Despite the record of the 88th Legislature, GOP legislators have trouble displaying enough of the Right Stuff to fend off widespread challenges to incumbents.

The last two legislative sessions saw Texas Republicans successfully championing new laws that gained national attention for testing the boundaries of Constitutionality and public acceptance. From Texas’ de facto ban on abortion, with its creation of a civil bounty-hunting enforcement mechanism, to the assertion of state authority over border and immigration enforcement, the Republican-led legislature and leading statewide elected officials have invested an enormous amount of political capital in implementing measures expected to appeal strongly to the most conservative corners of the Texas GOP. Yet public opinion polling and the emerging dynamics of the 2024 GOP primary suggest that for Republican legislative incumbents, the threshold for demonstrating that you have the right stuff to avoid being challenged from the right in this year’s heated primary is at best a moving target.

The widely accepted explanation for legislative Republicans' sustained tilt to the far right is rooted in the centrality of Republican primary elections in a state political system in which most legislative races are not competitive in the general election. The combination of gerrymandered districts that leverage Republican advantages in resources and organization over Democrats in general elections, and an electorate in which Republicans consistently turn out in larger numbers than Democrats, means that for most Republican incumbents, the GOP primary in March poses a greater potential threat to their reelection than the more highly publicized general election in November.

Six University of Texas/Texas Politics Project polls conducted at regular intervals in 2023 illustrate the degree to which sentiment among Republican voters sets the expectations of incumbents' efforts to meet their market, while underlining a tension at work in a Republican party whose incumbents expect their reelection prospects to be determined by a primary electorate strongly influenced by multiple factions, each focused on one or a few social issues. Incumbents’ efforts to reduce the probability of being challenged in a primary – or, failing that, of that challenger being supported by conservative groups with resources to be used against them – have led them to support ever more conservative policies driven by these groups of voters, sometimes called “issue publics" in academic research.

Yet another less obvious structural effect of this dynamic has been to erode fixed standards for accepting a candidate as sufficiently conservative. For legislative incumbents and for the larger political system in the state, the erasure of a clear standard for being “conservative enough” has two immediate effects. It more easily enables potential primary challengers to find something in an incumbent’s record that can be used to charge them with being ideologically impure as an argument for replacing them. More broadly, it creates the opportunities for political opponents to tap into this dynamic in order to replace them for narrower political or even personal reasons, whether or not directly related to any well-grounded assessment of their ideological orientation. 

These effects are unfolding in real time in the 2024 primary. A larger than usual share of GOP incumbents find themselves being challenged from the right in the primary, in some cases with the support of two well-known statewide elected officials – Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton – who are seeking to punish legislators who have triggered their opposition. The reasons for their opposition are very different and, ultimately, are not substantially about ideology. But the lack of fixed threshold for being sufficiently conservative opens up that angle of attack upon incumbents, whatever the much narrower grievances motivating Abbott and Paxton

The weaponization of an increasingly malleable definition of conservatism amidst the widespread focus of the Texas political world on the GOP primaries diverts attention from another dynamic at work at the intersection of the legislature’s busy if troubled session and the primary elections. The GOP leadership’s efforts to provide policies in areas with broad appeal (such as property tax reduction and school safety) while also pushing the boundaries of social policies championed by the far right of the GOP expressed a reasonable strategic effort to provide work products that would appeal to both general election voters as well as primary voters. But the aggregate results of polling throughout 2023 suggest that they fell short on issues with strong bipartisan support (most notably, increasing teacher pay) – and demonstrate a widespread lack of confidence that, for all their many efforts, they have successfully addressed some of the major problems the state faces.


After the conclusion of the regular session, polling suggested that Republicans who sought to burnish their credentials by supporting legislative measures focused on proposals pegged to hot-button issues on the GOP agenda appeared to be aligned with their partisans. Asked in June 2023 polling to respond to 16 different policies that made up much of the Texas Legislature’s 2023 agenda during the regular legislative session, a majority of Republican voters expressed support for every policy. At least 80% supported many of the policy priorities of the most conservative factions the Texas GOP, including those related to gender, sexuality, education, and democracy:

All of these measures found their way into legislation (some in slightly qualified form) that became law in the state.

