What We’re Watching in the 2018 Texas Primaries
With Democratic turnout crushing early voting records in the 15 biggest counties, jam-packed races for seats left open by several retiring Republicans and backlash to Trump fueling progressive victories in other states, the first primary election of 2018 may also be one of the nation’s most exciting and consequential.
Our reporters have traveled across the state — from Amarillo to the Rio Grande Valley — to zero in on the most compelling stories, the most competitive races and emerging themes from this primary season. We’ve collected the highlights (and the lowlights) in this election guide. Follow our election night live-blog, Facebook and Twitter accounts for up-to-the-minute results and analysis Tuesday evening.
Scoring Governor Abbott
Governor Greg Abbott is on the ballot for this primary, but unless you think Larry SECEDE Kilgore (that’s his actual legal name) is going to catch fire with his Texas secession platform, the governor’s real test lies elsewhere. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Abbott has chosen to do a little jihad against three Republican incumbents. The governor is using his bully pulpit and $43 million political bank account to unseat Sarah Davis, a moderate pro-choice Republican who represents an affluent district in Houston, as well Lyle Larson, a moderate-ish Republican water policy wonk from San Antonio, and the very much right-wing Wayne Faircloth, of Galveston. The challengers that Abbott is backing are a, um, colorful bunch — you’ve got your Seasteadder Susanna Dokupil (Davis’ opponent), your generic oil executive and ideological conservative Mayes Middleton (Faircloth) and the unfortunately named Chris Fails (Larson).
Whatever you think of Abbott’s gambit, it is both unusual and risky. Governors typically do not pick sides in their own party’s primaries. If Abbott’s farm team loses, he’ll have to deal with triumphant enemies returning to the Legislature. If his strategy is to compel compliance with the Abbott agenda, well, you can see how that might backfire if his candidates lose. The other possibility is that one or all of Dokupil, Middleton and Fails wins the primary and then gets beat in the general.
It’s hard to see how Dokupil, who is running a weirdly generic and off-key campaign, is a better match-up to a Democrat in House District 134 than Sarah Davis. There aren’t a lot of centrist, Trump-queasy Republicans out there but if they exist anywhere, they exist in Bellaire and West University Place and River Oaks. The only way it seems Abbott wins here is if Dokupil somehow manages to beat a Democrat in November, which doesn’t seem particularly likely. On the other hand, Abbott has dismissed the district as “blue already.” That sounds to me like loser talk.
Whatever happens Tuesday night, the governor has given us a handy way to measure his political savvy and power. I also think we potentially can read in the results an indicator of the health of the Republican Party. What does it say about the GOP if the top Republican in the biggest red state in the nation is willing to purge moderates and other internal enemies purely for tactical reasons? We’ll be watching these races closely.
Watch the far-right’s bid to snatch up the Panhandle
This could be the year that Panhandle politics — where voters have consistently elected state lawmakers with a pragmatic streak — move further right. Empower Texas, Texans for Vaccine Choice and other far-right groups have targeted three lawmakers in the state’s chimney-shaped region, hurling claims that they just aren’t conservative enough to represent one of the reddest areas in the entire nation.
Keep a close eye on the multiple bids to unseat Amarillo Senator Kel Seliger, who has drawn challenges from former Midland mayor Mike Canon and Muleshoe restaurateur Victor Leal. There’s reason to believe they could give Seliger a run for his money. Leal, who formerly sat on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, has some name recognition from his face being plastered on billboards promoting his Mexican restaurant chain in the area for years. Canon came within five percentage points of defeating Seliger in 2014.
Politicos should also watch the primary challenges of representatives Ken King, of Canadian, and Four Price, of Amarillo, who are defending their seats against far-right-funded candidates. King’s one serious opponent, Jason Huddleston of Perryton, is a homeschooler who says King’s voting record on anti-abortion measures should disqualify him for the job. Price’s challenger, Fritch City Manager Drew Brassfield, says Price is too moderate for the region.
Do-over for Trey Martinez Fischer
Political ambition has shuffled San Antonio’s legislative bench in recent years, including House District 116.
Trey Martinez Fischer held the seat since 2001, evolving into a master parliamentarian known for monkeywrenching the chamber to a standstill over critical issues for his underdog party. But when Leticia Van de Putte stepped aside for her long-shot lieutenant governor’s race (which she lost and followed up with a failed bid for San Antonio mayor), Martinez Fischer seized an opportunity to jump to the Senate. Except then-House colleague José Menéndez seized it first, beating Martinez Fischer in a 2015 special-election to fill the rest of Van de Putte’s term. Martinez Fischer tried and again lost to Menéndez in a primary election for the seat the following year.
