Republican Governor Greg Abbott will face Democratic challenger Beto O’Rourke in November after both easily won their party’s nominations for Texas governor on Tuesday.
Abbott, who has embraced harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric, is seeking a third term in the largely Republican US state and has amassed a $50m war chest.
O’Rourke, who has slammed United States President Joe Biden’s administration for not doing enough to secure the US-Mexico border, is fighting an uphill battle to become the first Democrat elected governor of Texas since 1994.
The early voting in Texas marks the beginning of the primary election season across the US as the parties select their preferred candidates for governor in 36 states and in nationwide elections that will determine who controls Congress for the next two years.
“The Republican Party has migrated very far to the right in its voter base, and Republican officials have moved to the right in sync with that,” said James Henson, a professor of politics at the University of Texas.
Abbott’s drive in the past month to punish parents of transgender children gained national and statewide attention, bringing the conservative base of Republican voters into his camp, Henson said.
The governor had told health authorities in the state that medical treatments for transgender children should be treated as “child abuse”, effectively criminalising care. It’s not clear how it would be enforced, and is already being challenged in court.
“That was an aggressive move that appeared to have worked for Abbott. You’ve got a Republican Party with almost no moderates left, almost in a reactionary way, and candidates are rewarded for that,” Henson told Al Jazeera.
Democratic voters in Texas, meanwhile, sorted through choices between moderates or progressives as a generation of new, younger candidates stepped forward in Tuesday’s primaries.
“Despite Texas being a very [Republican] state, progressives have found pockets of support,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of politics at the University of Houston.
“In Texas, it does signal that the right message can be persuasive and the right messenger can form a progressive coalition of the Democratic party.”
Representative Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat, was forced into a runoff contest against progressive upstart Jessica Cisneros, who challenged Cuellar on his anti-abortion stance. Cisneros drew support from Democratic progressives including New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
A 28-year-old immigration attorney who supports national healthcare for all, Cisneros would likely win election to Congress in November in the heavily Democratic district if she were to topple Cuellar in the runoff vote scheduled for May 24.
An FBI raid at Cuellar’s house in January gave Cisneros a boost. The agency has not commented on the matter, and Cuellar, who has not been charged with a crime, has said he is confident he will be cleared of any wrongdoing. Cuellar had successfully fended off a challenge by Cisneros in 2020.
Greg Casar, a left-leaning Austin City Council member who had championed a $15 citywide minimum wage, won the Democratic primary contest against Eddie Rodriguez, an establishment Democrat, in a newly redrawn House district stretching from Austin to San Antonio.
Republican Van Taylor also faces a runoff in his north Texas district after failing to win more than 50 percent of the vote – evidence of how former President Donald Trump continues to play a role in US politics.
Taylor was targeted by the right after he voted to certify US President Joe Biden’s electoral victory and supported an official probe of the January 6 US Capitol insurrection. Taylor faced four primary challengers who supported Trump.
Wesley Hunt, a Black Republican conservative and US Army veteran, held a commanding lead over several opponents in the 38th District, one of two new congressional seats created this year thanks to Texas’ booming population. It stretches northwest from Houston and was drawn by Republicans to be safely conservative.
Hunt was backed by US Senator Ted Cruz and endorsed by Trump.
In the newly redrawn and more conservative 2nd Texas Congressional District, Republican Dan Crenshaw fended off a challenge from a trio of pro-Trump contenders. Crenshaw easily cleared the runoff threshold, pulling in 75 percent of the primary vote.
The former Navy SEAL, who lost an eye in Afghanistan, had been dismissive of Republicans in Washington, DC who backed Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was rigged.