The battle between Republicans and Democrats in the United States for control of Congress officially begins March 1, as Texas holds the first primary elections of the year to determine candidates for Congress in November.
Most of the real political competition in Republican-dominated Texas this year will be contests among members of the same party decided by primary voters in March or in runoffs in May, not the general electorate in November.
“The Republicans’ job now is not to beat the Democrats. Their job is to find the nuances in their brand of Republicanism that are going to be able to appeal to voters,” said Zoe Nemerever, an assistant professor of politics at Texas Tech University.
Texas, the second-largest US state, gained two new seats in the US House of Representatives after the 2020 census recorded population growth. Republicans, who control the state legislature, drew new congressional voting maps, adding one new Republican district and one new Democratic district while reducing competitive districts elsewhere.
“A lot of this will come down to Trump Republicans versus non-Trump Republicans. That is the major fissure in the party,” Nemerever said, referencing former President Donald Trump’s continuing hold over Republicans at the grassroots level.
Democrats in Texas are likewise battling along ideological lines between moderates and progressives within their own party, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of politics at the University of Houston.
“The ways that the parties have developed and the ways that the candidates are now attracting the more polarised voters, is to push themselves to the ideological extremes,” Rottinghaus told Al Jazeera.
Here are five Texas primary contests to watch:
Democrat challenged by AOC-backed progressive
In the 28th Texas Congressional District in Laredo and San Antonio, US Representative Henry Cuellar faces a challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a Latina immigration lawyer who has been endorsed by New York progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the group Justice Democrats.
“Henry Cuellar is one of the few remaining moderate Democrats in the national party. She is really going after him, saying that he needs to be more liberal, move his policy positions to the left,” Nemerever said.
Cuellar, 66, is a target for liberals because he is anti-abortion rights, siding with Republicans over his own party on the abortion issue.
The FBI raided Cuellar’s home in January, reportedly in connection with a US investigation involving Azerbaijan. Cisneros has been using that to advertise herself on television as a better choice for South Texas.
But with the Rio Grande Valley trending more Republican, the district could be competitive for Republicans in the general election if the left-leaning Cisneros wins the primary. A career politician who has served in the US House since 2005, Cuellar appears to have the upper hand. He beat back a challenge from Cisneros two years ago.
Cisneros, 28, has been mobilising new voters and could pull off a surprise upset.
“She’s young. Even if she doesn’t win this time, I bet she makes it to Congress in the next decade,” Nemerever said.
Republican challenged from the right
In the newly redrawn 2nd Texas Congressional District, incumbent Republican Dan Crenshaw may be in trouble. His district contains more pro-Trump voters than before the redrawing.
The former Navy SEAL, who lost an eye in Afghanistan, has taken a middle line among Republicans in Washington, calling House Republican firebrand Marjorie Taylor Greene an “idiot” who is “running a scam”, and calling Freedom Caucus members “grifters”.
“Nobody would confuse Dan Crenshaw with a moderate,” said James Henson, a professor of politics at the University of Texas. “He started out with a brand that was conservative, but independent-minded. That strategy has been more difficult to maintain in a Republican Party where there’s a very high purity threshold.”
Crenshaw faces three Republican challengers who all claim to be more conservative and closer to Trump than Crenshaw, who needs 50 percent of the primary vote to avoid a runoff. In August, Crenshaw got heckled by a pro-Trump crowd at a town hall meeting after he said the 2020 election was not stolen.
Crenshaw has a considerable financial advantage, with more than $3m cash on hand, 100 times more than his closest competitor.
Democratic retirement opens door
In the 30th Texas Congressional District in Dallas, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson’s retirement announcement after she served nearly three decades in Congress was a political earthquake. Johnson, 85, is the longest-serving member from Texas and one of the most senior members of Congress. She has recruited Jasmine Crockett, a young, dynamic Black woman who is a member of the Texas State Legislature, to run in her stead.
Crockett, who is more liberal than the outgoing Johnson, faces competition for the nomination from a new generation of young, progressive Democrats.
“Crockett has raised a lot of money on her own, but she’s getting a lot of help from outside groups, partly because she’s the chosen candidate from Johnson who’s definitely the queenmaker there,” said Rottinghaus.
“I’d say Crockett wins without a runoff, or is very close to winning outright.”
Black Republican has Ted Cruz’s backing
In newly created 38th Texas Congressional District, Republican Wesley Hunt, an African American former Army combat veteran, is leading a pack of Republican contenders.
“He’s the kind of Republican, frankly, that the Republican Party wants front and centre; Somebody who’s smart, dedicated, he’s Black and he’s got a military background. It is the kind of diversity the party wants to display,” Rottinghaus said.
Hunt got a boost from Senator Ted Cruz, who endorsed him early in the campaign. Hunt received Trump’s backing too. If Hunt wins the primary contest on March 1, he will likely win the general election in November. Trump won in this area – including parts of Houston and its suburbs – by 18 percentage points over Democrat Joe Biden in 2020.
Right and left in the Latino vote
The 35th Texas Congressional District in state capital Austin was redesigned by Republicans to pit the incumbent Democrat Lloyd Doggett, a white male, against Latinos, according to Henson.
Doggett switched to the newly created 37th Democratic district in Austin, clearing the way for two Latino Democrats, Eddie Rodriguez and Greg Casar, to battle for the 35th. Rodriguez is a state legislator and established Democratic party official. The up-and-coming Casar is an Austin City Council member, a pro-labour progressive and a self-described socialist.
“Rodriguez is much more of an institutional player. Casar is seen as a progressive, maverick-style troublemaker,” Henson said.