 and has the backing of conservative groups such as the Club for Growth PAC and the House Freedom Fund, which is linked to the Freedom Caucus. State Rep. Jason Isaac was also among the top candidates in fundraising.

Former Rep. Francisco “Quico” Canseco, who represented the neighboring 23rd District for a term, is also running in the GOP primary for Smith’s seat, but he raised only $7,000 in the most recent fundraising quarter. He does, however, have more than $143,000 in the bank.

GOP Rep. Ted Poe’s retirement opened up the 2nd District near Houston. Five of the nine Republican hopefuls have raised six figures. Activist Kathaleen Wall, who has been endorsed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, contributed $2.7 million to her own campaign. Another top candidates is state Rep. Kevin Roberts, who has also raised more than $531,000.

Eight Republicans are facing off for the 5th District seat, vacated by GOP Rep. Jeb Hensarling.

The congressman is backing his former campaign manager Bunni Pounds, how leads the field in fundraising, with nearly $215,000 raised. A handful of candidates have raised around $100,000, including state Rep. Lance Gooden, former state Rep. Kenneth Sheets, and former Tyler City Councilman Jason Wright, who has been endorsed by Cruz, his former boss.

In the neighboring 6th District, Republican operatives say former Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright has the edge to replace his onetime boss, GOP Rep. Joe L. Barton. But Wright was outraised by two other hopefuls in the most recent quarter.

The 27th District presents a unique situation for Republicans, since GOP Rep. Blake Farenthold said he would not run for re-election amid a sexual harassment scandal after the filing deadline had already passed. Republicans had to sue to remove Farenthold’s name from the ballot.

“There’s probably a lot of folks in that area who are kicking themselves for not at least filing,” said one GOP consultant who works in Texas.

Of the six Republican candidates, operatives say the two to watch are former Texas Water Development Board Chairman Bech Bruun and former Victoria County GOP Chairman Michael Cloud. Bruun led the field in fundraising and has the endorsement of former Texas Gov Rick Perry. Cloud has been backed by former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

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