Texas Gov. Greg Abbott faces primary challenge as Democrats hope that Beto O’Rourke or Julián Castro lead their ticket.
After three legislative sessions, three quorum breaks, constant battles over pandemic mask mandates and hundreds of new GOP-produced laws, the 2022 political season is under way.
Texas voters will decide next year whether to keep Republicans in power or welcome Democrats out of the wilderness. Labor Day is the traditional kickoff for a political cycle. And though the campaign season in Texas and across the nation is more perpetual than ever, the end-of-summer holiday is a relevant 2022 marker.
On Thursday lawmakers completed a contentious legislative session, the second called by Gov. Greg Abbott after a regular session impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. Legislators still have to return to Austin—perhaps this fall—to redraw the state and congressional electoral boundaries. Their action-packed summer will serve as a rallying cry for Republicans and Democrats on a massive midterm ballot with the governor’s office at the top.
State leaders hope to have redistricting done in time for March primaries, and the general election—as always—will be in November.
Texas Republicans will begin the 2022 political season with a strong advantage over Democrats who are still searching for a candidate for governor, while deflecting an unfavorable national climate that could impact the midterm elections.
Abbott is seeking his third term, a feat that would set him up to tie Rick Perry as Texas’s longest serving governor. Another reelection will put him in line for a GOP spot on a national ticket, though much like Perry, he’ll be an underdog against better-known competition, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or former President Donald Trump.
“Organizationally, we’re stronger than we’ve ever been, with strong supporters and volunteers and structure,” said Dave Carney, the longtime chief consultant for Abbott. “We’re going to have an excellent crop of candidates running across the state for state and local offices. That’s going to bode well for a very strong general election.”
Carney added that the “regular session and special sessions produced some really excellent work that Republicans will be proud to campaign on and talk about those accomplishments.”
Much of the GOP action will occur in competitive primaries, the result of some incumbents reaching for higher office, or the party’s most ardent activists trying to beat sitting office holders from the right flank.
Former GOP state Sen. Donald Huffines of Dallas and former Texas GOP chairman Allen West are challenging Abbott in the Republican primary. Perhaps the marquee matchup in the Republican field is the primary for attorney general, where embattled incumbent Ken Paxton is seeking reelection to a third term against Land Commissioner George P. Bush and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman.
Carney dismissed the challenges from Huffines and West, describing Abbott’s primary battle as a mere practice round for the general election.
“I would say we’re calling it a great dress rehearsal for the general election,” Carney said. “It helps us build off our muscle memory for a strong turnout.”
Huffines said he was “energized” and ready to defeat Abbott.
“Everywhere I go Texans are frustrated with Greg Abbott’s failure to secure the border, provide property tax relief, or deliver on the other promises he made on the campaign trail,” Huffines said. “We have already changed the course of Texas by forcing Abbott to at least acknowledge the open border and by recently revealing the radical transgender ideology that Abbott’s state agency was pushing on Texas children.”
Democratic Party options
Democrats are entering the 2022 season with much less optimism. At best, many of their operatives see 2022 as yet another building block year, unless they can find a miraculous candidate against Abbott who can raise lots of money, mobilize voters across the state and carry a pronounced message with charisma.
Party leaders hope that candidate is former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, an El Paso Democrat who in 2018 raised $80 million and came within 2.6 percentage points of beating incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. He followed that up with a 2020 loss in the Democratic presidential primary, where his progressive position on gun control and other issues may have hurt him with many Texas voters.
“Hell yes,” he said when asked during a presidential debate whether he supported a policy to confiscate weapons like the popular AR-15 rifle.
Since then O’Rourke started a grassroots PAC called Powered by People that focuses on registering and mobilizing voters. This summer he led a 27-mile march from Georgetown to the state Capitol to protest the controversial GOP elections bill that will soon be signed into law. And his group recently announced a tool to make it easier to register voters.
O’Rourke has not made a decision on whether to challenge Abbott, which is causing some heartburn for Democrats worried they will be stuck without a major candidate. In 2018, Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa tried to recruit a big name Democrat to run for governor, but had to settle for the lesser-known Lupe Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, as his party’s nominee.
But for 2022 other legitimate candidates could emerge. Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary and former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro hasn’t ruled out a run for governor, one of his aides said last week.
But even with O’Rourke or Castro leading the ticket, Democrats face a difficult national climate. The party in power typically absorbs losses in midterm elections, and President Joe Biden hasn’t done much to reverse that trend, analysts say.
“Our goal should not be winning. Our goal should be getting better and improving our fundamentals,” said veteran Democratic strategist Colin Strother. “If we have a strong candidate for governor, that’s great. If we don’t, that’s fine too. At the end of the day our goals should be the same. Increasing registration, improving engagement, modernizing and professionalizing our campaign operations, getting our incumbents to actually participate in the process and help out the rest of the ticket.”
Strother, however, added that Abbott is as vulnerable as he’s ever been.
A new University of Texas/Texas Politics Project poll revealed that Abbott’s approval rating his dipped to 41%, with 50% disapproving of his job performance. The survey found that 52% of Texans feel the state is headed in the wrong direction. The mood of the respondents is shaped by the resurgence of the coronavirus, according to Texas Politics Project director Jim Henson.
“There’s a general discontent and a dourness out there,” Henson said.
Strother said O’Rourke could help Democrats craft the narrative that Abbott is leading Texas in the wrong direction.
“The Democrats have to be able to tell that story and we’ve historically had trouble doing that,” Strother said. “We talk too much about our feelings and programs. Republicans talk about values and anecdotes because that’s how voters process information.”
But Carney, Abbott’s consultant, blustered at the notion that Democrats had a chance to break through in 2022. He compared Democrats to the longtime foil of the Harlem Globetrotter basketball team.
“Texas Democrats remind me of the Washington Generals,” he said. “For two decades they’ve perfectly played their role. They’re just a hapless group of people that can’t get out of their own way. Now they’re fighting amongst themselves. They got their own caucuses. They’re talking about primarying each other. It’s great to watch the Democrats in such disarray.”
In other general election statewide contests, Houston-area accountant Mike Collier is seeking a rematch against incumbent Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. In 2018 Patrick beat Collier by five percentage points.
Former Galveston mayor Joe Jaworski and Dallas-based civil rights lawyer Lee Merritt are vying in the Democratic Party primary for attorney general in hopes of challenging Paxton, if he gets past Bush and Guzman.
Redistricting will set the stage for congressional and legislative races. With Republicans in control of the process, they’ll likely cement their advantage in the Texas House and Senate.
Texas will get two new congressional seats, and it’s possible that one of them could be placed in North Texas.
State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, said the 2022 election cycle finds Republicans in their best political position in years.
“In the last two election cycles we had some headwinds to overcome,” Krause said. “This time we have the wind at our backs.”