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Texans prepare to vote in first primary elections of 2022

The state’s headline races for governor and attorney general feature 22 candidates, including a 2020 presidential contender, an indicted incumbent and the nephew of former President George W. Bush.

SAN ANTONIO (CN) — While the 2022 primary season will open this month in Texas, the state’s two-term Republican governor and the liberal firebrand hoping to be his Democratic opponent have been in full general election mode.

On track to be one of the nation’s loudest and most expensive general election matchups this year, Governor Greg Abbott and former Congressman Beto O’Rourke have both been trading jabs for months while largely ignoring their primary rivals.

Abbott has slammed O’Rourke as too extreme for Texas and routinely ties him to President Joe Biden, who remains so unpopular in the state that O’Rourke has flatly rejected the idea of having his help on the campaign trail.

A three-term Democratic congressman who came within 3 percentage points of defeating U.S. Senator Ted Cruz in 2018, O’Rourke entered the gubernatorial race in November after months of criticizing conservative policies supported by the governor, including a de facto abortion ban, a controversial voting law and permitless carrying of handguns.

He floundered in his stab at the White House in 2020, dropping out of the Democratic nominating battle after just eight months. But that was before Texas’ deadly February 2021 winter storm crippled the state’s energy network, contributing to the deaths of at least 246 people and propelling O’Rourke’s sights on the governor’s mansion.

O’Rourke has made the electrical grid failure a rallying cry against Abbott, repeatedly criticizing his handling of the freeze in the immediate aftermath of the storm and after jumping into the race. He suggested that over 700 Texans died as a result of the storm and has blamed “the incompetence and corruption of Abbott.”

“The power grid – maybe you’ve heard of it?” O’Rourke said at a San Antonio meet-and-greet in January to jeering in the crowd.

“This happened in our state, in the 21st century in the year of our lord 2021 under the watch of Governor Abbott, who was warned that we had not weatherized the grid, that we needed to make sure we protect the gas supply,” O’Rourke said. “But instead of listening to the experts or to any of us, he listened to his donors, those willing to cut million dollar checks to prevent any regulation or oversight or cost to them or their bottom line.”

O’Rourke said Abbott has focused too much on red meat issues energizing to his conservative base instead of on challenges facing the state. Abbott, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump, is frequently mentioned as a possible non-Trump 2024 presidential candidate.

But before facing off against each other, Abbott and O’Rourke have to first make it out of their March 1 primary races, which both are easily expected to do, according to a new poll by the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

“At this point, barring a cataclysmic power outage similar to last year, both Abbott and Beto are a lock for November,” said Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy.

Jones said Abbott is “very well-positioned” not only for a primary victory, but one where he could win as much as two-thirds of the Republican vote, “which would be a strong mandate for his status as the undisputed leader of the Texas Republican Party.”

Former Congressman and gubernatorial candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks to a mostly masked crowd at a campaign stop in San Antonio on Jan. 19, 2022. O'Rourke repeatedly criticized Republican Governor Greg Abbott at the event for his positions on public education, job creation and for the state's 2021 power grid collapse. (Erik De La Garza/Courthouse News)

Abbott’s conservative challengers include former Texas GOP chair Allen West, who has spent the past year on the campaign trail, and Don Huffines, a well-funded and ultra conservative former state senator. A man with the same name as former Governor Rick Perry and four other candidates bottomed the list of Republicans in the University of Houston poll.

For his part, O’Rourke is by far the most popular Democrat in the Lone Star State, with his popularity exceeding that of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, according to Jones.

“He is on track to win the Democratic primary in an absolute landslide – potentially winning somewhere between 80 and 90% of the vote,” Jones said.

O’Rourke announced on Tuesday that his campaign took in more than $8.5 million in the first two months, trouncing any money raised by the seven little-known Democratic candidates challenging him.

But while the fundraising haul far outpaces his Democratic primary rivals, Abbott has amassed a campaign war chest of over $65 million.

The primary race for attorney general is a little less certain, with Republican incumbent Ken Paxton possibly heading to the May 24 runoff if he is unable to cross over the 50% threshold. Even in a runoff, Paxton, who has been indicted for securities fraud since 2015, is still considered the strong favorite between his three big-name challengers: Land Commissioner George P. Bush, Congressman Louie Gohmert and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman.

“Right now, Gohmert and George P. Bush look equally well-positioned to get into the runoff,” Jones said. He added that while Guzman, who has the backing of the Texas business community and various legal groups, is going to be spending large sums of money until the March 1 primary, it’s unclear whether that will vault her into the second-place spot.

But Bush, he said, “has very high negatives among Republican primary voters, with two in five indicating that they would never vote for him.” The land commissioner is the nephew of former President George W. Bush.

All three of Paxton’s challengers have made the attorney general’s years-long legal troubles a central message for why they should replace him as the state’s top law enforcement officer.

But Paxton won Trump’s coveted endorsement and has spent most of his time as attorney general lighting up the GOP base with hot-button issues like border security, and more recently, raising a bevy of legal challenges to various Biden administration policies.  

The eventual Republican AG nominee will face off against one of five Democrats, but polling indicates that a majority of Democratic primary voters don’t know enough about any of the candidates. That primary race is also likely to go to a runoff, with attorneys Joe Jaworski, Rochelle Mercedes Garza and Lee Merritt leading the field.

And if Paxton limps out of the GOP primary as the nominee, whoever Democrats nominate could give the party their best hope of winning statewide, Jones said.

“Although it’s still going to be a longshot bid, if Paxton is the nominee, he will likely be the weakest member of the Republican herd, and thus the best hope that Democrats would have for ending their statewide losing streak that dates back to 1996,” he said.

A Paxton primary win would also mean the end of Bush’s tenure in statewide politics and, “at least for now, the end of the Bush family political dynasty.”

Early voting in the primaries begins on Feb. 14 and Election Day is March 1.

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