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Republicans celebrate in Texas, as Democrats gird for November

A campaign sign for Republican congressional nominee Mayra Flores outside a polling location at Burns Elementary School in Brownsville, Tex., on March 1, 2022. (Denise Cathey/AP)
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Texas Republicans saw the seeds of November victories after candidates in majority-Hispanic parts of the state set primary turnout records Tuesday — and Democrats counting on favorable demographic trends to flip the state saw slippage among some of their most reliable voters.

Gov. Greg Abbott easily won his nomination for a third term, as the GOP vote in 35 counties — most of them majority-Hispanic — broke records. National Republicans got their preferred Hispanic candidate in a new South Texas swing seat, while a Hispanic state legislator who had left the Democratic Party last year won his primary, after an endorsement from Donald Trump.

And in Laredo, a bitter Democratic primary between Rep. Henry Cuellar and left-wing challenger Jessica Cisneros will extend through a May runoff, feeding Republicans hopes of flipping the seat to build on 2020 gains in traditionally Democratic South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley.

“It’s very hard to look at the pattern of turnout yesterday, and what a lot of these races looked like, and conclude Democrats are on the march in any serious way,” James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said Wednesday. “They are still clawing at the rock face trying not to fall backward.”

By Wednesday afternoon, with most ballots counted, more than 1.9 million voters had participated in the GOP’s statewide primaries — a record for the state’s dominant political party in a midterm year. Just over 1 million Texans cast ballots for Democrats, slightly exceeding the party’s turnout in the last midterm primaries, four years ago, while Republicans ran nearly 400,000 votes ahead of their 2018 total.

“We will carry the Hispanic vote in November,” said Dave Carney, a strategist for Abbott, in a Wednesday morning call with reporters. “Republicans, to have a long-term future, have to include the large portion of Hispanic Texans who ideologically and philosophically agree with our positions.”

Some of the GOP’s advantage was spurred by its contested primaries, with Abbott facing multiple well-known opponents and Attorney General Ken Paxton being forced into a May 24 runoff with Land Commissioner George P. Bush after a multicandidate campaign.

Democrats had fewer high-profile contests to push voter interest, with no serious challenge to gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke and lesser-known candidates running down ballot. Tuesday’s results left them placing most of their hopes on candidates who glided to their nominations, including O’Rourke, the former congressman and unsuccessful Senate and presidential candidate.

Brandon Rottinghaus, political science professor at the University of Houston, said that as campaigns become nationalized and candidates are seen as subsidiaries of the powerful national parties, it has become “a tough sell to get Texans to trust that the Democratic Party is not too far to the left.”

“O’Rourke is the ballgame. If he doesn’t do well, they don’t do well,” Rottinghaus said, referring to down-ballot Democrats. “If Abbott is successful painting him as too liberal for Texas, then they’re all too liberal for Texas.”

After securing the Democratic nomination with about 91 percent of the vote, O’Rourke said he would run on three fundamental economic issues, and leave the culture wars to Republicans.

“Great jobs, world-class schools, expanding Medicaid,” O’Rourke told reporters in Fort Worth on Tuesday night. “That’s going to be the focus.”

Republican gains rested in part on years of GOP outreach south of San Antonio, including a surge of candidate recruitment for dozens of local offices that the party had never contested before.

In the 15th Congressional District, which stretches for more than 200 miles to connect the border city of McAllen to greater San Antonio, Republican Monica De La Cruz won the party’s nomination without a runoff. More votes were cast in that primary, for a district narrowly carried by Trump in 2020, than in any previous GOP contest for the seat.

In McAllen’s majority-Hispanic Hidalgo County, at least 15,042 votes were cast in the GOP primary for governor — double the turnout there in 2018, and nearly tripling the Republican turnout four years earlier.

“A lot of people misunderstand South Texas,” McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos, a Republican who won his nonpartisan election last year, said in an interview before the primary. “They think that the Hispanic community is all about open borders and bringing people in. I can assure you, the local Hispanic community does not want that.”

