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The 1st primaries of 2022 midterms begin in Texas

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Texans are voting today in primaries that kick off the 2022 midterm elections. There are notable statewide races and congressional contests, so we're joined now by Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider to get us up to speed. Hi, Andrew.

ANDREW SCHNEIDER, BYLINE: Hello.

PFEIFFER: Would you start us off big-picture and tell us why is the Texas primary getting national attention? And what issues are driving voters?

SCHNEIDER: Well, a big part of it's the timing. As you said, Texas is the first state in the nation to hold a primary this year. There's a governor's race on the ballot along with the second-largest congressional delegation in the nation, and the National Republican Party is hoping for gains coming out of the state to help them recapture the House in the fall. As far as issues driving voters, probably the biggest one is voting itself.

PFEIFFER: That's right - voting restrictions. And this is the first major election under Texas' new voting law.

SCHNEIDER: Yeah. The state has already had some of the strictest voting laws in the country, and Republicans here recently passed new restrictions. The law made a lot of changes, like blocking a number of the measures that Harris County, where I am, adopted or attempted during the 2020 election to make it easier and safer to vote during the pandemic.

But one of the most critical changes it made was one that flew largely under the radar until just before early voting started. It requires Texans seeking to vote by mail to include their driver's license number or Social Security number on multiple places for both the application and the ballot. Many voters have been neglecting to fill out one or both of these or putting in the wrong number, and the result is that thousands of ballots have been flagged for rejection.

PFEIFFER: On the primaries themselves, what are some of the major races you're watching?

SCHNEIDER: Well, there are big races here for both governor and attorney general. Republican Greg Abbott is running for a third term, but he's facing a number of challengers from the right. Most polling has Abbott with a comfortable lead - not overwhelming but enough to get above 50% and avoid a runoff. Former congressman Beto O'Rourke has an even stronger lead when it comes to his Democratic rivals, so a fall matchup between Abbott and O'Rourke is all but certain.

PFEIFFER: And isn't there an attorney general race getting attention?

SCHNEIDER: Yes. The incumbent, Ken Paxton, has for years faced felony securities fraud charges. And since 2020, he's also been under FBI investigation on allegations of bribery and abuse of office. All of that's led to an up swell of opposition by Republicans who are concerned Paxton could cost him the office.

The result is three primary challengers - land commissioner George P. Bush, who's the nephew of former President George W. Bush, former Texas Supreme Justice Eva Guzman and Congressman Louie Gohmert. Recent surveys show Paxton is likely to have to fight a runoff election against whoever polls second.

PFEIFFER: Former President Trump is figuratively looming in the background in many of these Republican races. How is he playing out in these?

SCHNEIDER: He's endorsed 37 candidates. That includes Abbott, Paxton and nearly every Texas Republican running for reelection to Congress. Of the five exceptions, four of them are congressmen who voted to certify President Biden's election victory.

PFEIFFER: So mostly Republicans we have been talking about. On the Democratic side, any primaries of note?

SCHNEIDER: Well, the biggest one is in South Texas, where longtime relatively conservative congressman Henry Cuellar is seeking to fend off a challenge from progressive Jessica Cisneros. Cuellar narrowly beat her two years ago, but there was an FBI raid on Cuellar's home and office recently that's shaken up the race. There aren't many details about the investigation, and Cuellar says he's done nothing wrong. But it's added another element for what was already set to be a close race between two wings of the Democratic Party.

PFEIFFER: That's Houston Public Media's Andrew Schneider. And, Andrew, I hope you will keep us updated on the outcome of these races later. Thank you.

SCHNEIDER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTEC COLLECTIVE'S "NO VACANCY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.