We’re four months past the March primary election in Texas, with about four months to go before the general election in November. This should by rights be a peaceful time, a time of rebuilding, of preparing for the long trial ahead. Not so! On July 14, Texas will finally have its delayed primary runoffs: an election to tide you over between the election before and the election hence.
Arguably, the biggest story of the runoffs is the voting process itself, which will be the state’s first since the dawn of the COVID era. Last month, state leaders—particularly Attorney General Ken Paxton—stymied attempts by local leaders to figure out a workable alternative to in-person voting, including expanding access to mail-in ballots. In other states that voted in-person after the coronavirus’s outbreak, transmission has been linked to polling centers. As case numbers spike in Texas, there can be no doubt that the virus will be spread at polling stations here too: already, an election worker who had manned an early voting site in Lubbock tested positive, causing the whole polling location to be shut for an overnight cleaning.
Tuesday will also be something of a dress rehearsal for the general election in November, which will feature many more voters and much longer lines, unless universal voting by mail is instituted. But there are a number of races that merit attention in their own right, too. Here’s a few we’re following.
Royce West versus MJ Hegar!
U.S. Senate (D)
It’s a bit of a shame that the race to choose a Democratic opponent to John Cornyn has gotten so little attention. While nobody was watching, it evolved into an interesting showdown. Or at least it has been one in the last few weeks.
MJ Hegar has a great personal story but has never held elected office. She came to national attention in 2018 thanks to a viral ad, about her service in Afghanistan and advocacy work, and her unsuccessful bid for a congressional seat against Representative John Carter. Royce West, meanwhile, is a longtime African American state senator from Dallas with some meaningful accomplishments in the Lege. Nevertheless it’s Hegar, not West, who won most of the institutional backing and support from Democratic groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. These groups are banking on her ability to appeal to moderates and Trump-detesting Republicans as a way to unseat Cornyn.
Hegar is still probably the favorite to win, but polling of the race has been sparse, and West seems to have picked up some momentum in the last month—at least judging by his recent endorsements by other Texas Democrats, which he has been racking up left and right.
At a recent televised debate, the candidates squabbled as if the race were a toss-up. Cornyn looks vulnerable on paper, with an approval rating of just 37 percent, and President Donald Trump’s poll numbers are collapsing. There’s a real chance, if still a small one, that one of these two becomes the first Democratic statewide official elected this century.
Troy Nehls versus Kathaleen Wall!
Twenty-second Congressional District (R): Fort Bend County
The Twenty-second, south of Houston, is currently the domain of the retiring GOP Rep. Pete Olson, who faced a strong challenge in 2018 from Sri Kulkarni, who has won the Democratic nomination again. Fort Bend County, long a Republican stronghold, is a rapidly growing, increasingly diverse, and politically important satellite of Houston. In addition to Olson’s seat, several state House districts are now up for grabs here. It matters quite a bit, then, that the GOP pick a strong standard-bearer, who can also drive support for down-ballot candidates.
Choose your fighter: Troy Nehls was the longtime sheriff of Fort Bend County. He is perhaps most famous outside the county for threatening on Facebook to press charges against a woman with a “F— Trump and F— You for Voting For Him” truck decal. After the ACLU and others weighed in and Nehls backed off, the woman added a slightly smaller “F— Troy Nehls and F— You for Voting For Him” truck decal to the right of the old one. Nevertheless, he’s probably the most popular local Republican in a county that is rapidly emptying of them.
Kathaleen Wall is a rich, longtime GOP donor from Houston. This is her second attempt to buy a congressional seat, after spending $6 million of her own money to get beaten in 2018 by Dan Crenshaw in a different district. Two years ago, she ran an ad in which she averred that it would “take Wall to build a wall.” Her campaign this time is setting records for self-funding and is significantly more xenophobic: she’s run a bizarre ad about how the Chinese Communist Party intentionally infected America with the coronavirus. Things took a strange turn recently when Wall—ubiquitous on TV ads but seldom seen in real life—set her Twitter account to private, which is not something that attention-seeking candidates usually do in the run-up to an election.
