The Texas Primary Watchlist

Introduction

Welcome to the first edition of Watchlist, Split Ticket’s new electoral rundown series. With political junkies everywhere preparing for the beginning of election season, all eyes are focused on Texas. There, the inaugural primaries of the 2022 cycle will be held tomorrow.

Each of the most competitive statewide and congressional nomination fights will be covered in detail. Should no single candidate receive more than 50% of the vote in a given contest, the top two hopefuls will advance to a May 24th runoff.

New editions of Watchlist will debut before each scheduled primary election. For more Texas coverage, check out Split Ticket’s (@Ticket1Split) election night Twitter space starting when polls close at 8 PM ET. For more information on future primaries and race ratings, check out our 2022 Mastersheet.

Statewide

Governor (R)

In his bid for a third term, Republican Governor Greg Abbott is facing two prominent challengers from his right: former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West and former State Senator Don Huffines. The Governor has previously attracted intraparty criticism over Texas Coronavirus restrictions and the response Winter Storm Uri in 2021.

Although he initially appeared vulnerable, Abbott has dominated polling since late last summer; the most recent University of Texas survey pegged him at 60% – more than enough to avoid a runoff if those numbers prove accurate. The Governor also has former President Trump’s endorsement, a definite asset when it comes to solidifying appeal among most Texas Republicans.

Abbott’s top two challengers have both lost competitive reelections before. West represented Florida’s 22nd district until his 2012 loss; Huffines lost his Dallas-based State Senate seat in the 2018 blue wave. Those weak points do not suggest any particular opposition strength, lending further credence to the Governor’s persistent polling advantage.

In short, Split Ticket considers Abbott a favorite to comfortably win renomination with broad geographic support. Each of his political detractors appears to be a longshot with little hope of victory outside of forcing the Governor into a runoff campaign.

Attorney General (R)

The Republican battle for Attorney General is one of the more competitive statewide primaries in Texas. Two-term incumbent Ken Paxton is seeking a third term in office this year, but faces spirited opposition from Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former State Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, and Congressman Louie Gohmert. The controversial Paxton has been investigated by the FBI for criminal misdeeds and supported former President Trump’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results.

All polling evidence shows the Attorney General set to win a plurality of the vote despite numerous accusations of wrongdoing that have been levied against him over the last few years. Paxton’s conservative judicial stands and his endorsement by former President Trump are the most likely drivers behind his continued political vitality.

The real source of electoral contention thus far has been the fight for second place ahead of a potential runoff election against Paxton. Polling aggregates have generally predicted Bush finishing in 2nd, though Guzman could feasibly overperform her baseline enough to surpass him. Gohmert, meanwhile, has oscillated between 3rd and 4th places with little additional momentum.

Assuming the survey results of the last few months end up being accurate, a Paxton v. Bush runoff will result. Such a race would ignite a heated conflict between the old-fashioned Republicanism of the Bush family and the more aggressive populism of the Trump-era. It is unclear which side would prevail, though the latter faction has been more successful as of late.

A final interesting point of observation for the first round of voting deals with regionalism. Each of the top four candidates hails from a different part of Texas. Gohmert represents the Tyler/Longview-based 1st Congressional district; Paxton is from McKinney in the Dallas area; Guzman is from Houston; Bush is from Austin. Split Ticket expects first round coalitions to mirror these residential loyalties.

Congressional

TX-01 (R)

The northeastern 1st Congressional district is a heavily-Republican seat being vacated by long-time Congressman Louie Gohmert. Tyler, Longview, Kilgore, and Texarkana are the most prominent communities within its boundaries.

Judge Nathaniel Moran is currently the primary favorite. Besides the significant fundraising advantage he currently holds over opponents A.D. Atholi, Joe McDaniel, and John Porro, Moran holds political office in critical Smith County (Tyler). Smith alone accounts for 30% of the 1st district’s population, making it a more valuable electoral prize than any of the other 16 counties in the seat.

Interestingly, Gohmert also served as a Judge in Smith County before winning his first Congressional race against Democrat Max Sandlin in 2004. Perhaps that lineage alone is enough to assure Judge Moran’s nomination.

TX-08 (R)

The 8th Congressional district is another comfortably-Republican seat up for grabs this year following a retirement. Former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady is leaving the House after 26 years of service. Redistricting leaves his district based around the suburbs and exurbs of Houston, with a majority of the population residing in Harris and Montgomery counties.

Encapsulating contrasting visions for the demeanor of the GOP, this race could be the most competitive Republican Congressional primary in Texas. Representing the establishment wing of the party is ostensible frontrunner Morgan Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL backed by Kevin McCarthy’s Congressional Leadership Fund and the Main Street Partnership. Spearheading the anti-establishment is Christian Collins, endorsed by Ted Cruz, Madison Cawthorn, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and the House Freedom Fund. A third contender, Paul Gosar-endorsed Jonathan Hullihan, is also running.

