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The field for the Texas primary election is set — here’s what to watch for

The field for the Texas primary election is set — here’s what to watch for

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

The field for the Texas primary election is set — here’s what to watch for” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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The field is set for the Texas primary — making way for a dramatic few months ahead of the March election.

At the top of the ticket, Texans will vote on who they want as their party’s presidential nominee — where Donald Trump has a landslide lead for Republicans and President Joe Biden has no serious competition among Democrats.

That means the most interesting action in Texas will be down-ballot.

With both Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton out for revenge, Republican members of the Texas House are the top target on the ballot. But Democrats are also facing ample drama as political dominoes fall in Dallas and Houston, creating new opportunities for ambitious members of the party.

The candidate filing deadline for the March primary was 6 p.m. Monday. .

Republicans

On the GOP side, much of the primary drama is being driven by Abbott and Paxton.

Paxton is working to unseat the dozens of House Republicans who voted to impeach him in May, while Abbott wants to defeat a smaller group of House Republicans who thwarted his yearlong push for school vouchers. That has created a rare dynamic where two of the most powerful Republicans in the state are backing primary challengers to House Republicans, sometimes aligning behind the same challenger and sometimes not.

It has led to a marked increase in primary challengers. After 43% of House Republicans faced opposition in 2022, at least 57% have primary challengers this time.

The Texas GOP said Tuesday it had “a record-breaking 387 candidates file in Austin, plus many more in their local county offices, marking the second-highest candidate turnout in the history of the” party.

The attorney general has endorsed nearly two dozen primary challengers to state House Republicans who voted to impeach him. Those candidates, like Paxton, have positioned themselves as further right than House leadership and could prove to be antagonistic toward Speaker Dade Phelan — should he win his own primary. The Texas Senate acquitted Paxton after a trial in September.

Paxton’s endorsees include Republicans like Mitch Little, a Frisco lawyer who represented Paxton at the trial and is running against Rep. Kronda Thimesch, R-Lewisville. Paxton also backed Wes Virdell, a primary challenger to Rep. Andrew Murr — the Junction Republican who chaired the House board of impeachment managers — before Murr announced his retirement last month.

[Republican Rep. Andrew Murr, who led impeachment of Ken Paxton, won’t seek reelection]

Abbott is targeting a narrower group of 16 House Republicans who are seeking reelection and voted last month to strip a voucher program out of a broad education bill. Abbott has endorsed six primary challengers to those members so far.

Vouchers, which would have allowed public dollars to fund private school education, were Abbott’s top legislative priority. He campaigned for reelection on the promise of passing vouchers, and threatened throughout the year to target Republican lawmakers who stood in his way.

Making good on that threat, Abbott has gotten behind challengers like Hillary Hickland, an activist mother from Belton who has taken her kids out of public schools in recent years. She is running against Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple.

Other notable primary challengers have emerged in recent days. Shelley Luther, the Dallas salon owner who became famous to conservatives for defying COVID-19 shutdown orders, filed for a rematch against Rep. Reggie Smith, R-Sherman. And Katrina Pierson, the North Texas activist best known as a spokesperson for Trump’s 2016 campaign, joined the primary against Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall.

The aggressive involvement of Abbott and Paxton means Phelan will have his hands full defending his GOP members. And Phelan has a primary of his own after running uncontested in 2022. This time he faces two challengers, led by David Covey, the former chair of the Orange County GOP.

Abbott and Paxton are also playing in open seats where they believe they can replace retiring House Republicans with a better political ally. One example is House District 14, where anti-voucher Rep. John Raney, R-College Station, is not seeking reelection and Abbott has endorsed Bryan businessman Paul Dyson for the seat. Abbott said in his endorsement that he trusts Dyson to “expand school choice for all Texas families once and for all.”

In House District 87, Abbott and Paxton have aligned behind Caroline Fairly, the daughter of an Amarillo businessman, Alex Fairly, who Texas conservatives are working to cultivate as a new megadonor. Fairly is among four Republicans running to replace retiring Rep. Four Price, R-Amarillo, who opposes school vouchers.

In the Texas Senate, Republicans are looking at only one competitive primary, to replace retiring Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster. Four Republicans have filed for that seat, though one of them, Denton County GOP Chairman Brent Hagenbuch, is the frontrunner after getting endorsed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the very powerful presiding officer of the Senate.

As for congressional primaries, the GOP focus is largely on two open seats — the 12th District, where U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, is retiring, and the 26th District, where U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewsiville, is not seeking reelection. Each primary has drawn a crush of candidates, though state Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, has piled up almost all the notable endorsements for Granger’s seat and conservative media executive Brandon Gill recently got the backing of former President Donald Trump for Burgess’ seat.

The closest thing to a competitive primary involving a congressional incumbent is probably in the 23rd Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, is facing four primary challengers after splitting with his party on issues like guns and the border.

Democrats

At the top of the ticket, Democrats have a primary for U.S. Senate that has drawn at least 10 candidates. U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, D-Dallas, has crushed the pack in fundraising, and his competitors include state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio; state Rep. Carl Sherman, D-DeSoto; and Mark Gonzalez, former district attorney for Nueces County.

But Democrats’ most spirited fights could be farther down the ballot, especially in Dallas and Houston.

Democrats saw a major late development Monday, when state Rep. Victoria Neave Criado launched a primary challenge to state Sen. Nathan Johnson, an uncommon faceoff between two Dallas Democrats.

At least nine Democrats filed to succeed Allred in the 32nd Congressional District, a group that includes state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton; Brian Williams, a prominent Dallas trauma surgeon; and Callie Butcher, whose campaign says she is the first transgender Texan to run for Congress in a major-party primary in Texas.

In Houston, at least six Democrats have filed for Whitmire’s seat in Senate District 15, which has not been open since 1982. The field includes state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, D-Houston; Molly Cook, Whitmire’s 2022 primary challenger; Karthik Soora, a Houston renewable energy developer; Todd Litton, the 2018 Democratic nominee for a nearby congressional seat; Michelle Anderson Bonton, executive director of the Anderson Center for the Arts; and Alberto “Beto” Cardenas Jr., a prominent Houston attorney who filed at the last minute Monday.

Whitmire defeated U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in the mayoral runoff, and she quickly decided to seek reelection afterward. But she will face a primary challenge from at least one fellow Democrat, former Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards.

In both Houston and Dallas, the big open-seat primaries have triggered other vacancies, providing for significant turnover among Democrats in the state’s two biggest metropolitan areas. Julie Johnson’s run for Congress left her state House seat open, Jarvis Johnson’s campaign for state Senate created a vacancy in his state House seat — and Neave Criado’s late primary challenge to Johnson left her state House seat open. At least one Democrat Linda Garcia filed for Neave Criado’s seat.

In other late developments, a Democratic member of the State Board of Education, Melissa Ortega, announced Monday morning she would not seek reelection. That left Democrats without a candidate for the seat with hours left until the filing deadline — a Republican had already filed — though it had become clear by Tuesday afternoon that at least one Democrat had managed to file at the last minute.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/12/12/texas-primary-election-ken-paxton-greg-abbott/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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