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Abbott, O’Rourke win nominations for Texas governor in first midterm contests

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, with wife Cecilia and daughter Audrey, attends a primary election night event on March 1, 2022, in Corpus Christi, Texas. (Eric Gay/AP)
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Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke will face each other this fall in a contest to lead Texas after each won his party’s gubernatorial nomination Tuesday in the first primary fights of the 2022 midterm cycle.

Abbott celebrated his victory by tweeting a criticism of President Biden and the border policies he discussed in the State of the Union address, a possible nod to speculation that he might seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.

“It’s too little, too late,” Abbott wrote. “In Texas, we’ll continue securing the border & doing the fed gov’t’s job.”

O’Rourke used the occasion of his primary victory to rally Democrats for the November fight.

“We’ve got to get past the incompetence, the corruption and the cruelty of Greg Abbott,” O’Rourke told a crowd of supporters in Fort Worth after the polls closed. “Are you with me on this?”

Primary contests for attorney general, Congress and dozens of other local jobs such as county judge and justice of the peace also were on the ballot in a state where Republicans have found their footing after some setbacks during the 2018 midterm elections.

Besides determining the nominees — or setting up runoffs — the results Tuesday will help determine the political staying power of the Bush family name, the potency of former president Donald Trump’s endorsements and the state’s future representation on Capitol Hill.

In a closely watched Democratic primary in the 28th Congressional District along the southern border, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) was forced into a runoff with his more liberal 2020 challenger, Jessica Cisneros, in the most expensive Democratic congressional fight of the cycle. Cuellar had dipped into his war chest after his home and campaign office were searched by the FBI. Cisneros has been supported by liberal activists from Texas and farther north, including the Justice Democrats.

Cuellar has denied any wrongdoing but vanished from the campaign trail after the FBI raid, encouraging liberal groups who see a chance to unseat one of the most conservative Democrats in the House.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Trump endorsee who faces an FBI investigation and an indictment on state securities fraud charges, failed to win outright and will face a runoff with George P. Bush in his quest for his third Republican nomination. Bush, a grandson and nephew of former presidents, defeated retired state Supreme Court justice Eva Guzman and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert for the second spot.

Republican strategists entered Election Day bullish on their prospects in November. Early-voting totals show Republican interest much higher than Democrats’ in what appeared to be shaping up as a low-turnout primary affair. More than 1 million Republicans had cast ballots through Friday, compared with about 628,000 Democrats, according to a tally kept by the Texas secretary of state.

“Their turnout is going to be dwarfed by our turnout,” said David M. Carney, a Republican consultant who was advising Abbott on his reelection campaign. “The EPA should be down here protecting Democrats as an endangered species.”

Democrats countered that they were well positioned to hold their ground and potentially make gains in the fall, even as they complained that new voting laws have been keeping some of their voters from turning out. Those include rules requiring specific types of voter identification that have led to a higher number of rejected mail-in ballots.

Follow live Texas primary election results here.

In Harris County, which includes the city of Houston, officials announced counting delays because damaged ballot sheets needed to be duplicated to be scanned properly, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Precincts across the state reported light traffic in the early morning hours, with only four people voting by midmorning at the Iglesia Palabra de Amor community center on Fort Worth’s far north side — two Republicans and two Democrats. Fifteen minutes after polling sites opened at 7 a.m., voting officials were at the ready but no voters had yet arrived in Kingsville, a town of about 25,000 some 45 miles southwest of Corpus Christi.

“Our main concern is low turnout,” said Prissy Garza, Precinct 43 voting judge in Kleberg County.

Later in the day, long lines appeared along with voter frustrations as Texans struggled with new voting equipment, reduced polling locations and other changes to the voting process.

Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chairman Patrick Eronini said he originally had about 88 polling locations mapped out but was able to open only 41. He simply did not have enough workers.

“Many judges have died of covid, and one got sick with covid at the last minute,” Eronini said. “The county did not provide us with the proper training. They gave us one day to train people on the new machines.”

Fred North, 74, of Richardson in Dallas County was one of the first people to cast his vote at the Richardson Civic Center on Tuesday. He said he blamed the low turnout on the more restrictive voting laws in Texas.

“Voting used to be much easier. Finding the right place to vote was a bit confusing for me,” North said. “It’s hard enough to vote, and we should find every way possible to help people vote. It doesn’t make sense to make it harder.”

Another potential winner of the night was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who saw several candidates he has championed leading in early returns for congressional primaries. They include business executive Monica De La Cruz in the 15th District, retired Navy SEAL Morgan Luttrell in the 8th District and former Army helicopter pilot Wesley Hunt in the new 38th District.

Rep. Van Taylor (R), who represents the 3rd Congressional District in the suburbs north of Dallas, led his challengers from the right in the early vote count. He attracted criticism after he voted for a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, upsetting supporters of former president Trump.