Luttrell and Collins have espoused drastically-different rhetoric despite having much in common on hot-button political issues. Collins has shunned the Republican “establishment” in Washington, promising to be a MAGA conservative in the mold of a freshman like Madison Cawthorn. Luttrell, the dominant fundraiser in the race, has approached the stump from a more traditional perspective, leading some to question his conservatism.

Split Ticket expects Luttrell to win at least a plurality of the vote tomorrow, though it is unclear if he will amass enough support to avoid a runoff. Recognizing Luttrell’s frontrunner status, Collins will presumably be hoping to finish second. His biggest problem is Hullihan, who, given their similar style of conservatism, could eat into the 8th’s base of anti-establishment conservatives unhappy with Luttrell.

About 51% of the total population of the 8th is based in a plurality-Hispanic segment of Harris County that backed Biden by about 10 points in 2020. But most of the Republican primary votes (a majority of the Trump votes cast in 2020) come from Montgomery County, where all three major candidates live. Assuming a pitched battle ensues there, the candidate most appealing to Harris County will probably be able to win. The remaining rural counties in the district should not be forgotten, though, since they still account for enough GOP votes to make the difference in a tight race.

TX-15 (R/D)

The 15th Congressional district is the top Republican target in South Texas. Redistricting reconfigured the seat to be Trump +3, though it would have been Clinton +13 in 2016 – a sign of just how strongly Republicans did with Hispanics in this part of Texas in 2020. Adding to Republican hopes is the fact that the 15th is open this year. After an unexpectedly close re-election, incumbent Democrat Vicente Gonzalez is moving east to the bluer 34th district (though his re-election there is still uncertain).

Republican Monica de la Cruz, the 2020 nominee, is the definite frontrunner for the GOP nomination in the redrawn district. She has been endorsed by former President Trump and has the backing of Kevin McCarthy’s Congressional Leadership Fund. In the money game, self-funded nightclub owner Mauro Garza is the only other candidate who has competed with de la Cruz. There are 9 Republicans seeking the nomination in all.

The Democratic primary should be more contentious than its Republican counterpart. Of the six Democrats running, attorneys John Rigney and Ruben Ramirez are the best funded. Other candidates to watch include Eliza Alvarado and businesswoman Michelle Vallejo.

75% of the 15th’s population is in Hidalgo County, situated in the heart of the Rio Grande Valley. The lion’s share of Republican and Democratic primary votes come from this part of the district, where cities like McAllen dominate political discourse. Guadalupe County, the seat’s northernmost extent, is the second most populated section of the 15th. This portion of the district actually trended Democratic from 2016 to 2020, but it does not pack a huge punch at the ballot box.

TX-23 (D)

The 23rd district eluded Democrats in 2018 and 2020, with the Trump’s unusually-strong performance in South Texas pulling Tony Gonzales over the line in the latter election. In redistricting, the legislature gave Gonzales a safer Trump +7 seat. Despite the 23rd’s massive geographic scale, 58% of its total population lives in the shell communities of Bexar & El Paso counties.

Since Democrats were unable to flip the bluer iteration of this seat in favorable environments of years past, it is difficult to imagine them making a serious bid for the seat this fall given the President Biden’s deteriorating national image and continuing Republican growth in South Texas. The primary frontrunner here is Marine Corps veteran John Lira. He is expected to be a long shot general election candidate.

TX-28 (R/D)

The 28th Congressional district encapsulates the favorable Republican trends that have recently inundated much of South Texas better than any other seat. This is the district of conservative Democrat Henry Cuellar, a fixture of this region’s politics for over three decades. About 2/3rds of the seat’s population is based around Webb (Laredo) and Bexar (San Antonio) counties.

After successfully primarying Congressman Ciro Rodriguez in 2004, Cuellar became electorally secure. But that sense of security came crashing down in 2020, when progressive upstart Jessica Cisneros came within 4 points of beating primarying him. Cuellar and Cisneros will face off in a rematch tomorrow, and recent developments could give the edge to the progressives this time around.

The “recent developments” in question are the FBI’s raids on Cuellar’s home and campaign office. These measures are part of an ongoing investigation into the Blue Dog incumbent’s purported involvement with the government of Azerbaijan. In Washington, Cuellar is quite an important man. As Chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee, he has been a steady voice in favor of securing the border and regulating immigration. A pro-life Democrat, Cuellar has been outspoken in condemning the values of his AOC-backed opponent.

RMG Research conducted one poll of the district, showing Cisneros ahead by 1 point with a significant portion of the electorate undecided.

