State GOP leaders win big in Texas legislative primaries

(Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune, Jordan Vonderhaar For The Texas Tribune)

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In the first primary election after lawmakers redrew their political maps, the makeup of the Texas Legislature is on track to almost perfectly match the design of its top leaders.

Almost all of the preferred candidates of Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan nabbed enough votes to avoid runoffs and head into the November general election. And nearly all sitting House and Senate members seeking to return to the Texas Capitol kept their seats.

Those winners will head to a general election season that is expected to feature fewer competitive races than in recent years, because the districts have been reshaped to preserve a Republican majority and protect incumbents.

“The people of Texas have spoken with one conservative voice, confirming what we already know. Texans are committed to keeping our state on its conservative path,” Patrick, who presides over the Senate, said Tuesday night in a statement. “There have been great victories across the state, and many great senators have been re-nominated for their seats, and we have many great new Republican candidates for Texas Senate who are well on their way to joining the Texas Senate for the 88th Legislative Session.”

In the Senate, Patrick scored his biggest victory of the night with Kevin Sparks winning the Republican candidacy for the Panhandle region, Senate District 31. Because no Democrat is running in the election, Sparks’ win Tuesday will grant him a seat in 2023.

Patrick threw his weight behind Sparks in the race to replace state Sen. Kel Seliger, a retiring Amarillo Republican who has long been a thorn in the Senate leader’s side and was known for being a key swing vote. Last year, Seliger suspected Patrick was attempting to manipulate the drawing of the state’s new political maps to favor Sparks over him.

In the lower chamber, Phelan saw several people on his leadership team in position to bat away challenges. The primaries were the first to happen since Phelan took over as speaker, and his campaign spent hundreds of thousands of dollars assisting Republican members who had primary opposition.

The speaker had a lot riding on the campaign of state Rep. Ryan Guillen, a veteran Rio Grande Valley lawmaker and committee chair who joined the GOP in November after nearly two decades as a House Democrat.

Guillen narrowly avoided a runoff with Michael Monreal, who calls himself “a Republican by conviction, not by convenience.” During the campaign, Monreal hit Guillen for opposing legislation last year — while he was still a Democrat — to restrict the teaching of so-called critical race theory, among other GOP priorities over the years. Guillen is the House Resolutions Calendars Committee chair.

Phelan fought hard for Guillen during the primary, seeking to send the message that newcomers and crossovers to the party would be welcomed by voters.

Three Texas House representatives endorsed by Patrick in their attempts to move to the Senate also emerged victorious.

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, handily won his race to challenge Democratic state Sen. Beverly Powell in November to represent Senate District 10 in North Texas. A legal challenge to the newly drawn SD-10 argued Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color in the redistricting process last year, but a federal three-judge panel denied a request to block the new map from being used in the primary election. The district has been heavily reconfigured to favor Republican candidates.

For the heavily Republican Senate District 12, which stretches from north Dallas County to the northwest, state Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, also easily won his party’s nomination. Current state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, is retiring.

And state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, won Senate District 11 on the Gulf Coast, which is represented by outgoing state Sen. Larry Taylor of Friendswood. With no Democrat running for the seat, Middleton’s primary win cements his seat in the Senate chamber in 2023.

The only one of Patrick’s top choices not on course to win the Republican candidacy outright was Pete Flores, a former state senator who was ousted from South Texas’ Senate District 19 by a Democrat, state Sen. Roland Gutierrez, in 2020. Flores decided to throw his hat back into the ring after lawmakers redrew his hometown of Pleasanton into a more Republican-friendly district, the new Senate District 24.

By early Wednesday, Flores was the top vote-getter in SD-24, but didn’t get more than 50%. He is set to go up against fellow Republican Raul Reyes in a runoff election.

There will also be a runoff to fill retiring state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.’s seat in the Rio Grande Valley. Morgan LaMantia and Sara Stapleton-Barrera, who each received about a third of the primary election votes with nearly 90% of precincts reporting, will vie to replace the chamber’s most conservative Democrat. State Rep. Alex Dominguez had received the third-most votes, which would eliminate him from the runoff.

On the House side, several committee chairs facing challengers were expected to keep their seats.

State Rep. Stephanie Klick, a Fort Worth Republican who helmed the House Public Health Committee throughout the pandemic, was leading the early vote over opponents who attempted to capitalize on her failure to advance legislation to restrict what they call “gender modification,” or gender-affirming care for transgender kids. Election day returns in Tarrant County were delayed due to technical issues.

House chairs Richard Peña Raymond of Laredo and Harold Dutton of Houston, both Democrats, also held leads in their primary races.

Voters also let incumbents who were not part of Phelan’s leadership team stay another term, largely ignoring spirited attempts by opponents to unseat them.

State Rep. Reggie Smith, a Sherman Republican, easily fended off challenger Shelley Luther, the salon owner who became famous for refusing to shut down her business under COVID-19 restrictions. Luther, who unsuccessfully ran for state Senate in 2020, has become one of the loudest detractors of state Republican leadership — both Phelan and Gov. Greg Abbott — and her defeat would be especially satisfying to them.

State Rep. John Raney of College Station, whose district includes Texas A&M University, defeated a closely watched GOP primary challenge from John Harvey Slocum, the son of RC Slocum, the beloved former football coach at A&M.

Incumbent state Rep. David Spiller, R-Jacksboro, handily defeated three challengers in his North Texas district. They included Mark Middleton, who was among at least 63 Texans charged with various crimes during the Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021. There were no Democrats in the primary, which means Spiller, who took office after a special election last February, will be returning to Austin for his first full term.

The Republican primary for the GOP-heavy Weatherford district left open by King was likely headed for a runoff between Dallas police union head Frederick Frazier and Paul Chabot. Frazier won endorsements from both Abbott and former President Donald Trump.

Although several sitting House members left their seats voluntarily to retire or run for other offices, a few appeared to be in danger of losing their posts or headed for runoffs.

Democratic state Rep. Art Fierro in El Paso lost his seat to fellow state Rep. Claudia Ordaz Perez after the two were pitted against each other through redistricting.

Denton Republican state Rep. Lynn Stucky held a tiny lead against challenger Andy Hopper in a race that was too close to call early Wednesday.

Meanwhile, state Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, is headed to a runoff against Mike Olcott in the House District 60 race. State Rep. Phil Stephenson, R-Wharton, will face Stan Kitzman in the House District 85 runoff. And state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, will also face a runoff, even though he received the most votes in the first round of voting.

Transgender politics loomed large in a North Texas House race in which GOP voters sent two candidates to a runoff — including Jeff Younger, who has waged a court battle to stop his child’s gender confirmation therapy. He has sharply blamed GOP leadership for failing to “protect” the child, who Younger alleged was being forcibly transitioned by the child’s mother, after a state agency ruled out child abuse in the case.

His advancement to a runoff against Ben Bumgarner for the open seat, which is heavily Republican, comes at a time when state leaders are being sharply criticized for directing child welfare officials to open child abuse investigations into parents and others who help minors use medical therapy to transition. Republican leaders have also focused on surgeries, which are rarely performed on children. Lawmakers also drew fire from the far right during the last legislative session for not making such therapy for minors illegal.

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