Pete Sessions versus Renee Swann!
Seventeenth Congressional District (R): College Station, Pflugerville, Waco
In 2018, Pete Sessions, a high-ranking GOP congressman, was run out of the Thirty-second Congressional District in Dallas, which he had represented since 2003, by Democrat Colin Allred. Sessions had played fast and loose in Congress, perhaps best signified by the time he earmarked congressional funding for a blimp company in Indiana represented by his indicted former chief of staff—a blimp company that, in point of fact, had never built a blimp. When suburban Dallas went blue and the jig was up, he moved with great alacrity to a different congressional district in quite a different part of the state to begin the game again. Paris is worth a mass, said King Henry IV when he converted to Catholicism; perhaps congressional license plates are worth moving all the way from Dallas to Waco.
Retiring Representative Bill Flores, who represents Sessions’s new district, warned his voters not to trust Pete. So did many other Republicans in the district. And right after Sessions launched his bid, he was implicated—though not criminally—in the indictment of two Soviet-born businessmen connected to Rudy Giuliani and the Trump Ukraine scandal.
None of that has mattered, at least so far: Sessions placed first in a very crowded candidate field in March with 30 percent of the vote. Swann, a Waco businesswoman who has similar pro-Trump policy priorities to Sessions but has framed her campaign as one to rid the district of D.C. insiders, had the backing of Flores and many others. She scored just 19 percent.
Josh Winegarner versus Ronnie Jackson!
13th Congressional District (R): Amarillo, Wichita Falls
Fifteen candidates jumped in the Republican primary to represent the Thirteenth, by some measures the most conservative district in the United States. The retiring Mac Thornberry, a veteran who took the seat in the Newt Gingrich–led 1994 Republican wave, endorsed Josh Winegarner, who worked for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, an ag industry advocacy group. A traditional sort of Republican, Winegarner pulled almost 39 percent of the vote, nearly double the second-place finisher. That’s that, right?
Not so fast. Former White House doctor and Rear Admiral Ronnie Jackson, who received 20 percent of the vote in March, is not the quitting sort. Reportedly termed the “Candyman” by his former colleagues on the White House medical staff for his propensity to hand out uppers, downers, and whatever else you might need, Jackson has been waging an unorthodox campaign to catapult over Winegarner and return to D.C. He says he’ll have consistent access to a grateful Trump and will be able to bring back lots of goodies for the district. (We’ll see.)
Kim Olson versus Candace Valenzuela!
24th Congressional District (D): Carrollton, Coppell, Southlake
The Twenty-fourth, the home of retiring Republican representative Kenny Marchant in the rapidly purple-fying DFW suburbs, is high up on the wishlist of both state and national Democrats. Kim Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and member of the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, previously made a run for agriculture commissioner in 2018. She started this race a strong favorite, and scored 41 percent in March. But since then, momentum has been building for Candace Valenzuela, a former school board member running to her left, who received 30 percent of the initial vote. Valenzuela has won endorsements from local elected officials like state representative Julie Johnson and national figures like Julián Castro.
On the trail, Valenzuela talks about her experience with childhood poverty and homelessness. Her backers have gone on the air with a considerable number of anti-Olson attack ads alleging that she helped lead the Dallas Independent School District into ruin during her brief stint as the head of human resources—ads which Olson calls “slanderous.”
Eddie Lucio Jr. versus Sara Stapleton-Barrera!
State Senate District 27: Brownsville, Harlingen, Kingsville
The Lucios—Eddie Lucio Jr. and Eddie Lucio III—are South Texas political royalty. The father has served in the state’s upper chamber for almost thirty years, and the son has served in the lower chamber for thirteen. But both faced strong challenges in the Democratic primary this year. While the son scraped by in his, the father got stuck in a runoff—falling just short of outright victory with 49.5 percent of the vote.