Texas's House primaries are being held on a disputed map

Trump had stayed out of that race, while endorsing more than 30 other Republican candidates in the state, a wide array that ran from Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign to a candidate for Tarrant County judge. Many of his endorsements had come in the past few weeks and went to incumbents or candidates not facing serious opposition, suggesting he was hoping to burnish his win-loss record in GOP primaries, a statistic he often boasts about.

He had also proudly endorsed state Rep. Ryan Guillen, another border politician, who recently switched parties to become a Republican after state leaders redrew his district. Republicans have been running local candidates at a clip not seen in recent memory in historically Democratic strongholds in southern Texas.

“Big night in Texas!” Trump said in a news release after the counting of ballots had begun. “All 33 candidates that were Trump endorsed have either won their primary election or are substantially leading in the case of a runoff.”

Abbott and former congressman O’Rourke (D) were long expected to win their parties’ nominations for the top job in the state. Public and private polls had put them both well above the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a May 24 runoff in their respective contests.

O’Rourke, whom Democrats spent months urging to enter the race, faced challengers who had raised little money, including public radio reporter Joy Diaz. Abbott’s challengers included conservative YouTuber Chad Prather, businessman Don Huffines and former state GOP chairman Allen West, all of whom had accused the two-term governor of acting on conservative priorities only when forced.

Even before the Associated Press projected the victory, Huffines released a statement conceding defeat to Abbott while claiming credit for forcing the governor “to deliver real conservative victories” during the Republican primary by challenging him from the right.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a close ally of Trump who like Abbott won his nomination to seek another term, drew only little-known challengers, while Democrats picked from a field that included 2018 Patrick challenger Mike Collier and state Rep. Michelle Beckley.

Paxton, who trailed other Republicans in his 2018 reelection race, had the best-funded challengers of any Republican on the ballot. He ran ads attacking Guzman and Gohmert, but polls suggested he was likely to be forced into a second round, with Bush going into the evening as the most probable runner-up.

“He’s already admitted that this is going to a runoff,” Bush said in a recent interview after a campaign stop near College Station. Trump’s endorsement of Paxton, he said, had not changed his own strategy. Bush had fought at minimum to deny Paxton the endorsement, to no avail.

Trump also backed state Sen. Dawn Buckingham in the primary to replace Bush, helping her lead the field Tuesday as votes were counted. She raised nearly $2 million for the land commissioner race; Jay Kleberg, a Democratic conservationist leading the contest for his party’s nomination, had stockpiled $500,000, more than any of the Democrats running for attorney general. In the race for agriculture commissioner, Trump endorsed incumbent Sid Miller, another early backer of his 2016 presidential campaign.

New congressional districts approved by Texas’s Republican-led legislature last year drastically shrank the number of competitive seats, with swing districts around Houston, Dallas and Austin redrawn into districts safe for one party.

Democrats were divided between a few candidates, with Rep. Vicente Gonzalez (D-Tex.) backing Army veteran Ruben Ramirez and some national liberal groups supporting activist Michelle Vallejo in the 15th District. She ran unabashedly from the left, while Ramirez argued that the Republican-trending district is more inclined to elect a moderate in November.

The bitterest Republican primary unfolded in the 8th Congressional District, where longtime Rep. Kevin Brady (R) is retiring. The McCarthy-backed candidate for that seat, Luttrell, has faced criticism for his friendship with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a fellow veteran. Christian Collins, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R), attacked Luttrell over a $5,000 donation from Kinzinger — a Trump critic and member of the House panel investigating the 2021 Capitol insurrection — even though the candidate returned it.

“I’ve spent my life intimidating other people, like that empty suit,” Luttrell said during a televised debate with Collins last month.

Luttrell had the support of Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R) and former governor Rick Perry, both political mentors, while Collins rallied during the early-voting period with Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.).

The most expensive Democratic fight for an open seat was unfolding in the 35th Congressional District, where former Austin city councilman Greg Casar had locked up labor and liberal endorsements, rallying with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — though he lost the support of a local Democratic Socialists of America chapter over his rejection of its Israel policies.

Polling had him ahead of state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and lesser-known candidates, but supporters of both Casar and Cisneros were trying to push them over 50 percent Tuesday, wary of runoffs that could give moderate Democrats time to regroup and spend money against them.

“This is about making sure that we send a message: Do not mess with Texas progressives,” Ocasio-Cortez told voters at a San Antonio rally last month with Casar and Cisneros.

Democrats were also battling for another safe seat, the 30th Congressional District in Dallas, where Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D) is retiring and had endorsed state Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a former public defender. Crockett swept up endorsements from liberal groups but had trailed two other candidates in fundraising: former state legislative staffer Abel Mulugheta and party operative Jane Hamilton.

Democrats argued that while the state remains challenging ground, the party is poised to show that Texas is growing more blue after the 2018 burst of energy, as they seek to ride shifting demographics.

“Texas has been a hard state for Democrats for 25 years,” said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a group focused on recruiting and supporting Democrats in Texas. “The fact that [Republicans] are able to hold on in a Republican state is not a show of strength.”

Jack Douglas in Fort Worth, Annette Nevins in Richardson and Mary Lee Grant in Kingsville contributed to this report.

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