State of Texas: Battles on the 2024 ballot take shape as candidates file

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The field is taking shape for the 2024 elections in Texas. December 11 is the last day for candidates to file to be on the ballot for the March primary election. But even before that deadline, some trends are starting to take shape.

Some incumbent Republicans will face primary challengers who aim to move the state farther to the right. Part of that move is being fueled by a push for political revenge.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is taking steps to shake up who wins the GOP primary elections after his impeachment acquittal in the Senate. He’s now seeking to push out Republican state representatives who voted to impeach him earlier this year.

Since the Senate reinstated Paxton to his office, he rolled out endorsements of at least a dozen people to take down House Republicans who voted for his impeachment. Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, said Paxton is carrying out an earlier promise to support and fund primary challengers against opponents in his own party. He also recently announced he would file criminal complaints against the 12 state representatives who led his impeachment trial, accusing them of violating a new anti-doxing law.

“His problem, of course, is he’s still facing a litany of legal challenges that could bring him down at any moment, but right now he’s at the height of his popularity,” Smith said. “He’s using that to try to shape the races going forward.”

Paxton, who lives in McKinney, is setting his sights close to home in Collin County. One of the four targets he named there is Rep. Matt Shaheen, the Plano Republican who began serving House District 66 in 2015. He voted for Paxton’s impeachment in May and still stands by that vote despite the pushback from some in his party.

“Paxton is not really relevant. He doesn’t really represent our values. I mean, we almost had to listen to his mistress during his trial,” Shaheen said during an interview with KXAN. “I’m ranked one of the most conservative members of the legislature. I’m a conservative fighter that’s been getting the job done. We’re getting a lot of conservative wins across the goal line. Really, in the state of Texas, we’re winning the culture wars because of fighters like me.”

Shaheen will face businessman Wayne Richard, who Paxton endorsed at an Oct. 10 meeting of the Collin County Republican Party. Richard, who sought this same seat 10 years ago, said how the House handled the attorney general’s impeachment ultimately put him “over the top” to enter the primary.

“I know that the reps here in Collin County are hoping that the impeachment issue goes away by March for the primary,” Richard said, “but the people here in Collin County, my district specifically, are very annoyed with what took place.”

Both men are promising to make border security a top priority during their respective primary campaigns. Shaheen said the Republican voters he’s meeting are more concerned about things like the economy and education rather than intraparty fights happening at the Texas Capitol. Richard intends to campaign on setting a four-term limit on state lawmakers as well as pushing for an end to the practice of letting Democratic House members serve as committee chairs.

One of Paxton’s defense lawyers during the impeachment trial, Mitch Little, officially announced his primary challenge against a Republican incumbent. He’d like to unseat Rep. Kronda Thimesch of Carrolton, who voted for impeachment. Little previously served as her campaign treasurer when she first ran for office.

Paxton reposted a message on X, formerly Twitter, featuring Little’s campaign announcement that read, “Very excited that @realmitchlittle is running! He be a true conservative fighter for the Texas House!!”

Regarding Paxton’s efforts to back primary challengers, Smith said he’ll watch to see whether these candidates will be able to unseat incumbents and how they’ll do once they’re past the primary.

“Paxton said he was going to go after those people who tried to impeach and remove him. He said there was going to be political consequences and retribution, so he’s following through with what he said. It means going and finding candidates who match his ideology,” Smith said. “The problem with some of these candidates is they are so ideologically pure that in a general election, unless it’s heavily gerrymandered, they aren’t going to be very strong candidates because they’re not going to be able to attract moderate Republicans or independents. So he has to be very careful that in attracting candidates who match his ideology, you’re talking about people that are effective in the primary elections, but maybe not as much in the general.”

A trend is emerging of Republican lawmakers in the Texas House of Representatives facing challengers aiming to push out either those who supported Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment or stood in the way of Gov. Greg Abbott’s repeated efforts to pass an education savings account program. However, the intraparty fighting also extends to the other side of the aisle.

In one Houston-area district, a Democratic incumbent known for supporting progressive causes now faces two primary challengers after a controversial vote she took earlier this year.