Senator Lucio is Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s favorite Democrat, and that distinction has won him many detractors in his own party. Socially conservative, Lucio is a reliable vote for whatever pro-life bill or bathroom-war measure Patrick dreams up. Lucio seems ill at ease in a party that’s become more progressive in recent years. In a debate last week with Sara Stapleton-Barrera, a local attorney, he chided her as if she were a small child, saying that he would treat her as a “lady” only if she would act like one. Stapleton-Barrera held her own, accusing Lucio of, among other things, having profited from the construction of private prisons. Lucio, who consulted for a private prison company in the early aughts, responded that “private industry” ran better prison facilities than the government, and charged Stapleton-Barrera with pocketing money from drug dealers as a defense attorney.
Lucio will probably survive this challenge, but his supporters are taking no chances. Republican groups including Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers vehicle, have poured money into the district on Lucio’s behalf in recent weeks. Stapleton-Barrerra, for her part, has been receiving backing from major progressive groups such as Planned Parenthood. If Lucio loses, it would be a blow to Patrick—and could shake up the Senate.
Jon Francis versus Glenn Rogers!
State House District Sixty: Brownwood, Cisco, Granbury
Remember the scene in No Country for Old Men when the villain Anton Chigurh chokes up in disdain upon hearing that the old feller manning the convenience store “married into it”? Jon Francis also married into it. He’s the son-in-law of one of the Wilks brothers of Cisco. Dan and Farris Wilks are oil billionaires and two of the most renowned donors in Republican politics. They’ve pumped vast sums into presidential campaigns and state House races alike: They’re major backers of Ted Cruz and the Empower Texans crew, which leads a far-right insurgency against the Republican Party. They’ve long treated Cisco and its environs as their personal fiefdom.
Now they’re trying to send family to Austin. Unsurprisingly, Francis has been endorsed by everyone who wants to stay on the Wilks brothers’ good side—including Cruz, who’s holding a rally with Francis on Sunday. But surprisingly, perhaps, Francis faces stiff opposition in the form of Glenn Rogers, who has called out the Wilks brothers by name and derided their influence in the area. Rogers, a much more traditional kind of Republican—a rancher from Palo Pinto County with a hat to match—is backed by Greg Abbott and Rick Perry.
Spare a thought for the good folk of Granbury and Brownwood—it can’t be easy to have all these titanic egos from out of town stomping around your backyard.
Elsewhere in Texas, state representatives Dan Flynn and Harold Dutton—two men as dissimilar as any serving in the Legislature—are facing tough primary challenges that may end their long careers in Austin. As a nine-term Republican from a rural district in northeast Texas, Flynn has responded to the threat by shooting a campaign ad where he points a gun at the camera. Dutton, an African American Democrat from Houston, has made the shocking revelation that the third-place finisher in his initial primary, who took enough votes from him to force a runoff with Houston City Council member Jerry Davis, may not have existed. Remarkably, the seemingly fake “Natasha Ruiz,” who has never been seen around the district and whose listed phone number was answered by someone with a different last name when reporters contacted it, won 20 percent of the vote. (Ruiz had the only female and only Hispanic-sounding name on the ballot.)
The wave of reform-minded prosecutors running in places such as Dallas, Houston, and Corpus Christi has now arrived in Austin. Travis County district attorney Margaret Moore is facing a vigorous primary challenge by former federal public defender José Garza, who is running to Moore’s left. Moore has faced criticism from activists in recent years for her office’s handling of sexual assault cases, and what opponents say is her overzealous prosecution of nonviolent drug crimes. If Garza wins, expect him to become the latest bête noire for statewide leaders, who love beating up on progressive DAs almost as much as they love beating up on Austin.
And finally, we get to the race that everyone is talking about—Robert Morrow’s bid for a seat on the State Board of Education, representing parts of Austin and San Antonio. Morrow is a longtime character in Texas politics who often dons a jester’s hat, has little sense of propriety, and wrote a book, with none other than Roger Stone, about how LBJ killed JFK. He was also once elected head of the Travis County Republican Party. His successor is not a fan. “We will crush him [in the runoff] or I will light myself on fire,” tweeted Matt Mackowiak, current head of the Travis County GOP. “Matt Mackowiak can b— me!” tweeted Robert Morrow in response. His opponent is Lani Popp, a speech pathologist who seems like a perfectly nice person.