Now Martinez Fischer wants his old seat back from successor Diana Arévalo, who scoffs that he abandoned it. While she’s been endorsed by Annie’s List, nearly a third of the House Democratic Caucus have endorsed Martinez Fischer, including four members of the San Antonio delegation.
That confidence hints at why party insiders floated Martinez Fischer’s name — among rising-star Democrats like the Castro twins — in their search for candidates to put in marquee races, like AG or governor, to help the beleaguered party capitalize on this year’s anti-Trump wave.
Apparently Martinez Fischer opted for safety over ambition this time around.
Friendly fire in Collin County
There’s virtually no ideological distinction between Angela Paxton and Phillip Huffines, two Republicans competing to keep nepotism alive in the Texas Legislature this election. So when their primary race for North Texas’ Senate District 8 got both ugly and personal, it revealed some cracks within the right flank of the state GOP that you don’t often see.
As soon as SD 8 went up for grabs last year, Huffines, the ventriloquist dummy-resembling twin brother of Dallas state Senator Don Huffines, bounced from his post as Dallas County Republican Party chair and moved to neighboring Collin County, where the district is almost entirely weighted. That pitted him against a beloved figure there, Angela Paxton, who’s married to felony-indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton. The race was cordial at first, but Paxton started calling Huffines a carpet-bagging opportunist who’s donated to “pro-abortion Democrats” and whose efforts would be wiser-spent in purple Dallas than on infighting in Collin County, a GOP stronghold.
Huffines meanwhile insulted Paxton and her indicted husband with campaign ads accusing them of using elected office to enrich themselves, declaring, “Public service pays surprisingly well for Ken and Angela Paxton.” While the securities fraud indictments against the AG accuse him of doing basically that, Huffines insists he’s totally not giving those allegations any weight, calling the case a “political prosecution.” (Never mind recent, mysterious robocalls in the district that referenced the AG’s charges.)
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick ultimately lamented that he “couldn’t remain on the sidelines any longer” while good Republicans got trashed, endorsing Paxton even as some of his ideological godchildren in Legislature’s uber-conservative Freedom Caucus endorsed Huffines. While the seat will remain solidly red no matter the outcome, any trouble for the hometown favorite could be sign the Paxton name has lost its sheen, even in Collin County.
Showing up: half (plus one) of the battle?
Sixty-five percent. That’s how many legislative floor votes 12-term state Representative Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, missed during last year’s regular legislative session, according to Travis County prosecutors. The scandals don’t stop there: She allegedly paid over $50,000 to an online psychic in 2015, and was indicted on charges of document tampering and misusing public office — though she was cleared of those charges late last year.
Now there are five Democrats trying to take Dukes down, with the two frontrunners being former Austin City Council member Sheryl Cole and local immigration attorney Chito Vela. Cole has the fundraising edge, outraising Vela roughly 6 to 1 in the most recent filing period — but Vela has garnered a number of endorsements, including that of the alt-weekly Austin Chronicle, which is influential among liberals in the district. The incumbent Dukes has $200,000 on hand, but has spent lightly: only $10,000 in the month prior to the election. Her lengthy legal battle left her campaign more than $700,000 in debt.
‘Mexico Pat’ and ‘Corrupt Craig’ duke it for North Texas Senate District
In the Republican primary for North Texas’ Senate District 30, Frisco Representative Pat Fallon and Wichita Falls Senator Craig Estes have tossed insults back and forth like an increasingly aggressive game of hot potato. After discovering Fallon had missed time on the House floor to vacation in Cancun, Estes’ campaign gave his challenger the moniker “Mexico Pat.” In return, Fallon launched corruptcraig.com, which features an unflattering image of the senator and charges that Estes is a corrupt, liberal fan of illegal immigrants.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has endorsed Fallon in the race, along with feeding the lawmaker election poll results that were reported by Fallon’s campaign as an in-kind donation. Estes told the Wichita Falls Times Record News that Patrick is trying to buy a “yes man” in the Senate. Even with Patrick’s support, Fallon may have a tough Tuesday — Estes has won five Republican primaries since 2002 and has raised $782,500 in campaign cash since July, more than doubling Fallon’s $294,500.
Last moderate standing
Governor Greg Abbott is throwing much of his political muscle behind a challenger to one of his party’s own: incumbent Representative Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, the most moderate Republican in the Texas House. Abbott held a rally in the Houston area for her challenger, Susanna Dokupil, a lawyer and a board member of the Seasteading Institute, spent nearly $250,000 to campaign against Davis and ran ads that used Hurricane Harvey to lie about her voting record.