Yet after the four special sessions that followed in the summer and fall, many issues the legislature failed to successfully address, largely due to internecine fighting among Republican elected officials, were also strongly supported by wide swathes of voters in both parties. As we noted last month when the December 2023 UT/Texas Politics Project Poll was released, voters expressed substantial support for education policies the Legislature ultimately declined to send to the governor’s desk: 81% supported increasing the pay of public school teachers, and 68% favored increasing per student funding for Texas’ public schools.

As the large shares of support among Texas voters overall imply, clear majorities of Republicans also favored the most popular public education measure: 76% supported increasing teacher pay (along with 91% of Democrats and 78% of independents), and 59% supported increasing per student funding (as did 85% of Democrat and 54% of independents). 

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Strongly support72%48%44%
Somewhat support19%30%32%
Somewhat oppose3%10%12%
Strongly oppose2%4%5%
Don't know/No opinion4%8%8%

Establishing a voucher, ESA, or other school choice program — which was tied to the other, more popular, education policies in logrolling attempts in the fraught negotiations between the two legislative chambers and the governor in the final special session of 2023 — was supported by 54% of voters, with 32% opposed, a level of support in line with previous UT/TxP polling throughout 2023 (allowing for moderate variations in results dependent on question wording). Not surprisingly, results revealed partisan differences in attitudes: 71% of Republicans, but only 25% of Democrats, supported establishing a voucher/ESA program. In the end, the intertwining of vouchers with the tangled personal, institutional, and ideological politics in the Capitol doomed all three.

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Strongly support13%24%39%
Somewhat support22%23%32%
Somewhat oppose10%14%8%
Strongly oppose42%25%8%
Don't know/No opinion12%14%14%

The legislature also responded to the sustained groundswell of support for improving school safety amidst continuing attention to school shootings. In December, 82% supported increasing funding for public school safety, including 88% of Republicans and 82% of Democrats. Legislation aimed at improving school safety succeeded during the regular session, though weaknesses in the legislation, including the fiscal burdens created by requiring schools to hire armed security, became immediately apparent as some school districts struggled to comply amidst ongoing difficulties hiring and retaining teachers and staff. This fallout further highlighted the failure to adequately pay for school security mandates, and, less directly, to increase teacher pay. Attempts to add more funding for school safety failed to survive the political maelstrom around education policy in the final special session of last year, too.

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Strongly support54%39%52%
Somewhat support28%32%36%
Somewhat oppose8%9%4%
Strongly oppose4%8%3%
Don't know/No opinion6%12%5%

Amidst these seeming disappointments among many voters of both parties, there are several examples of alignment between public support and the legislative agenda that did somehow break through the hostility between the parties and within the Texas GOP. Data from the December poll illustrates that these successes were largely supported much more by Republicans than by Democrats, providing campaign fodder for the GOP primary but of less political use in attracting general election voters not already firmly in the GOP fold: 61% of voters supported increasing funding for the construction and repair of physical walls and barriers on the Texas Mexico border, and 54% supported prohibiting private employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations. Both enjoyed lopsided support among Republican voters, with 90% of GOP voters supporting the former, and 79% supporting the latter. A majority of Democrats opposed both measures (61% opposed more wall funding and 58% opposed the vaccine mandate prohibition). 

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Strongly support11%36%68%
Somewhat support18%26%22%
Somewhat oppose17%8%4%
Strongly oppose44%23%3%
Don't know/No opinion10%6%3%

Border-related issues added to the special session agenda and passed by the legislature found similar patterns of support, particularly among Republicans. A close majority of all voters support "making it a state crime for an undocumented immigrant to be in Texas in most circumstances," (55%), fueled by the 84% of Republicans that supported legislation now being challenged in federal court.

