Texas battleground takes shape ahead of 2020

Primaries narrow fields for Senate and House races, but plenty of runoffs loom

Texas Sen. John Cornyn is seeking a fourth term but will have to wait a few months to find out who will be his Democratic challenger. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Texas Sen. John Cornyn is seeking a fourth term but will have to wait a few months to find out who will be his Democratic challenger. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 4, 2020 at 2:03am, Updated at 11:37am

Texas will be a House and Senate battleground this year, and while some general election races are already taking shape, others will be decided in May.

Democrats are targeting seven GOP-held House seats in the Lone Star State this fall, while Republicans are eyeing two Democratic freshmen in traditionally red suburban territory. The state could also play host to a competitive Senate race, and a dozen Democrats competed Tuesday to take on three-term GOP Sen. John Cornyn.

But some of the top races won’t be decided for more than two months. Texas has a primary runoff provision when no candidate wins a majority of the vote. In those cases, the top two vote-getters will advance to a May 26 runoff.

Senate race

As expected, the Democratic primary to take on Cornyn is heading to a runoff. Air Force veteran MJ Hegar secured a spot, but early Wednesday, it’s not yet clear who she will face.

Hegar, who topped the Democratic field in fundraising, was leading with 25 percent of the vote with 35 percent of precincts reporting when The Associated Press determined she would make the runoff.

With 96 percent of precincts reporting, state Sen. Royce West, and activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez were battling for the other runoff spot.

The Democratic primary centered on a debate that’s also taking place in the presidential contest over the best strategy to win in November. Democrats, bolstered by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s narrow Senate loss in 2018, believe that Texas’ changing demographics make this year’s Senate race competitive. But Republicans believe the state still leans in their direction. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.

Seats GOP wants back 

Republicans are targeting two Democrats who flipped seats in 2018: Lizzie Fletcher in the 7th District near Houston and Collin Allred in the 32nd District that includes parts of Dallas and its wealthy suburbs. Inside Elections rates both races Lean Democratic

In the 7th, Army veteran Wesley Hunt avoided a runoff against former Bellaire Mayor Cindy Siegel. With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Hunt was leading with 61 percent to Siegel’s 27 percent when the AP called the race.

Hunt has been hailed as a top recruit by Republicans, and he secured endorsements from President Donald Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Hillary Clinton won the 7th District by just over 1 point in 2016.

In the 32nd District businesswoman Genevieve Collins was able to avoid a runoff in the race to take on Allred. She was leading Floyd McLendon, a former Navy Seal, 52 to 34 percent when The Associated Press called the race Wednesday morning with 100 percent of precincts reporting.

Encumbered incumbents

Democrats are targeting four Republicans running for reelection, in addition to three open GOP seats. Inside Elections rates all four races against the sitting Republican lawmakers as Likely Republican. Democrats avoided a primary runoff in at least one of those races Tuesday.

Former gubernatorial candidate and onetime state Sen. Wendy Davis is set to face freshman GOP Rep. Chip Roy in the 21st District. Davis was leading with 85 percent of the primary vote when the AP called the race with 19 percent of precincts reporting.

In three other races, Democrats will have to wait until May to decide their nominees. 

In the 2nd District, Houston lawyer and O’Rourke adviser Sima Ladjevardian and Navy veteran Elisa Cardnell will face off for the Democratic nomination to take on GOP Rep. Daniel Crenshaw. With 85 percent of precincts reporting, Ladjevardian was leading Cardnell, 47 percent to 31 percent, when the AP made the call.

Despite rumors he would retire, GOP Rep. Michael McCaul is running again in the 10th District. Lawyer Michael Siegel, the 2018 Democratic nominee who surprisingly held McCaul to just a 4-point victory two years ago, advanced to the May runoff against physician Pritesh Gandhi. With 89 percent of precincts reporting, Siegel was leading Gandhi, 44 percent to 33 percent, when the AP called the race. Gandhi had the support of 314 Action, a group that backs candidates with STEM backgrounds, and he finished ahead of lawyer Shannon Hutcheson, who had the EMILY’s List endorsement.