Republican supporters of Davis warn that if Dokupil wins the primary, it’s likely that the district, which went for Hillary Clinton by 15 points in 2016, would shift to the Democrats in November.
But her far-right critics, led by Abbott, are undeterred. Empower Texans said Davis’ record in the House is “at direct odds with the Republican Party platform.” Davis, the only Republican in the Legislature who supports abortion rights, is an “abortion extremist,” according to Texas Right to Life. The group compared Davis to former state Senator Wendy Davis, who famously filibustered anti-abortion House Bill 2 in 2013. And Texans for Vaccine Choice — for whom Davis, a vaccine advocate, is enemy number 1 this cycle — has called the Houston Republican a “bought-and-paid-for-wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing-mad-hatter-wild-card politician” with a “liberty-stealing agenda.”
Davis, who said she’s more likely to abstain from voting in the governor’s race than vote for Abbott, told the Observer that she thinks his involvement in her race is an attempt “to exert complete control over the House.” “He looks weak already, by the fact that he can’t handle criticism. He seems very immature, in a way.”
More meddling in Houston
State lawmakers labeled Texas’ 29th Congressional District a minority “opportunity district” in response to Greater Houston’s booming Latino population when they created it in 1991. Then voters elected a white guy named Gene Green, who’s held the seat ever since, leaving Houston without a single Hispanic member of Congress.
Sylvia Garcia, now a state senator, ran against Green in the Democratic primary back then and lost. This year, many Houston-area Democrats support her run to take Green’s seat now that he’s retiring from Congress. The race looked like cakewalk for Garcia until local health care executive and Democratic Party fundraiser Tahir Javed entered, moving from Beaumont to Houston in order to live in the district he wants to represent and vowing to spend “whatever it takes.”
Javed could just be another long-shot candidate in a crowded primary, except for the fact that he’s outraised Garcia 2 to 1 and drawn support in high, if not unusual, places. The establishment Dems backing Garcia are thoroughly pissed he’s gotten the support of New York Democrat and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who appears to be rewarding the stalwart party fundraiser.
So on Tuesday, Houston could elect its first Hispanic member of Congress, not to mention the state’s first Latina member of Congress. Or national party meddling could push the race into runoff territory. As if Texas Dems have nothing better to worry about…
Ya down with D-Trip-C?
On February 22, someone with the Democratic Congressional Coordinating Committee (DCCC) had an idea that seems to have backfired. That day, a few nuggets of oppo research appeared on the committee’s website aimed at Laura Moser, a progressive Democrat running in Texas’ Congressional District 7, a highly contested Houston-area seat held by Republican John Culberson. The DCCC statement mangled a quote from Moser to make her appear anti-Texan and made much of the fact that she hired her husband’s well-known digital marketing company for her campaign.
Since then, Moser’s national profile has skyrocketed, she’s cashed in to the tune of at least $87,000 and even DNC chair Tom Perez — no wild-eyed Berniecrat — has come out against the move.
Seven Democrats are vying for the nomination, four of whom have raised more than $500,000 each, making a runoff seem likely. Both Alex Triantaphyllis, a pro-refugee activist and former Goldman Sachs banker, and Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, a high-powered local attorney who’s drawn the ire of the Texas AFL-CIO, have outraised Moser as of the latest FEC filings. In 2016, Clinton beat Trump in the district by 1.4 percentage points.
A clash over the future of the Democratic Party in Congressional District 21
Almost every reporter who has written about the Democratic primary race for Congressional District 21 has picked up on the same tension: In the Trump era, should Democrats hew left and double down on progressive policies or meet Republicans in the middle? Of the four candidates vying for retiring Congressman Lamar Smith’s seat, Derrick Crowe, Elliott McFadden and Mary Wilson have been espousing Bernie-style progressive policies on the campaign trail. Joseph Kopser, who is seen as a more moderate candidate, has outraised all of them and secured endorsements from longtime Austin Democratic lawmakers Kirk Watson and Donna Howard.
We’ll find out Tuesday night who Democrats in the heavily gerrymandered Hill Country district — which stretches from San Antonio to Austin and that Trump won by 10 percentage points — think best represents their values. Ultimately, who they pick could give observers a glimpse into the future of the state party, especially as Democrats compete to win back gerrymandered red districts.
On the Republican side, 18 candidates are running and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that it’ll head into a runoff in May. For the most part, the candidates seem to be pushing far-right policies, such as being tough on immigration and restricting access to abortion. Jason Isaac, who is giving up his state House seat to run, Chip Roy, a former Ted Cruz staffer, and former Bexar County GOP Chair Robert Stovall are among the frontrunners.
