Some interesting Texas races to watch

With early voting underway, all eyes are on races up and down the ballot in Texas to see where the chips fall. As a midterm under a Democratic president, Republicans hope to replicate the wave Democrats rode four years ago when the roles were reversed.

Republicans across the state are inveighing the Biden administration’s handling of the border and the economy — marked by a startling run of inflation — and linking those to every Texas Democrat; their pitch is a rebuke of the federal status quo.

Meanwhile, Democrats are rolling the dice on abortion, hoping it drums up some of the 2018 groundswell that nearly secured their first statewide victory in three decades.

The chief battleground in the state is South Texas, with Republicans eyeing continued gains from last cycle and Democrats trying to reinforce what has long been a stronghold of theirs.

Here are 10 races to watch as we near Election Day.

The Headliner

Gov. Greg Abbott versus Beto O’Rourke is not quite the world-renowned clash the 2018 Senate race was. The gubernatorial election is noticed across the country but is not the race national media and politicos are watching most closely.

Just since July 1, the candidates have spent a combined $83 million with far more on the horizon during the last few weeks. The RealClearPolitics polling average currently puts Abbott ahead by 9.3 points, a total that has inched closer and closer to double digits since the pair’s one and only debate in September.

The talking points and criticisms have remained largely unchanged since the primary concluded. Abbott’s linked O’Rourke to the president and his border policies, along with invoking the limp economy that has recently teetered on the verge of a recession. O’Rourke has criticized Abbott for signing the Texas Heartbeat Act and the abortion “trigger” ban that became effective after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

Lately, the incumbent has focused more on police funding and lax bail policy as public safety features — with Harris County being its centerpiece. Since the May 24 tragedy in Uvalde, the challenger has repeatedly hit his opponent over response to the shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead.

Being at the top of the ticket, this race will determine who gets to sit in the state’s top position — one that has grown more powerful since the emergency orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democrats’ Closest Statewide Race?

Attorney General Ken Paxton is seeking his third term as the state’s top lawyer, and Democrat Rochelle Garza is his competition this November. Among the top three statewide races, the Paxton has had the tightest margins for much of the summer and fall. However, the latest Texas Politics Project poll had Paxton at a 14-point lead.

The August iteration showed Paxton with a 5-point lead, though with 21 percent undecided.

Paxton has been in the crosshairs of Democrats due to various scandals, including the ongoing whistleblower lawsuit in which a handful of the attorney general’s former top staffers alleged abuse of office for dealings with developer Nate Paul. Paxton is currently fighting those allegations in court.

Both candidates have leaned into Paxton’s status as one of former President Donald Trump’s favorite attorneys general — with Paxton embracing it and Garza impugning it. Garza, a former immigration lawyer, has been criticized by the incumbent for her opposition to abortion restrictions and her previous legal representation of illegal immigrants.

Since the Biden administration began, Paxton has maintained a steady stream of lawsuits or investigations aimed at the administration itself or its priorities. Should Garza pull off an upset, not only would it be the first statewide victory for Democrats in 30 years, but it’d also represent a drastic change in the posture of the Office of the Attorney General, which has a lengthy track record of antagonizing Democratic presidents.

The Moderate Democrat

Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX-28) has had a long year. He again faced progressive Jessica Cisneros in a hard-fought Democratic primary for the second cycle in a row, and endured a probe by the FBI that continues to linger — although the congressman has said that he’s not the subject of the investigation.

Now, he faces a tough general election fight from one of the GOP’s South Texas triad: Cassy Garcia. Cuellar has the fundraising advantage, but Garcia is no slouch in her own right and benefits from the focus of the national GOP.

Cuellar is a moderate who has frequently criticized the Biden administration’s handling of the border; Congressman Chip Roy (R-TX-21) said recently while stumping for Garcia, “With all due respect to her opponent, who is a friend — I like Henry — [Garcia] will not be voting for Nancy Pelosi for speaker.”

With so many national resources flowing in from both sides, the fight for Texas’ 28th Congressional District will go to the very end. Cook Political Report rates it as leaning Democratic.

Incumbent versus Incumbent

Another of the three South Texas congressional races is the merged 34th Congressional District seat, for which two incumbents face off.

After winning the June special election, Republican Congresswoman Mayra Flores (R-TX-34) has a brief incumbency status as she faces Democratic Congressman Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX-15), who is switching districts after the decennial redistricting.

Cook Political Report rates it as a toss-up, and the bomb throwing between the candidates is illustrative of how competitive the seat is. Gonzalez accused Flores of stealing the special election due to how much she raised and spent compared with the divided Democrats. Like Abbott has done with O’Rourke, Flores has linked her opponent to the Biden administration and its policies.

As of the latest finance report, the candidates are about neck and neck on fundraising and spending. Republicans are counting on building upon their South Texas gains from last cycle.

The Loner

After redistricting, the Texas Senate’s portfolio of races is rather boring; few are even close to competitive. But one that very much is and that mirrors the congressional fights mentioned above is in Senate District (SD) 27, another fight in South Texas. The district stretches from the Rio Grande Valley up north of Corpus Christi.