Democrats had watched the GOP’s recruitment and campaign strategy warily, trying to separate their local candidates from aspects of the national party that are not popular with conservative Texans. Mario Munoz, who won an uncontested race for Democratic Party chair in Brooks County, said he’d seen “a lot of movement to the right” even within his own family.

“There is a lot of fear. There is this idea that Democrats are going to take their guns and make their kids queer. Guns are a big issue there. Abortion and religion in general is a big issue. And immigration,” said Munoz, 37, a strategic enrollment management specialist at Texas A&M University at Kingsville. “In the past, you could be a conservative Democrat. Now things have become so polarized that the Republicans don’t accept that.”

Some Democrats challenged that view of the results. In 2020, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) lost the Texas presidential primary while winning handily in the Rio Grande Valley, and carrying the Hispanic vote over state winner and eventual nominee Joe Biden. Left-leaning Democrats saw Republican gains in the region as a result of weak local Democratic organizing and wedge issues, and argued that their party could win with a Sanders-style strategy: populist campaigns focused on Medicare-for-all and economic fairness.

“I get comments like: Oh, gosh, you’re a progressive in South Texas? That must be hard,” said Michelle Vallejo, a 30-year old businessman who won the second spot in the Democratic runoff for the 15th Congressional District. “But we’re really talking about the issues people are experiencing day by day, in a constructive way.”

That runoff and the race in the 28th Congressional District could test that theory. In 2020, Cisneros nearly defeated Cuellar; two months ago, right before the start of early voting, Cuellar’s home and campaign office were searched by the FBI, as part of a corruption probe with which the congressman said he had no connection.

Cisneros and national left-wing groups saw the FBI raid as a powerful new issue to use against Cuellar, hitting it hard with TV ads. Cuellar, who made no announced campaign stops after the raid, used his own advertising to accuse Cisneros of supporting “open borders” and undermining the district’s law enforcement economy.

That campaign gave Cuellar a reprieve and the lead spot in the May 24 runoff as he nearly defeated Cisneros outright; a third candidate took 5 percent of the vote, denying either of the first two finishers a majority. Republicans said the district, which went for Biden by seven points in 2020, would be a target in November, after a damaged incumbent and a challenger who lost in the district’s most conservative counties spend through their war chests to determine the nominee.

“It doesn’t matter if Republicans face Socialist Cisneros or Crooked Cuellar in November,” said Torunn Sinclair, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "[This district] is a top-tier pickup opportunity.”

Democrats pointed out that despite the GOP advance, Republicans got fewer votes than they did across South Texas.

“This really is a safe Democratic district,” said Pedro Lira, the Texas campaign director of the Working Families Party, a left-wing group that worked to elect Cisneros. “When voters send her to the general election, voters will be voting for a person, not a figment of Republicans’ imagination.”

The dilemma for Democrats in Texas echoes their problem nationally: The turn to the left in recent years has paid big dividends in boosting support in urban and suburban areas, even if detrimental in more rural areas like South Texas. That means the very strategies and positions that can be helpful in state races can portend failure in regional contests like House campaigns.

Rottinghaus emphasized that GOP gains among border-region Latinos have been small in number, if representing notable percentage increases. In Starr County, 15 people voted Republican in 2018, compared with around 1,700 for this primary — a massive increase but a tiny fraction of the millions of votes cast in the state.

Veteran Democratic strategist Matt Angle said Democrats’ best bet in Texas is to win back the moderates who have defaulted to Republicans for the past 25 years, when establishment politicians like former governor George W. Bush and former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison represented the party.

“That’s extinct,” Angle said. “All that’s left is the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Donald Trump, who don’t even believe in democracy.”

But the coming runoffs may emphasize the party’s liberal wing, to some Democrats’ dismay. Angle pointed to the recent stop by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), campaigning for Cisneros and another liberal candidate.

“AOC wasn’t in Texas a minute before Greg Abbott was raising money off her visit,” he said.

Mary Lee Grant in Falfurrias, Tex., contributed to this report.