The 2022 Texas Primaries Answer Some Questions, Raise Some Others as the Winners Move On Amidst a lot of Run-Offs

The first round of the Texas primary election is behind us, though many of the campaigns will continue with significant statewide, legislative, and Congressional run-off elections in both parties. As we mentioned in the Second Reading podcast earlier this week, for a primary season that late last year looked pretty ho-hum except for a few exceptions (notable ones, granted), Tuesday saw some modest increases in voter turnout, and the results raise a fair share of interesting questions. Shame on us for our mixture of low expectations and maybe even a bit of creeping cynicism. There will be a lot more to sort through as we look at the results in more detail and think more on the big picture implications. While there have already been a lot of hot takes and some floating of big themes, below are a few questions and observations that have occurred to us in the post-election haze. There will be more to come. 

1. For all the air of a manufactured crisis in some corners, the efforts of the dissident wing of the party amounted to a nuisance for Greg Abbott, who saw the challenge coming and reacted strategically. With nearly two-thirds of the primary vote, Abbott effectively punctured the always suspicious claim that the reactionary dissidents in the Texas GOP represented widespread “grass roots” discontent with Abbott. Ask Shelly Luther, who got drubbed in her effort to challenge incumbent Reggie Smith in HD 62. Incumbents from Abbott on down have met the reactionary market, and in most cases, GOP primary voters don’t seem to see many shortcomings.

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Conservative enough45%
Too conservative10%
Not conservative enough35%
Don't know/No opinion10%

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Approve strongly17%26%40%
Approve somewhat43%50%33%
Neither approve nor disapprove14%7%13%
Disapprove somewhat14%10%9%
Disapprove strongly12%6%4%
Don't know1%1%1%

2. Is George P. Bush’s second-place finish in the Republican Attorney General’s nomination race a sign of the last gasp of the Bush brand, or of a significant reboot? The glass half-full argument: a year ago, Bush’s lackluster term as Land Commissioner, plagued by his office-approved shafting of Houston’s distribution of Hurricane Harvey recovery money (initially $0.00) and his involvement in the no-win situation at the Alamo made him look like the last gasp of a degenerating dynasty. Now, he’s made it to the run-off for the GOP nomination for the office Greg Abbott used as a successful platform to become governor, and faces a candidate whose critics think is scandal-damaged goods. Half empty: he benefited from a weakened, scandal-plagued incumbent who inspired successful maneuvers by many influential actors to force a run-off, and only finished ahead of Eva Guzman (and Louie Gohmert) by 5 points. 

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Very favorable5%3%11%
Somewhat favorable7%8%23%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable17%17%23%
Somewhat unfavorable19%20%12%
Very unfavorable29%26%16%
Don’t know/No opinion23%26%15%

3. The gradual movement of sentiment in the Texas Democratic Party toward its national parent is generating some sharp conflict. While results in a few races are VERY likely to be overinterpreted, the presence of an increasingly organized neo-progressive faction within the Texas Democratic party inspired in principle and, more importantly, with resources, from national progressives has emerged. (And yes, the term “neo-progressive” is pretty awkward, but we are making some pretty fine distinctions here in places beyond the Cuellar-Cisneros race in TX-28.) While their degree of success and circumstances varied, in descending order, the performances of Greg Casar, Jessica Cisneros, and Michelle Beckley reflect patterns in Democratic primary participation that can advantage more liberal candidates, but also are about networks,generational change, and the particular characteristics of legislative and congressional districts.

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Liberal enough31%
Too liberal11%
Not liberal enough40%
Don't know/No opinion18%

Ideological Identification of Texas Voters
(February 2022 University of Texas/Texas Politics Project Polling)
Ideology Registered Voters Democratic Party Voters Democratic Primary Voters
Moderate 28% 31% 19%
Lean liberal 8% 15% 16%
Somewhat liberal 11% 25% 34%
Extremely liberal 9% 20% 29%

4. Dan Patrick’s historic construction of a Texas Senate GOP caucus subservient to his authority will be even more solidified when the legislature meets again in 2023. Patrick will add Kevin Sparks in place of Kel Seliger and Mayes Middleton in place of Larry Taylor since neither faces a Democratic opponent in November; a likely switch of Phil King for Beverly Powell (the only Democrat for Republican switch if redistricting has its intended effects); and, assuming he survives his run-off, Pete Flores for Dawn Buckingham (despite Flores’ lackluster performance given his significant advantages in endorsements, experience running for a Texas Senate seat, and a district drawn for him).