Given the solid Republican trends that swept most of the 28th (except Bexar and Guadalupe) in 2020, the NRCC is preparing to target the district in earnest this time around. Redistricting shifted the seat leftward to Biden +7, though it would have been Clinton +19 in 2016. Another GOP boon, frequently discussed by contributor Armin Thomas, is educational polarization. Lower than average rates of educational attainment among Hispanics could be particularly damaging to Democrats in a Republican environment.

In short, the GOP could very well flip this district regardless of the Democratic nominee. That said, most pundits would consider Cuellar a stronger contender than Cisneros even with his Azerbaijan scandal. Both Cuellar and Filemon Vela outran the top of the ticket significantly last cycle, suggesting some residual strength with the electorate.

Ex-Cruz staffer Cassy Garcia currently seems to be the frontrunner on the Republican side, though rancher Ed Cabrera has also been a credible fundraiser. Other candidates to watch include former police detective Willie Vasquez, 2020 GOP nominee Sandra Whitten, and management analyst Eric Hohman. Strong primary turnout in Republican-trending counties will be a good sign for the GOP throughout South Texas, given participation in party primaries has been virtually-nonexistent in years past.

TX-30 (D)

The 30th Congressional district is a heavily-Democratic, plurality-black seat up for grabs this year following the retirement of long-time Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson. This seat is based in the heart of the Dallas Metropolitan area, so the primary is tantamount to victory in the general election.

Johnson’s anointed successor is State Representative Jasmine Crockett. Although she has been outraised by former Veasey Chief of Staff Jane Hope Hamilton and attorney Abul Mulugheta, her background should be enough to secure the seat. Progressive Jessica Mason and perennial candidate Barbara Mallory Caraway are also seeking election.

The lone poll for the seat so far showed Crockett leading the field with 35%, setting her up for a runoff against Caraway who took 11%. It is notable that this survey was a Crockett campaign internal.

TX-34 (R)

The 34th Congressional district is the final competitive seat in South Texas. It is being vacated by Congressman Filemon Vela. 15th district Democrat Vicente Gonzalez is switching to run in his stead. He should have an easy reelection on paper because the redrawn 34th is Biden +16, but it was Clinton +36 in 2016 and has shifted drastically rightward in the last few years.

The Hidalgo/Cameron-dominated seat is also *mostly* new to Gonzalez. (He did not outrun the top of the ticket in his old seat like his South Texas colleagues) Republican Mayra Flores is expected to be the GOP nominee here and could pull off an upset victory if regional Democratic hopes continue to deteriorate.

TX-35 (D)

The 35th district is a newly-open, Hispanic-majority seat stretching between the Austin and San Antonio metros, though both of the frontrunning Democrats come from Travis County. They are City Councilman Greg Casar and veteran State Representative Eddie Rodriguez.

In the same way that the Republican primary in the 8th district has shown the divide between the establishment and the anti-establishment, the seething contest in the 35th has shown differences in style between two otherwise progressive Democrats. Casar has led in both the fundraising game and the polling aggregate, and has also racked up endorsements from big name progressives like AOC, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

Rodriguez, one of Austin’s long-time legislative figures, has been endorsed by many of his State House colleagues and seems to be running closer to the center. His best hope would be a runoff against Casar, though his victory in such a contest would still be an uphill battle.

The other half of the district lies in the San Antonio metro, where two former Mayors have endorsed ex-councilwoman Rebecca Viagran. In the most recent PPP poll, Viagran finished just 4 points behind Rodriguez. Assuming the vote in Austin is divided enough, Viagran could theoretically make the runoff.

The subsequent dichotomy would likely be a battle between the two competing cities, each of which accounts for roughly 40% of the 35th’s population. In such an event, it is important to remember that the whiter Travis County portion of the seat accounts for more Democratic primary voters even though the raw resident counts are equal. This reduction of Hispanic voting power (disparity between residents and registered voters) in heavily-Latino municipalities has presented itself across the country.

TX-38 (R)

The 38th district is a brand new Safe Republican district created in redistricting as a result of the Lone Star State’s exceptional population growth. At Trump +18, the open seat encompasses the redder suburbs of western Houston in Harris County.

Republican Wesley Hunt, a rising star who challenged Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher in the 7th district last cycle, is the favorite to win the GOP nomination tomorrow. The only poll in the district showed him at 54% against numerous opponents, a figure well above the runoff threshold. (This was a Hunt internal) This district trended Democratic between 2016 and 2020, but is not going to be seriously contested any time soon.

My name is Harrison Lavelle and I am a political analyst studying at the College of New Jersey. As a co-founder and partner at Split Ticket, I coordinate our House coverage. I write about a variety of electoral topics and produce political maps. Besides elections, my hobbies include music, history, language, and fitness.

Contact me at @HWLavelleMaps or harrisonwlavelle1@gmail.com

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