Texas Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston, said she’s seeking re-election for a fifth term to represent House District 146 in south Houston. However, she’ll have to fend off the most challengers she’s ever faced to win her party’s nomination for this reliably blue seat. In her own campaign announcement, Thierry listed her policy successes that included addressing maternal mortality, enhancing school safety, combating human trafficking and working on tax relief efforts. She also said she would keep working across party lines if voters send her back to the Capitol.

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Rep. Shawn Thierry said she’s running for fifth serving Texas House District 146 in Houston.

“What sets me apart is my ability to work across the aisles, even during politically charged times,” Thierry wrote on her campaign’s Facebook page. “I’m proud to be credited as a consensus builder, bridging divides and bringing people together to pass meaningful legislation that positively impacts the lives of all Texans.”

According to the two Democratic challengers who entered the race so far, though, they argue what makes Thierry vulnerable is voting at times with Republican lawmakers on certain issues. They contend she’s out of touch with the values of their district, setting up an intraparty fight for voters to resolve in the March 5, 2024 primary.

“What we’re seeing is a very, very liberal representative being challenged from further left because of some votes on very controversial issues that are important to Democratic constituents,” Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, said. “For Thierry, I think one of her advantages is the name recognition and her history of being a really very progressive candidate — with the exception of a handful of votes.”

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Lauren Ashley Simmons announced she’s running in the Democratic primary for Texas House District 146. (Photo Courtesy: Lauren Ashley Simmons)

The latest candidate to jump in the race against Thierry is Lauren Ashley Simmons, a union organizer and mother of two who experienced a viral moment this summer. Video of her remarks at a community meeting about the state takeover of the Houston Independent School District exploded online — with one clip garnering more than 8 million views on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter. Cameras captured her criticizing Mike Miles, the man appointed by the state to serve as the district’s superintendent, and accusing him of possibly being “Greg Abbott’s pawn sent down here to destroy the largest district in this city.”

Simmons said she intends to make supporting public education as one of her main focuses during the primary campaign. She also called expanding access to health care as another priority, which is part of the reason why she decided to challenge Thierry.

“I want to be a representative for my district because I love where I live,” she said. “I love my neighbors, and it’s a great place to be. But it could be so much better.”

During the regular legislative session earlier this year, Thierry joined three other Democrats and all the House Republicans in supporting Senate Bill 14. That’s the legislation banning transgender minors from receiving puberty blockers, hormone therapies or surgeries to assist in their transition. She was also the only member of her party who rose on the floor to speak in favor of the bill. That public stance led to a Democratic club in her district voting to censure her in May, accusing her of not being an ally to the state’s LGBTQ+ community. Her first primary challenger, activist Ashton Woods, also decided to enter the race at that time.

Thierry’s office declined a request to do an interview about her re-election campaign, but she previously told KXAN that she stood by her vote despite all the pushback.

“I represent House District 146, and I did this based on the will of my constituents,” Thierry said in May. “I believe that the majority of people that live, work and play in my district agree with me, and I heard from them.”

Simmons noted her daughter has sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder, which requires her family to live within close proximity to a hospital and potentially consider experimental treatments to provide relief. These experiences made her worry about the Texas families with transgender children who can no longer access certain gender-affirming care because of SB 14 becoming state law.

She also detailed a number of other issues she found with Thierry’s recent record. Simmons said she questioned why Thierry voted for House Bill 900, which aimed to keep “sexually explicit” books out of school libraries. However, critics claimed it could amount to a “book ban” bill and limit the availability of LGBTQ+ content.

“Those are some, I feel like, the very low bars to clear when you say that you’re a Democrat,” she said. “It shouldn’t have been a huge hurdle, get over those bars, because that’s what the people are asking for. That’s what the district demands, and it just felt like in those moments, our voices didn’t matter.”

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Ashton Woods said he’s running in the Democratic primary for Texas House District 146 in Houston. (Photo Courtesy: Ashton Woods)

Ashton Woods, who founded the Houston chapter of Black Lives Matter, previously challenged Thierry in the 2020 Democratic primary but lost that race by nearly 35 percentage points. He announced his intent to face her again the day after Thierry voted in favor of SB 14. That led to a bump in early campaign donations, Woods said.

