What Texas’ primaries will tell us

With fewer competitive districts, primaries become more important

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, is battling for a spot in the runoff Tuesday in his bid for the nomination for state attorney general.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, is battling for a spot in the runoff Tuesday in his bid for the nomination for state attorney general. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 28, 2022 at 5:52pm

Texas voters go to the polls Tuesday for the first major primaries of the 2022 election cycle. 

This is the state’s first election using a new congressional map that added two districts but drastically reduced the number in which there is real competition between Democrats and Republicans. That means that, in the majority of the state’s 38 House districts, the winner of one party’s nomination will likely be going to Congress. There is no Senate race this year,  but several competitive primaries on both sides of the aisle could provide clues to what to expect for the midterm cycle. Here are five things to watch: 

Will Cuellar survive?

Rep. Henry Cuellar, who is known as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, defeated progressive immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros by just 4 points in 2020. That was at a time when several incumbent Democrats fell to challenges from their left. But progressive candidates have not fared as well during the special elections of the Biden administration. Cuellar, who has held his seat since 2005, has argued that his positions, including his votes against abortion rights, reflect a deep understanding of his heavily Latino district along the Mexico border. But the 28th District became slightly bluer during redistricting, picking up voters in left-leaning areas around San Antonio. That’s a potential boost to Cisneros, who could also benefit from the fallout of an FBI raid of Cuellar’s home, reportedly in connection with an ongoing federal probe related to Azerbaijan. Republicans see the district, rated Likely Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales, as a pick-up opportunity regardless of the Democratic nominee. The seven-candidate field includes rancher and former investment banker Ed Cabrera; businessman and retired police officer Willie Vasquez Ng; and Cassy Garcia, former deputy state director for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, Inside Elections reported.

Can Gohmert make the runoff?

Rep. Louie Gohmert is giving up his Solid Republican 1st District seat to try to oust state Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton, whose efforts to file federal litigation furthering conservative causes have been undermined by his own legal troubles. Gohmert, who led pre-Jan. 6 efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election results, has relied heavily on his support for former President Donald Trump to stand out in the crowded primary. The race appears headed to a runoff, with Paxton in the lead and Gohmert vying for the No. 2 spot and a chance at a May runoff, along with George P. Bush and former state Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman. 

How much does Trump matter?

Republican Monica De La Cruz is relying on Trump’s late-February endorsement to help her avoid a runoff in her race for the 15th District, which Rep. Vicente Gonzalez is leaving to run in the neighboring 34th District. De La Cruz was the GOP nominee in 2020 but lost to Gonzalez by less than 3 points. National Republicans have touted her as a top recruit throughout the cycle, but her fundraising has flagged in recent months and she has struggled with the fallout from a bitter divorce, including allegations — which she denies — that she was abusive toward her stepdaughter. The district, rated a Toss-up by Inside Elections, is the state’s most competitive after redistricting. Trump’s presence also looms large over the Republican primary to replace retiring Rep. Kevin Brady in the solid red 1st District. Retired Navy SEAL Morgan Luttrell has the support of national Republican groups, including the House leadership-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund PAC, which made one of its first endorsements in a primary and aired ads to support him. But figures and groups on the far right have consolidated behind Christian Collins, an aide to Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign. He has attacked Luttrell for his associations with some Republicans who have pushed back against Trump’s baseless allegations that the 2020 election was stolen. Similar attacks have characterized challenges from far-right opponents to Republican incumbents Daniel Crenshaw and Van Taylor.

Can progressives make gains?

In addition to Cisneros, progressive groups have also backed candidates in open seat races for the solid-Democratic 30th District, in the Dallas area, and the 35th, which runs from San Antonio to East Austin. In the crowded 30th District race, attorney Jasmine Crockett attracted national attention — and eventually clinched the endorsement from retiring Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson — when she served as spokesperson for the state House Democratic caucus last summer as it fought a GOP-sponsored bill to impose new voting restrictions. She also has backing from national progressive groups, including Our Revolution, a group that was spun out of the 2016 presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and has benefited from more than $2.1 million in outside spending. In the 35th District, where incumbent Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett is leaving to run in the new 37th District, national progressive groups have consolidated around former Austin City Council member and labor organizer Greg Casar.

Does the new voting law work? 

The primary is also the first election since Texas Republicans passed a new voting law that made it more difficult to vote by mail and barred 24-hour and drive-through voting. Supporters argued that the law, which added to the state’s already stringent voting restrictions, would increase confidence in the state’s elections. Early reports have highlighted voter confusion about the rules and thousands of mail-in ballots rejected, particularly in the state’s most populous counties.