Analysis: March primaries in Texas lead to November — some with a stop in May

A voter casts a ballot at St. Edwards University on Nov. 3, 2020. (Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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March 1, the date of the state’s party primaries, is only three weeks away, and it’s the election date on most voters’ minds. But circle another election date: May 24. Runoff elections are invigorating for challengers and terrifying for incumbents, and some of the biggest races on this year’s ballot might not be decided until then.

Two statewide Republican incumbents — Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — are trying to win reelection in the face of challenges from current and former officeholders in their own party. And Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian, a former legislator, has four opponents in his reelection bid.

A runoff between the top two finishers in a primary is required if the winner doesn’t get at least 50% of the vote. (In general elections in Texas, the candidate with the most votes wins, even without getting half the votes. Former Gov. Rick Perry, for instance, won his 2006 reelection with 39% of the total votes.)

Recent polling from the University of Houston had Paxton in front of his three Republican challengers, with 39% of the vote. Land Commissioner George P. Bush had 16%, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert had 13% and former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman had 8% — 24% remained undecided. If enough of that undecided group goes Paxton’s way, he would avoid a runoff. Early voting starts next week, and the candidates’ advertising and door-knocking from now through early and election-day voting might move those numbers.

Miller, with only 34%, is in better shape — most of the voters in his race (55%) haven’t decided who they want, according to the UH survey. The challengers hadn’t made strong impressions in that January poll: State Rep. James White of Hillister had 7%, and Carey Counsil had 4%. That said, other incumbents like Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick were commanding more than 50% in their matchups in that UH polling.

Christian had just 9% of the vote in that poll, an ominous sign for an incumbent with four opponents. Each of them had between 3% and 5%, and 74% of the voters said they weren’t sure who they’d vote for.

A runoff election put Ted Cruz in the U.S. Senate. He didn’t beat an incumbent, but in his first election in 2012, he beat a sitting lieutenant governor, David Dewhurst, who had won four statewide elections. Two years later, state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, ended Dewhurst’s reelection bid in a runoff and took over as lieutenant governor.

That wasn’t the only big GOP runoff in 2014. Paxton, then a state senator, beat state Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas in the runoff that put Paxton in his current post. And former state Rep. Sid Miller, R-Stephenville, beat another former legislator, Tommy Merritt of Longview, on his way to becoming agriculture commissioner.

It’s not just incumbents who could be pushed into May runoffs this year. State Sen. Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, is running for Texas land commissioner. But she isn’t well known in most of the state, and she’s one in a gaggle of eight candidates — a classic setup for a final faceoff between the top two finishers in a primary. No candidate in that race, including Buckingham, was favored by more than 4% of the voters; 80% remain undecided.

The May runoffs aren’t just for Republicans. Though there are no Democratic incumbents in statewide office in Texas — nobody from that party has won a statewide election since 1994 — several primaries have drawn more than two candidates and also have large groups of undecided voters. In the race for lieutenant governor, with three candidates, 59% of voters were undecided. Attorney general? Five candidates, 57% of voters undecided. Comptroller? Three candidates and 61% undecided. Land? Four, and 64%.

It could make for a long night of counting on March 1, the first round of the primaries. And some of the contenders will be looking forward to their next election. Not in November against other parties’ candidates, but in May, in runoffs.

Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.