The anti-abortion divide
The longtime feud brewing among anti-abortion advocates is coming to a head this primary cycle. Last month, the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a “parish advisory” against the far-right Texas Right to Life, calling the group’s scoring of lawmakers unfair. While the bishops favor the more incremental approach deployed by Texas Alliance for Life, the House Freedom Caucus-aligned Texas Right to Life has taken to attacking any incumbent that does not vote for even the most extreme anti-abortion measures.
Texas Right to Life’s litmus test this election cycle is an amendment proposed by Representative Matt Schaefer that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks, including in cases of severe fetal anomaly. A step too far even for some Republicans, the amendment was voted down last session. Now, Texas Right to Life is going after any GOP incumbent responsible, starting with a challenge by the group’s legal counsel, Emily Kebodeaux Cook, to GOP Representative Ernest Bailes for House District 18 in East Texas.
The anti-abortion infighting is particularly apparent in the race for Senate District 2 in Northeast Texas, where Representative Cindy Burkett is challenging Senator Bob Hall. Burkett, who sponsored the sweeping anti-abortion bill that passed this session, has a 100 percent rating from Texas Alliance for Life, which calls her a “pro-life champion.” But her vote against Schaefer’s amendment has made Burkett a target of Texas Right to Life, which called her “unfit for the Texas Senate,” and lowered her “pro-life ranking” from 89 percent in 2015 to about 73 percent in 2017. “Either you believe our God is sovereign, that he is without error, and the Bible is inerrant, or you don’t,” said Hall, rated 100 percent by Texas Right to Life. “We have no business usurping God’s authority and aborting under any circumstance except for the life of the mother.”
This land is my land
Jerry Patterson is an ex-Marine pilot who’s said he carries at least two pistols wherever he goes and once called then-Governor Rick Perry a “metrosexual” for not wearing boots. Patterson is also a former Texas Land Commissioner, and this year, he wants his job back.
The colorful Patterson is facing down George P. Bush, son of Jeb and the last remaining Bush in public office. No one would accuse Bush of excessive charisma or maintaining too high a profile during his one term as Land Commissioner. As Patterson has railed against him for alleged mismanagement of the Alamo historical site and Harvey aid moneys, Bush has responded by declining debates and traditional interviews with newspaper editorial boards. The Dallas Morning News and Houston Chronicle both endorsed Patterson.
But Bush, if nothing else, is loaded: He spent $2 million during the most recent filing period and has more than a million left to burn. He’s a silver spoon baby, which plenty of voters might resent — but it’s a big spoon.
What can you say about a Democratic gubernatorial field of nine in which the two (alleged) frontrunners are a middle-aged son of a Texas governor who wasn’t interested in politics until a few months ago, and a sheriff who seems to know little about the big issues and has a mixed record, at best, as a jailer?
Lest I get accused of bias, there’s also the self-declared Berniecrat in a Panama Hat, International Mr. Leather 2009, perennial vanity candidate Grady Yarbrough and… four others. The field is thin, and with nine candidates, it’s almost certainly heading to a runoff. The Dallas Morning News categorized the state of the race this way: “Slow pace, quiet race: Democrats Lupe Valdez and Andrew White saving it all up for governor runoff rematch.” (By the way, I think it’s premature to assume that a May runoff will include Valdez and White. Texas Democratic primary voters have made stranger decisions: Anyone remember Jim Hogan, who didn’t campaign and was best known for feeding a watermelon to his goats, knocking off Kinky Friedman and actual candidate Hugh Fitzsimmons in the 2014 ag commissioner’s race?)
Meanwhile, Governor Abbott is so worried about the Democratic field that he’s spending his money and time torching fellow Republicans. One can imagine a different reality, one in which a more formidable politician had entered the race: one of the Castro brothers, perhaps, or a veteran lawmaker such as Rafael Anchia or Trey Martinez Fischer. They would’ve come in with name recognition, experience, the ability to fundraise and generated excitement that would’ve advantaged down-ballot candidates. They would’ve avoided a runoff and focused on attacking Abbott, who has proved to be a hard-right governor with a record of promoting nutty far-right conspiracy theories and all the vision of a potted plant.
Of course, we know the score by now: Texas Democrats are stuck in a forever dilemma in which good candidates often won’t run because they can’t win. Not-great candidates then get slaughtered, proving once again that a Democrat can’t win statewide. The irony is that this year is as favorable as any in the last decade or so. Whoever ends up as the Democratic nominee will almost surely do better than Wendy Davis in 2014, who lost to Abbott by 20 percentage points, but it’s hard to focus just yet on what will be rather than what could’ve been.