“It definitely needs to change,” he said about the district’s leadership. “I think the status quo is no longer acceptable, especially when we elect people to represent all of us in the district, regardless of our gender identity or sexual orientation or race.”

Rather than discuss which issues will serve as the focus of his primary campaign, Woods said the first thing he’d like to do is “build space” for his community.

“I believe in creating spaces for the marginalized and for people to be a voice for themselves,” he explained. “I don’t want to be a voice for the voiceless. I want to be a space builder, where people can come in and actually be heard, not anecdotally, but taken seriously about the needs and also educating people about who to be mad at.”

Woods said that would more specifically mean creating a better constituent services operation for the office. He explained how that could build partnerships and help people, for instance, find resources more easily, like how to report a lack of fire hydrants in their neighborhood or locate affordable fresh food close to them.

“These are things that we have to look at to make sure that actual access exists,” he said, “and not from the perch of one looking down but being at eye level with people and making sure that we are hearing them, actively listening and actually acting on those things.”

He said he also spoke to Simmons already and commended her advocacy work in the community. He said they both have the same goal.

“The thing is, is that we will run our campaigns with integrity and make sure that regardless of who wins this nomination, it won’t be Shawn Thierry,” Woods said during a recent interview with KXAN.

Smith said regardless of who wins the primary, that person is almost assured to win the general election in November next year.

“When we think about this district, we’re talking about a very safe Democratic seat, so, in essence, the primary is the general election. You don’t need any crossover votes from Republicans. You don’t have to worry about the moderate independent vote,” Smith said.

“[Thierry] has had primary challengers before, but in the general election not really anybody of note,” he added, “so if she can survive the primaries, she’ll get reelected easily.”

‘Goldilocks question’ highlights division within Texas political parties

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Polling from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas shows a growing trend among both Republicans and Democrats moving away from the political center.

Part of the TPP’s October 2023 poll asked Texas Democrats whether they think their party’s elected officials are liberal enough, too liberal, or just liberal enough. Executive Director Jim Henson called it a “Goldilocks question.”

“What we found is, most Democrats, but not a lot about a little more than 40% say that their candidates are not liberal enough. And that’s very competitive with those that say they are [liberal enough] which is maybe 10 or so points, fewer than that,” Henson said.

Just 12% of Democrats in the poll said their elected officials were too liberal. The poll showed 34% saying they were liberal enough and 40% believing elected Democrats are not liberal enough.

“So, you can see where the setup for ideological conflict in the primary comes from,” Henson added.

The poll also posed a similar question to GOP voters, asking whether they thought elected Republicans were conservative enough. The results showed 38% viewing elected officials as conservative enough, while 36% said they were not conservative enough.

“You still see a very similar division, very evenly split between those who say conservative enough, and and not conservative enough. And so again, that’s where you see this conflict that we’ve all become so familiar with,” Henson said.

Henson said the division within each major political party has been playing out over a long period of time.

“As the parties have become more homogenous, if you will, all of the conservatives, for the most part have left the Democratic Party, the liberals have left the Republican Party,” Henson said.

He said the division among Republicans is not new, but it’s taken longer to manifest among Democrats.

“As recently as the late 2000s among Democrats, about half identified as moderate and between 15 and 20%, identified as conservative. Now more than 60% identify as liberal. And those other two categories have shrunk dramatically to 1700958192 you’ve got fewer than 10% in the Democratic Party say that they’re conservative,” Henson explained.

So the parties have become more defined, and voters, you know, have followed suit,” Henson said.

Three elected Democrats lead large field for U.S. Senate nomination

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The campaign for U.S. Senate will be one of the most-watched races in next year’s election.          Several Democrats have announced plans to run in the primary, hoping to earn the chance to take on incumbent Ted Cruz.

Three Democrats who currently hold elected offices stand out in the race. Colin Allred, who represents Dallas in Congress is by far the leading fundraiser. Allred brought in more than six million dollars since announcing his run in May. That fundraising put him ahead of Cruz when it comes to cash on hand.

Allred is running on his record in Congress, touting his ability to work across the aisle to get things done. He has pointed to his work on legislation like the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the CHIPS Act that required bipartisan support to pass.

“You have to have leaders who are willing to do it, or willing to put in that hard work of finding common ground,” Allred said.