In the 31st District, GOP Rep. John Carter is also a Democratic target after Hegar nearly defeated him two years ago. But with Hegar running for Senate instead this year, Democrats are less optimistic about their chances this time around. Christine Mann, who lost to Hegar in the 2018 primary, and Donna Imam, a computer engineer, will compete in a runoff to take on Carter. Mann led Imam 35 percent to 31 percent when the AP called the race with 60 percent of precincts reporting.

Open seats that could flip

Democrats are also targeting three open seats currently held by retiring Republicans, and they avoided a runoff in at least two of them.

In Texas’ 23rd District, former Air Force intelligence officer Gina Ortiz Jones is running again after nearly defeating GOP Rep. Will Hurd two years ago. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Ortiz Jones had 67 percent of the primary vote, according to The AP.

The Republican primary is headed for a runoff there, with Navy veteran Tony Gonzales, who has been endorsed by Hurd, facing Air Force veteran Raul Reyes. Gonzales was leading Reyes 28 percent to 23 percent when The AP called the race with 100 percent of precincts reporting.

With Hurd opting against a fourth term, Inside Elections rates the race Leans Democratic.

Texas’ 24th District is a top Democratic target, but the Republican in the race will not have to compete in a runoff. Former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne won the primary with 64 percent of the vote when the AP called the race Wednesday morning with 100 percent of precincts reporting. She had endorsements from Trump, McCarthy and GOP women’s groups.

The Democratic primary, though, is headed for a runoff featuring former school board member Candace Valenzuela, who has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, and former Air Force Col. Kim Olson. Olson was leading Valenzuela 43 to 30 percent when the AP called the race on Wednesday with 100 percent of precincts reporting. Inside Elections rates the race Tilt Republican.

Texas GOP Rep. Pete Olson’s decision to retire opened up the his 22nd District outside Houston. Inside Elections rates that race Tilts Republican. 

A crowded field of 15 Republicans competed in the primary, with former Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls and GOP megadonor Kathaleen Wall, who donated $3.2 million of her own money to her campaign, heading to the runoff.

Nehls was leading Wall 41 percent to 19 percent when the AP called the race with 25 percent of precincts reporting. Nehls, who had considered challenging Olson in a primary before he announced his retirement, grabbed national headlines in 2017 for arresting a woman with a profane anti-Trump sticker on her car.

Pierce Bush, grandson of former President George H.W. Bush, was in third place with 15 percent when the AP made its call.

On the Democratic side, Sri Preston Kulkarni, a former foreign service officer who lost to Olson by 5 points in 2018, was able to avoid a runoff. With 24 percent of precincts reporting, he had 53 percent of the vote when the AP called the race.

Open seats in deep-red districts

A slew of Texas Republican retirements also opened up three solidly Republican seats in the 13th, 11th and 17th districts. Each race featured a crowded GOP primary field, but the winners are expected to be heavily favored in November. Inside Elections rates all three races Solid Republican.

In the 11th District, where GOP Rep. K. Michael Conaway is retiring, former National Security Council adviser August Pfluger avoided a runoff by taking 52 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The AP initially reported that the race was heading for a runoff before later issuing a correction. Pfluger had the president’s endorsement in the primary.

In the 13th District, lobbyist and former GOP Senate aide Josh Winegarner has made the Republican primary runoff for the seat vacated by GOP Rep. Mac Thornberry. Winegarner had 40 percent of the vote with 81 percent of precincts reporting when the AP determined he would make the runoff.

Joining him there will be former White House physician Ronny Jackson. With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Jackson had 20 percent of the vote when the AP made its call. Trump endorsed Jackson to make the runoff on the eve of the primary,

The Republican primary in Texas’ 17th District, where GOP Rep. Bill Flores is retiring, will also head to a runoff

Former GOP Rep. Pete Sessions, who lost his reelection in a nearby district in 2018, finished in first place. With 45 percent of precincts reporting, he had 30 percent of the vote when the AP projected he would make the runoff. His opponent was yet to be decided at publication time.

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