Democrat Morgan LaMantia faces Republican Adam Hinojosa to succeed state Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr. (D-Brownsville) — a pro-life moderate who supported the Texas Heartbeat Act. During the primary, the retiring senator endorsed LaMantia, who is not of the same opinion on abortion as Lucio.

Hinojosa has made that distinction a feature of his campaign.

A Hinojosa victory would return the GOP hold on the Senate to 19, previously an important number being the threshold for a supermajority needed to bring legislation to the floor. After reducing that number to 18 last session due to state Sen. Roland Gutierrez’s (D-San Antonio) defeat of then-state Sen. Pete Flores (R-Pleasanton) — who is set to return next year in a new district — flipping this seat would give Republicans a buffer.

Under the Radar

One of the Texas House seats Republicans hope to flip is House District (HD) 37, which encompasses Willacy County and much of Cameron County, and is the subject of an ongoing legal challenge over state Republicans’ breach of the “county line” redistricting rule. But for now, the district stands and is among the most contested this cycle.

Republican Janie Lopez faces Democrat Luis Villareal to succeed state Rep. Alex Dominguez (D-Brownsville), who was drawn into HD 38 and ran unsuccessfully for SD 27 in the primary.

Villareal is a former staffer for Sen. Lucio and won the primary by less than 300 votes. Lopez, who won the GOP primary outright, is a San Benito ISD board member.

Lopez has outpaced Villareal substantially in fundraising.

The Dead Heats

In Collin County, among the fastest growing in the state, Republican Jamee Jolly faces Democrat Mihaela Plesa, state Rep. Ray Lopez’s (D-San Antonio) legislative director last session. The seat is open after state Rep. Scott Sanford (R-McKinney) opted for retirement, which opened the door for House Republicans to shore up other GOP-held districts in the county and made this one a toss-up.

Five hours away, state Rep. John Lujan (R-San Antonio) faces Democrat Frank Ramirez in his quest to secure a first full term. Lujan won the seat’s special election in 2021 after Rep. Leo Pacheco (D-San Antonio) resigned.

Both Lujan and Jolly were the top recipients of general election donations from Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), indicating those races’ importance in the speaker’s eyes.

All Eyes on Harris County

It’s fitting that the biggest county hosts the highest-profile local clash in the state, if not the country. The race between incumbent Democrat Lina Hidalgo and GOP challenger Alex Mealer has garnered the national spotlight.

Hidalgo, the subject of various glowing profiles over the last couple years as the Democrats’ next great hope, finds herself amidst a serious challenge from Mealer, who has held the narrow lead in the last two polls done on the race.

The incumbent has been roiled by scandals lately as three of her staffers were indicted for felonies over corruption allegations. The Texas Comptroller also issued a finding of police defunding against Harris County after the Hidalgo and company clawed back $3 million in rollover funds from constable offices. Additionally, the secretary of state released a 2020 election audit of the county that found “serious breaches” in how it conducted those elections.

While all this has unfolded, the county is facing a rise in violent crime marked by a 65 percent increase in annual homicides since 2018. On top of that, at least 183 people in Harris County have been killed by offenders out of jail on low cash bail or personal bond since 2018 — a product of the county’s lax bail policy.

Republicans across the ballot, Mealer chief among them, have keyed in on these public safety issues, and it may put them in striking distance in the state’s largest, and Democrat-favoring, county.

The Last Red Urban County

Tarrant County is the last GOP stronghold among the state’s five largest urban counties. With longtime County Judge Glen Whitely retiring, the seat is now open — and where Republicans hope to flip some South Texas positions, Democrats hope to flip this North Texas one.

Republican Tim O’Hare won the GOP primary versus former Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price after he received one of the few local candidate endorsements from former president Donald Trump. O’Hare faces Democrat Deborah Peoples, who ran for Fort Worth mayor in 2021 after Price stepped down.

As across much of the country, the GOP has become more reliant on smaller-population areas while Democrats lean on urban centers. But in that dynamic, Tarrant County has remained an exception to the rule.

This race will be a good gauge of whether that will continue or if the dominos of Democratic control will begin to fall.

Keeping Austin Weird

Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s “disruptive” eight-year tenure is nearing its end. The candidates vying to replace him are the former mayor and former state Sen. Kirk Watson (D-Austin), state Rep. Celia Israel (D-Austin), and businesswoman Jennifer Virden, who ran for council in 2020 and narrowly lost.

At the root of nearly every one of this race’s issues is the question of how to cope with the city’s booming population growth. Whether it’s housing affordability, transportation, crime, or homelessness, everything comes back to the droves of incomers — a net of 130 per day.

Under Adler, Austin has drifted from decidedly liberal to outright progressive — a distinction with a big difference when it comes to certain issues. Policies such as the experiment in unregulated public camping, the application of the same lax bail policies as in Harris County, and a large policy budget cut have marked Adler’s second term.

Watson is seen as the frontrunner, with Israel hoping to force a runoff. Save Austin Now, the group founded in 2019 to oppose the unregulated camping, said it won’t endorse in the race but has specified its opposition to Israel.

Austin has always been the proverbial “blueberry in the tomato soup,” but after Adler’s tenure, all candidates for mayor have been wary of attaching themselves to his reputation.

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