HOUSTON – Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas fended off two right-wing primary challengers on Tuesday, avoiding a runoff by a wide margin but still falling well short of the 90 percent of the vote he marshaled in the primary four years ago as a restive Republican base continues to push the party farther to the right.
Mr. Abbott, who is running for a third term, left little to chance, spending $ 15 million in the last month alone to squash any primary threat. He will now face Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman who formally won the Democratic nomination, in the fall.
The results from the Texas primaries are providing the first pieces of the 2022 midterm puzzle: both an early indication of the strength of the two parties’ ideological factions and the intensity of Donald J. Trump’s continued hold on the Republican electorate.
In South Texas, a fierce effort by progressives to defeat one of the last anti-abortion Democrats remaining in Congress, Representative Henry Cuellar, was too close to call. The race was a rematch from two years ago but this time the challenger, Jessica Cisneros, received a political gift when the FBI raided Mr. Cuellar’s home late in the race.
In the governor’s race, Mr. Abbott faced backlash from the Republican base despite overseeing a sharp push to the right in state government over the last year that intensified in the campaign’s closing days, including telling state agencies to investigate treatment for transgender adolescents as “child abuse.” The governor has been criticized by some on the right for his handling of the pandemic and the border and drew two notable challengers: Allen West, a former state party chairman, and Don Huffines, a former state senator, neither of whom ever gained significant traction .
Still, Mr. Abbott faced boos at a Trump rally north of Houston in January and only won over the crowd by invoking Mr. Trump more than two dozen times in a six-minute speech.
Statewide, Mr. Trump has endorsed more than two dozen candidates, including Mr. Abbott, though most were expected to win before earning his backing. Texas has a two-step primary system: Any candidate who finishes below 50 percent will face off against the No. 2 vote-getter in a May runoff.
“Big night in Texas!” Mr. Trump said in a statement Tuesday. “All 33 candidates that were Trump endorsed have either won their primary election or are substantially leading.”
One of the most intense races was the Republican primary for Texas attorney general, where the incumbent, Ken Paxton, has attracted the attention of federal investigators after some of his own top aides accused him of corruption.
Mr. Paxton failed to avoid a runoff, even though he spent heavily to promote Mr. Trump’s endorsement, including $ 1.8 million on one television ad that opened with uninterrupted audio of the former president praising him. Mr. Paxton’s runoff opponent in May will be one of the scions of the Bush dynasty, George P. Bush, the state land commissioner.
The full picture of the 2022 landscape will be revealed through a series of state-by-state primaries held over the next six months, as polls suggest President Biden, who delivered his State of the Union address on Tuesday, and the Democrats face an increasingly challenging political environment.
But the Texas contests offered almost a sneak peek of the coming dynamics nationwide, including how strict new voting rules played out and the salience of abortion, after a state law last year effectively banned most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. Later this year, a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court is expected in a Mississippi abortion case, which could affect procedures in multiple states. Yet no Texas Democratic congressional candidate aired an ad focusing on abortion, according to data from Ad Impact, an ad tracking firm.
After redistricting, Texas lawmakers erased nearly all the House seats that were competitive in the general election from the map in 2022, magnifying the importance of a handful of contested primaries in both parties. Republicans, in particular, are hoping to build on the dramatic gains the party made in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, particularly among working-class Latino voters in 2020, in the state’s lone open, tossup seat.
Nationwide, Republicans are energized by the chance to take back both the House, which the Democrats control by a historically narrow margin, and the Senate, which is equally divided with only Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote giving control to the Democrats.
Mr. Biden’s sagging approval ratings – not just in Texas but even in Democratic strongholds like California – and the lingering cloud of the coronavirus on life, the economy and schools have emboldened many Republican voters, candidates and strategists.
Despite the hostile national climate, Democrats have scored some notable recruiting successes, including two high-profile candidates who came up just short in 2018, Mr. O’Rourke and Stacey Abrams, who is running again for governor of Georgia.
Mr. O’Rourke has already been crisscrossing the state and raising money at a fast clip: $ 3 million in the last month. But Mr. Abbott, a prolific fund-raiser, outpaced him and entered the final days before the primary with $ 50 million on hand, compared to $ 6.8 million for Mr. O’Rourke.
Texas is where Mr. Trump suffered one of his rare primary endorsement defeats last year, in a House race, and while he has issued a range of endorsements, from governor down to Tarrant County District Attorney, he has mostly backed incumbents and heavy favorites.
Bigger tests of his influence loom later in the spring and summer, in the Senate contests in North Carolina and Alabama, and in the governor’s race in Georgia. In that Georgia race, Mr. Trump recruited David Perdue, a former senator and governor, to attempt to unseat Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who refused to bend to Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
The biggest test of Mr. Trump’s influence in Texas was the attorney general’s race, where Mr. Paxton’s three challengers represented the various Republican power centers vying to be the future of the party.
Mr. Bush, the son of Jeb Bush and a statewide office holder who has held himself out as the most electable conservative in the race, was locked out for much of the evening in a tight race for the second-place spot in the runoff. The other two Republicans were Eva Guzman, a former state Supreme Court justice, and Representative Louie Gohmert.
A Trump ally, Mr. Gohmert received an unexpected shout-out from Mr. Trump at the rally where Mr. Abbott was booed, despite the former president’s endorsement of Mr. Paxton. Mr. Gohmert also posed with Mr. Trump during a photo line, but the Trump team did not send Mr. Gohmert the picture, because they did not want him to use it in the primary, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
The race was multidimensional. Ms. Guzman swiped at Mr. Bush, whose family dynasty has been weakened even among Texas Republicans. Mr. Bush responded in kind. Mr. Paxton traded attacks with Mr. Gohmert and, in recent days, went after Ms. Guzman as well.
“We have not seen a primary this consequential since the 1990s,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston.
Mr. Paxton finished behind the rest of the Republican ticket in 2018, raising some fears that his renomination this year could provide a rare opening for Democrats in November. Republicans have won every statewide race in Texas since 1994.
One primary north of Houston, to replace the retiring Representative Kevin Brady, emerged as a proxy race for the national battle for power raging within the Republican Party. A super PAC aligned with Representative Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader, spent heavily to elect Morgan Luttrell, a Navy SEAL veteran. The activist wing of House Republicans and the political arm of the House Freedom Caucus backed Christian Collins, a former aide to Senator Ted Cruz.
“This is primary season,” Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia said at a recent rally for Mr. Collins. “This is where we work out our differences. This is where iron sharpens iron. ”
Mr. Luttrell was far ahead in the early tally but it was not clear whether he would clear the 50 percent mark to avoid a runoff.
On the Democratic side, two primaries that drew national attention – including trips to Texas by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts – pitted the party’s ideological wings against each other.
In the race for an open seat, a self-described democratic socialist and Austin city councilman, Greg Casar, defeated State Representative Eddie Rodriguez. The other primary was the rematch between Mr. Cuellar and a young progressive lawyer, Ms. Cisneros – a race in which abortion has been an issue for the district’s large number of Catholic voters.
When Ms. Ocasio-Cortez declared at a rally for Mr. Casar and Ms. Cisneros that “Texas turning blue is inevitable,” the clip was immediately picked up by Republicans, including Mr. Abbott, and wielded as an attack.
“She was doing the work for Republicans,” said Matt Angle, a Democratic activist whose political action committee aims to unseat Republicans in Texas. He noted that Texas Democrats are more conservative in their views on issues like guns and abortion than national party leaders.
“It’s a field trip for them,” Mr. Angle added. “For us, it’s the future of the state.”
Nick Corasaniti contributed reporting.