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The Texas primary is the first election of the 2022 midterms


Today is primary day in Texas. It's the first state to hold midterm elections this year. Voters there decide who to nominate for governor, attorney general and a host of other offices. KERA's Bret Jaspers joins us now from Dallas. Bret, so lay out these races for us. Which is the most contested?

BRET JASPERS, BYLINE: Well, that would be the race for attorney general because incumbent Ken Paxton is in a real fight to save his job. People may know Paxton from the many lawsuits he's filed against the Biden administration and his efforts to keep President Trump in office. So he's had a really loud voice in the conservative movement.

MARTÍNEZ: And yet Paxton is in trouble in a primary despite doing what the Republican base wants. So explain that part.

JASPERS: Well, he's been fighting off state felony charges for years - and then more recent accusations from whistleblowers that he abused his office to help a campaign donor. The FBI is reportedly investigating that, so three well-known politicians are challenging him, including George P. Bush, who's Jeb Bush's son and the Texas land commissioner. Here's Bush on an ABC affiliate in East Texas last week.


GEORGE P BUSH: And Ken Paxton, if he's our nominee, will lose to the Democrats. And the Democrats will have their first statewide office in close to 30 years. The risk is too large. Under election code, we can't switch horses after the nomination process. We got to make that change now.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So how is Paxton fending off his primary challengers?

JASPERS: Paxton continues to make news pursuing very right-wing policies. Last week, he issued a nonbinding legal opinion saying that gender-affirming health care measures for trans kids was child abuse. Advocates for trans youth called it a shocking example of a powerful official punching down on a vulnerable group. But if Paxton doesn't get more than half of the vote, he'll head to a runoff with the second-highest vote getter.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. What about the top job in Texas? Governor Greg Abbott - he has multiple primary challengers, too, so could he face a runoff?

JASPERS: Possibly. The governor did anger right-wing activists with his lockdown and mask orders early on in the pandemic. That drew some better-known politicians into his primary. But Abbott has worked hard to appeal to the base of the party. He's also raised an enormous amount of money and has been polling above where he needs to to avoid a runoff. And so on the Democratic side, former U.S. Representative Beto O'Rourke is considered the frontrunner to take on Abbott in November. Many people will recognize O'Rourke's name from when he challenged Ted Cruz for the U.S. Senate in 2018 and then briefly ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president. And both candidates, Abbott and O'Rourke, have been campaigning like their matchup in November is inevitable.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, what about primaries on the Democratic side?

JASPERS: There is a primary in South Texas for a congressional seat. That's a repeat from 2020. Moderate Democrat Henry Cuellar has represented the district since 2005. But in January, the FBI raided his home and office. Details are still sparse as to why this raid happened, but his progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, is running ads about the raids. She's also raised a lot of money and has high-profile folks coming to campaign for her, like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. So this could be a Texas version of the old guard Dems getting toppled by a young progressive. But not only is this important as an interparty battle. The district is also one of two in South Texas that Republicans are hoping to flip in 2022.

MARTÍNEZ: What about the rest of the congressional seats. Does it look like November will be very competitive?

JASPERS: So Texas, like the rest of the country, redistricted this year. And, you know, politicians on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, both got relatively stronger seats after that redistricting effort. So there are a couple of interesting primaries this year, but it seems like November will be less interesting than it was in 2020, less competitive.

MARTÍNEZ: And one more thing, Bret - the state's new election law. I wonder if it's had any effect that we can tell. It was such a bitter fight over its - passed last year. I remember Texas Democrats fleeing the state for over a month.

JASPERS: Right. This is the first election under that new voting law, and we've seen some problems, especially around mail-in ballots. Thousands of mail in ballot applications or ballots themselves have been flagged for rejection, mostly due to new ID requirements. The issue became so problematic that officials in the Houston area asked the Biden administration to intervene and stop it, alleging voter suppression.

MARTÍNEZ: That's KERA's Bret Jaspers in Dallas, Texas. Bret, thanks a lot.

JASPERS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bret Jaspers is a reporter for KERA. His stories have aired nationally on the BBC, NPR’s newsmagazines, and APM’s Marketplace. He collaborated on the series Cash Flows, which won a 2020 Sigma Delta Chi award for Radio Investigative Reporting. He's a member of Actors' Equity, the professional stage actors union.