By Joseph Ax
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Democrat Beto O’Rourke won their parties’ gubernatorial nominations on Tuesday, as the state’s first-in-the-nation primary contests kicked off the race to the Nov. 8 general election.
Abbott, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, easily turned back several right-wing challengers. He is favored to beat O’Rourke, who is seeking to become the first Democratic governor of Texas in nearly three decades.
Texas voters were also selecting their parties’ nominees on Tuesday for the U.S. House of Representatives. The results could offer clues about the mood of American voters ahead of the November elections that will determine control Congress for the rest of President Joe Biden’s four-year term.
Progressive Democrats scored a victory when democratic socialist Greg Casar, an Austin city councilman, beat out fellow Democrat Eddie Rodriguez, a state representative.
Another liberal, Jessica Cisneros, was headed toward a run-off with incumbent Henry Cuellar, one of the House’s most conservative Democrats. Both Casar and Cisneros campaigned alongside national progressive figures such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez.
Meanwhile, Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton was headed to a May 24 runoff election against Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, grandson of former President H.W. Bush, after failing to capture 50% of the vote.
Paxton, who had Trump’s support, remains under a 2015 indictment for securities fraud and also faces a federal corruption probe. He has denied any wrongdoing.
The election was the first test of new Republican-backed voting restrictions passed in response to Trump’s false claims of election fraud in his 2020 loss to Biden.
There were no reports of major problems at polling places, following weeks in which several counties recorded large numbers of rejected mail-in ballots due to new identification requirements.
Texas Secretary of State John Scott said Harris County, home to one in six Texans, had informed his office that vote counting was delayed due to “damaged ballot sheets.”
Midterm elections typically serve as a referendum on the sitting president, and Republicans are favored to win a majority in at least one of the two chambers of Congress that Democrats control by razor-thin margins. That would allow Republicans to block Biden’s legislative agenda and launch investigations that could damage his administration.
ABBOTT PUSHES CONSERVATIVE AGENDA
Abbott has pursued increasingly conservative policies during his second term, including opposing COVID-19 vaccine and mask mandates. He also signed the most restrictive abortion ban of any U.S. state and is building a new barrier on the border with Mexico.
Last week, he instructed state agencies to consider medical treatment for transgender adolescents as child abuse, days after Paxton issued a legal opinion to that effect. While the full effect of the order remains unclear, transgender advocates decried the move as discriminatory and dangerous.
“Abbott has not left much room to the right of him for these competitors to gain any traction,” said James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas.
O’Rourke, a former congressman, is the state’s most prominent Democrat after losing a close U.S. Senate race in 2018 and then mounting a brief campaign for president. The Democrat has attacked Abbott’s handling of the state’s power grid, which failed during deadly winter storms in February 2021.
Among congressional races, Republican-backed redistricting has eliminated virtually every competitive district. Still, some contests gave early looks at how each party is navigating internal tensions.
In the 8th District north of Houston, where Representative Kevin Brady is retiring, the Republican primary was seen as a proxy battle between the party’s ideological poles.
Former Navy SEAL Morgan Luttrell, backed by House Republican leadership, held a sizable lead over Christian Collins, a conservative activist supported by the House’s far-right Freedom Caucus.
In the 3rd District north of Dallas, Republican Representative Van Taylor was forced into a run-off contest. He will face Keith Self, a former county judge who criticized Taylor for supporting a congressional investigation into the Jan. 6, 2020, assault on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.
For Democrats, the contest between Cuellar, the lone anti-abortion Democrat left in the House, and Cisneros could leave the party vulnerable to a Republican takeover of the chamber.
Federal investigators searched Cuellar’s home recently, though details of the investigation are not clear and he has denied wrongdoing. If Cuellar loses the primary, Cisneros could be targeted by Republicans as being too liberal for Texas.
The 15th District, likely the most competitive in Texas in November after incumbent Democrat Vicente Gonzalez opted to run in a neighboring district, had a crowded field for both parties.
The Democratic contest will be decided in a runoff, while Republican Monica De La Cruz, who ran for the seat in 2020, won her party’s nomination contest.
Republicans are hopeful they can flip the seat after Trump showed unexpected strength among Hispanic voters in 2020.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Moira Warburton; Additional reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Scott Malone, Alistair Bell, Ross Colvin and Kim Coghill)