The march of the holidays continues: Halloween, Thanksgiving, filing day. On Monday, the deadline passed in most races to add names to the March primary ballot, meaning that the brackets for next year’s interminable democracy tournament have taken shape, for the most part. Time to take stock of the field.
1) The Democratic field is huge, but the top of the ticket is not as strong as it could be.
There were no new entrants to the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, which must come as a relief to Beto O’Rourke, since he can stop getting pestered about it. Democrats will have to make do with their crowded, but arguably weak, field of would-be challengers to John Cornyn. Not having an A-lister in the marquee race is not great, but things look much better throughout much of the rest of the ballot. Democrats can brag about having candidates in a great many races that might, in years past, have gone uncontested.
Last election cycle, Democrats ran a candidate in every congressional district in Texas for the first time in ages. They have a full slate again this year. (So do Republicans.) Of 16 Texas Senate districts up this year, Democrats are contesting 15 and Republicans are running in 14, while Dems have candidates in 122 of 150 Texas House districts to the GOP’s 115. Whatever that’s worth: not much, probably, but it’s better to run in more races than fewer.
2) The intra-party fight on the right has cooled down—at least for the statehouse.
There are some interesting retirements that manifested at the last minute—the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, state representative Mike Lang of Granbury, is stepping down to run for the Hood County Commissioners Court. (How bad is the Legislature that he’s far from the first state lawmaker to opt for county government?) The longtime honorary chair of the House anti-vaccination caucus, Bill Zedler, announced on Tuesday that he was retiring.
But, overall, there’s not much drama. You might think that after a legislative session that provoked anger among conservative activists, there’d be an uptick in right-wing challenges to incumbent Republicans in the House. But things look quieter there than they have been in some time. (Funnily enough, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen set his career on fire in an effort to limit the kinds of right-wing primary challenges that seem to not be materializing anyway.)
Part of the reason for the lack of insurgencies may be that conservative activists and candidates are more focused on beating back fired-up Democrats. Another factor may be that would-be candidates are less likely to run knowing that the districts will change next election, after redistricting. Another reason: the unusual number of open seats at the congressional level is diverting attention there.
3) All the open congressional seats have brought out the weird candidates.
Much has been made of the “Texodus,” the startling number of retirements among the Texas GOP congressional delegation since 2016. In truth, of course, not every Republican retirement is an advantage to Democrats. Some new candidates may be more in tune with their district, and better able to hold on to them, than the older guys they replace. But in general, losing incumbents and the power of their incumbency—their connections, their money, their knowledge of their district—presents risks. Texas is losing a lot of Republican incumbents, and it’s going to see some wild brawls and weird candidates as a result.
Stoic Mac Thornberry represented the Texas Panhandle for a quarter-century before announcing this year he’d retire. Thornberry’s 13th Congressional District is by one measure the most Republican district in the United States, and he was a no-nonsense sort who devoted himself in recent years to the House Armed Services Committee. There is no “controversy” section on his Wikipedia page, an increasingly rare accomplishment for a House Republican. Who is running to replace him? Well, thirteen people. The last of them to join, and perhaps the most prominent, is Ronny Jackson, President Donald Trump’s former personal doctor.
Jackson raised eyebrows in 2018 after an unusual press conference in which he stressed the excellent and unimpeachable health of Trump, whose primary form of exercise seems to be yelling and the repetitive lifting of a TV remote. When Trump appointed Jackson to head the Veteran’s Administration, allegations emerged that Jackson had repeatedly been drunk on the job and overprescribed medication. (He says the allegations are fabricated.) Trump stood by him. Jackson doesn’t risk throwing the seat to Democrats—hell would freeze first—but he’s an example of what you get when there’s a big, raucous primary for a safe open seat that’s been buttoned up for years.
4) Fort Bend County may be the center of the Texas political universe right now.
Congressional District 22, anchored in Fort Bend County, is ground zero for a number of other wildcards. The district was formerly held by Pete Olson, who’s calling it quits. This weekend news broke that among the fifteen Republican candidates vying to replace him would be Pierce Bush, of the Bush family. You may have heard of them. (For those who aren’t willing to visit Wikipedia: members of the “Bushes,” as they’re known, have held several political offices in America, including the high office of Texas Land Commissioner.) Pierce Bush joins a field that includes, among many, many others, Fort Bend sheriff Troy Nehls, who’s notable mainly for once threatening online to arrest a woman with a “F*** Trump” decal on her truck. (This being Texas, the woman promptly put up a “F*** Troy Nehls” decal to match it.)
It was thought by many that Bush would run in a neighboring district, CD 7, which was once held by his grandfather, George H.W. Bush, and is now filled by Democrat Lizzie Fletcher, who wrested it from a Republican in 2018. It’s hard not to suspect that the Bush brand is a bit tapped in Texas, and Pierce’s resume is deadly thin. Maybe, just maybe, the money and name recognition he can bring will be enough to break through a fifteen-candidate field. Would he, or Nehls, be a good candidate in a general election? Hard to say. It may work out just fine, of course, for the GOP. But you’re adding a lot of variables to the equation.
And there are more variables down the ballot in Fort Bend, which is perhaps one of the most interesting places in American politics right now. There are two state House seats that significantly overlap with Pierce’s would-be district the Democrats want to contest—two of the nine they need to take control of the state House. One of them belonged to John Zerwas, a stalwart moderate-ish R who, like Thornberry, has been a part of the respectable party establishment forever.
Zerwas’s resignation this year triggered a special election in November, which now goes to a January 28 runoff that pits Republican Gary Gates against Democrat Eliz Markowitz. Markowitz had a disappointing showing in the special election, but Gates has some unsavory personal history involving both his family and business, including allegations he emotionally and physically abused his foster children. Whether Gates wins or loses his runoff, he’ll be competing for the nomination again in the March primaries with a vape store owner named Schell Hammel. Doesn’t seem a particularly strong candidate field.
Next door is the state House district that currently belongs to Rick Miller, who announced his retirement recently after bemoaning the “Asians” running against him in his primary. One of those opponents, the Korean-American Jacey Jetton, last year apologized for an incident when he was the county GOP chair that offended local Indian-American voters. Jetton’s party ran an ad in a local newspaper catering to the Indian-American community with an image of Ganesha, a deity with the head of an elephant. The ad asked voters if they preferred to worship a donkey or an elephant. It was not well-received.
All of these are surmountable issues for Texas Republicans. But when you pile up problems that need to be solved, some of them won’t be. Weird candidates will make it through the primaries. People will say dumb things. And that should make for a fun six months!