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Strongly support12%35%65%
Somewhat support15%18%19%
Somewhat oppose21%18%7%
Strongly oppose38%14%3%
Don't know/No opinion14%15%6%

And yet, asked at the end of last year how confident they were that the state’s political leadership had successfully addressed key issues flagged as critical by voters during mid-session polling, the results revealed a lack of confidence in the impact of legislative efforts, including in areas where the legislature successfully passed new laws.

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Extremely confident8%9%15%
Very confident13%7%17%
Somewhat confident17%27%33%
Not very confident21%20%21%
Not confident28%27%9%
Don't know/No opinion13%11%6%

Even allowing for unsurprising partisan differences, partisan loyalty did little to boost expectations. Only 27% of Republicans said that they were either “extremely” (11%) or “very” (16%) confident that the legislature had increased the reliability of the electric grid, with 26% saying the same about the reliability of the water supply. Only 35% said they were that confident about the legislature’s attempts to improve school safety, while only 29% said the same about efforts to reduce property taxes enough to make a difference. And after hundreds of millions and now billions more in border security spending, only 32% said they were extremely or very confident that legislative efforts will improve security along the Texas-Mexico border.

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Extremely confident9%9%14%
Very confident10%6%18%
Somewhat confident16%27%34%
Not very confident25%26%16%
Not confident33%23%7%
Don't know/No opinion6%8%10%

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Extremely confident9%6%11%
Very confident10%6%16%
Somewhat confident11%25%31%
Not very confident22%22%23%
Not confident41%32%10%
Don't know/No opinion7%8%9%

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Extremely confident9%9%15%
Very confident15%9%20%
Somewhat confident21%25%32%
Not very confident23%27%19%
Not confident24%22%8%
Don't know/No opinion8%8%7%

While voters' low levels of confidence in these areas might plausibly reflect a general lack of faith in institutional efforts to address major problems more than informed analysis of the actions of state government, approval of the legislature’s performance remained lackluster as the year limped to a close. Overall, 36% approved of the job the legislature was doing and 39% disapproved, perhaps not so bad given that only 10% said they were following the legislature closely. Among Republicans, 53% approved and 18% disapproved – though of the more than half who approved, only 13% approved strongly. But digging deeper finds slightly better if still ambiguous news for incumbents: among those who identify as “extremely conservative,” 60% approved with 22% disapproving; though again, only 15% of these likely GOP primary voters approved strongly.

The gap between Republicans’ embrace of the aspirations of the legislative agenda and their tepid expectations of the impact of what was actually accomplished adds another unpredictable ingredient to a primary election that already features unprecedented efforts by Gov. Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton to target incumbents who have earned their respective enmity for different, well-publicized reasons. In a not unrelated development, a larger field of play is one aspect of the atypicality of the primary election so far: among GOP incumbents seeking reelection, the share facing primary challengers increased from 43% in 2022 to 57% in 2024. While public opinion toward the legislature and its actions provides context for thinking about GOP primary elections, particularly in the Texas House, its effect and its interaction with unusual factors in shaping the overall outcome of this year’s legislative primaries are difficult to predict.

Hyping the potential for turnover in the legislature is the most predictable outcome of the broader field of play, where the larger array of challengers and their factional supporters promote talk of change against the backdrop of years of very public intra party conflict. The increased infighting among Republicans and the dramatic promises by the Governor and the Attorney General to seek some combination of accountability and revenge on legislators has proven irresistible to the political press, who rightly expect that stories of conflict and disruption to attract a larger segment of their audience than stories about continuity and incremental change, but the evidence supporting expectations of a major earthquake in the primaires remains ambiguous. Republican primary voters' judgments of the policies delivered by the legislature and their impact have historically been rendered based on a judgment of whether they are sufficiently conservative. But the mobilization of familiar issue-centric factions in defense of or against incumbents is also taking place at the same time as what it means to be a conservative is also increasingly up for grabs. 