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CategoryLean conservativeSomewhat conservativeExtremely conservative
Approve strongly12%24%37%
Approve somewhat25%37%29%
Neither approve nor disapprove30%18%17%
Disapprove somewhat11%8%3%
Disapprove strongly11%4%5%
Don't know11%10%9%

5. While a lot of people attempting to understand the power of the former president’s endorsement looked to the GOP Attorney General primary as their test case, the reality of Paxton’s legal problems and quality of his challengers makes this, if anything, an unreliable harbinger of anything. Had Paxton surpassed 50%, there’s no doubt the former president would have taken some (or all) of the credit, just as he is likely to disown Paxton’s recent failure. More broadly, the obsession with Trump’s “impact,” while understandable, seems to miss the bigger picture here. The essence of any “Trump factor” is that given Trump’s role in the consciousness of many Republican voters, Trump’s endorsement has a very defensive nature – at this point, a part of its value is making sure your opponent doesn’t have the endorsement, particularly if you’re an incumbent. This presents as a kind of political Munchhausen syndrome by proxy: he has roiled the politics of the Republican Party, and now swoops in to take credit for fixing things with his endorsements. He probably helped some candidates around the edges, but his bigger impact has been to create the instability that provides him the opportunity to preen about his ability to pick winners. (And yes, we had some discussion about Van Taylor — one of the few incumbents without a Trump endorsement due to his vote in favor of forming a bipartisan commision to investigate the January 6 riot — being forced into a run-off, but there’s obviously a lot more going on there that has rendered the Trump factor moot, or at least not interpretable.)

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Very favorable3%16%52%
Somewhat favorable5%21%28%
Neither favorable nor unfavorable7%10%6%
Somewhat unfavorable6%9%6%
Very unfavorable78%40%7%
Don't know/No opinion1%4%1%

6. The notion that the Texas GOP has moved so far to the right that Democrats have any real chance of shaking things up in the general still looks pretty far-fetched. First, there’s not a lot of evidence that the Republican primary electorate (at least statewide) is terribly ideologically dissimilar from the overall Republican electorate in the state. Second, even if there were a significant faction of Republicans alarmed by or uncomfortable with the party’s rightward shift (not that there’s any evidence of this wing based on GOP primary activity this year), negative partisanship in the state dictates that few if any would quietly cast their vote for Beto or any other Democrat in 2022 (if ever). More broadly, the environment is terrible for Democrats in 2022 given their ownership of the executive branch and the Congress. And the emerging issue environment, at least currently, is likely to focus on increasing prices, the border, and the increasingly unstable world —  three areas that Biden and Democrats can hardly impact without significant upfront costs that may backfire if the intended result is a better electoral environment. 

7. Despite increased engagement among Democrats over the last few election cycles in Texas (matched by increased efforts among Republicans), the Democratic run-off elections for Lieutenant Governor and Attorney General provide yet another reminder of how hard it is to run statewide in Texas without widespread name ID, which almost no Democrat not named Beto O’Rourke can claim. In our February polling conducted just before early voting, “haven’t thought about it enough to have an opinion” would have escaped without a run-off in both primaries, presaging the run-off in both races. In October polling, at least 70% of voters could not offer a positive or negative opinion on many of the, presumably more known, candidates in those races. While this isn’t surprising on the whole, and certainly not in the race for Attorney General, where no candidate could make a serious claim to wide recognition, Mike Collier, who received 3.86 million votes just 4 years ago (and 1.7 million votes 8 years ago), still couldn’t manage to escape a run-off with nearly 60% of voters choosing one of his opponents....

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