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CategoryLean RepublicanNot very strong RepublicanStrong Republican
Conservative enough37%40%45%
Too conservative13%20%10%
Not conservative enough37%23%38%
Don't know/No opinion14%17%7%

On the one hand, legislative successes on hot-button social issues like those achieved during the regular session combined with the series of actions on the border and immigration give incumbents a strong foundation for primary campaigns. Actions on social issues like limiting access to abortion and combating LGTBQ rights provide opportunities to demonstrate responsiveness to groups of GOP primary voters overwhelmingly focused on those issues. Groups of voters focused on these specific issues are sometimes called “issue publics” (i.e. groups of voters whose voting behavior is determined largely based on policy efforts in a single area, e.g. abortion, gun rights, etc.). Viewing the Republican Primary electorate in Texas as a coalition of issue publics, we should expect the conventional incumbent approach of avoiding antagonizing these groups to be useful in defending against primary challengers. Those incumbents can say that they funded border security, empowered state law enforcement to arrest illegal immigrants, delivered property tax cuts, and made serious efforts at pushing back on “woke” culture on several fronts including government, athletics, and education.

These “issue publics” and the ongoing election also operate in an ideological space – what we think of as a left-right continuum – where we expect voters to support the candidates that they see as being closest to them ideologically (based on whatever, varying, inputs they have). Attacks on incumbent Republicans as RINOs, insufficiently conservative, or even as being closeted Democrats reflect the expectation that Republican primary voters, whether focused on a particular issue or not, valorize conservatism and have a relatively clear idea of what that means in a candidate.

The successes of the governing majority in the Texas Legislature in passing ever more conservative legislation over the last two sessions has been designed to blunt the ability of challengers to mobilize disgruntled issue publics on their behalf in primaries. Republican incumbents' legislative records seemingly have made it more difficult to successfully challenge incumbents by claiming the mantle of “the true conservative” when incumbents are increasingly able to trot out a long list of conservative policy votes. However bitter the animosity between the leaders of the two chambers, they have one thing in common: both have given their members a lot to campaign on in the primary by fostering legislation that caters to Republican “issue publics,” even as the aggregate effect is to move the center of the party’s ideological orientation ever rightward.

But the blunt insertion of the seemingly grievance-fueled efforts of Gov. Abbott and Attorney General Paxton to defeat targeted incumbents in the primary will test the ability of this strategy to protect incumbent members. While Abbott’s efforts to unseat incumbent Republicans who refused to support his failed push for a voucher program in Texas most directly relies on the selective mobilization of a school choice issue public within the GOP primary electorate, polling has consistently shown that this is not a driving issue for most Republican voters. This fact will likely lead Abbott to lend his personal brand and significant war chest to efforts by challengers to deploy the usual strategy of painting their incumbent opponents as insufficiently conservative (instead of, or in addition to, the voucher argument). Here, despite clear cross-currents and outright disagreement in some cases, Paxton’s efforts to make his impeachment vote a litmus test for conservatism in the minds of GOP primary voters, aligns with Abbott’s strategy, albeit with a decidedly more personal tilt.

Success in either case is an open question dependent on a number of factors, with one of the largest being the amount of resources poured into these efforts by Abbott himself, by Paxton’s allies on his behalf, and the quality of the candidates on both sides of the divide. Regardless of the outcome in these races (in whole or in part), the only reasonable expectation is that any successes by either Abott or Paxton will be loudly proclaimed to show evidence of their power in the GOP, and the righteousness of their respective causes.

Setting aside bragging rights and finding ways to save appearances, the extent of congruence between GOP primary voters’ views of how their party has governed and the outcome of the primary will weigh heavily on the future of the party. The rational strategy of catering to the relevant issue publics that make up the primary electorate has contributed to the extension of the ideological boundary of the right wing of the party – changing both the identity and orientation of the party even as the meaning of what it means to be “conservative” has been rendered hazy. Whether they are successful or not, the efforts of Abbott and Paxton and their respective allies and surrogates to exploit that lack of stable meaning by challenging the “conservatism” of a legislature with the record of the current group of incumbents seems unlikely to provide any clarity on what it means to be a conservative in Texas in 2024 – or where those who embrace the label want to take the state in 2025.

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