Early polling shows Allred with a solid lead among the Democratic candidates for Senate. But the numbers also show he still has work to do to avoid a runoff in the crowded field of primary candidates.

The candidate polling closest to Allred is State Sen. Roland Gutierrez. The San Antonio Democrat represents a district that includes Uvalde, and he gained nationwide attention for speaking out on behalf of the families affected by the Robb Elementary mass shooting. Gutierrez has called for gun reforms like universal background checks and raising the age to 21 for purchasing certain semiautomatic rifles.

“As the next senator from the United States in Texas, we’re going to talk about that because there is no bigger issue. If you don’t have your child, the economy, all those other things, they just don’t matter,” Gutierrez said.

Another member of the Texas legislature also set his sights on challenging Cruz next November. State Rep. Carl Sherman is running on his record both in the Texas House and as a former mayor.

“I want a Texas that is inclusive of all Texans, where everyone from the farmers to the ranchers, to those who work in our suburbs and cities have a seat at the table,” Sherman said.

Whoever wins the primary will face a tough campaign against incumbent Republican Ted Cruz, who has held the Senate seat since January 2013. Cruz narrowly won reelection in 2018, defeating Democrat Beto O’Rourke by less than three percentage points.

Campaign finance records show Cruz had more than $5.7 million on hand at the end of September. That’s significantly less than Allred, who reported more than $7.9 million on hand. For comparison, Gutierrez reported less than $380 thousand on hand. Sherman did not have fundraising data posted yet with the Federal Election Commission.

History suggests that money will be an important factor in next year’s Senate election. In 2018, Cruz and O’Rourke combined to spend just under $115 million on their campaigns.

Outspoken former Miss Texas mounts campaign for Texas House seat

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Once outspoken on GOP politics as Miss Texas, Averie Bishop is running as a Democrat in a competitive district northeast of Dallas, aiming to unseat the longtime Rep. Angie Chen Button, R-Richardson.

Bishop announced her bid for Texas House District 112 in late August, months before the November filing deadline. In a campaign launch video, the 27-year-old highlighted her upbringing in North Texas and said she never saw people who looked like her in government or leadership roles.

When crowned Miss Texas in 2022, Bishop became the first Asian competitor to take the crown pageant’s 85-year history. Her mother emigrated to the United States from the Philippines, and Bishop said she would be the first Filipino American to serve in the Legislature. Currently, she works as a substitute teacher in the northeast Dallas area.

Her presumptive opponent has shattered glass ceilings of her own. Button is the only female Asian lawmaker in both the Texas House and Senate. An immigrant from Taiwan, Button grew up in a 300-square-foot hut with dirt floors and no running water. She said her parents fled once China became a communist nation, coming to America where Button credits her education as a pillar for achieving the American dream.

While both Button and Bishop’s backgrounds have shaped who they are today, the two women have different perspectives on how race plays a factor in their everyday lives. Bishop attributes many of the opportunities she has received to the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program at Southern Methodist University — where she got her undergraduate and law degree.

In a break with tradition, Bishop was outspoken on political issues during the end of her time as Miss Texas. The pageant queen has been critical of a range of policies passed by the Republican-led state — including its near-total abortion ban, lenient gun policies and racial issues. Bishop said the turning point for her was when the lawmakers passed a ban on DEI programs in higher education during this past legislative session.

“[Senate Bill 17] banned diversity and inclusion programs across colleges and universities. And if it weren’t for my diversity and inclusion program at SMU, or in undergrad, I honestly don’t think I would have gone on to law school and run for office,” Bishop told Nexstar.

However, Button contrasts herself starkly with Bishop, describing herself as “appreciative, not angry” of the opportunities she’s been provided as a first-generation American.

“I spent years working in the industry, serving the community, across the board, to learn that kind of experience to propel me to really, really make a difference. Once again, it’s easy to complain, but you don’t get the result,” she said. “You got to have the knowledge and the skills and the relationship to make real things happen.”

As a Republican and Democrat, Button and Bishop have their natural policy differences, mostly when it comes to social issues that Bishop has been outspoken on.

“I think it’s really important that there are many women of color running for office on both parties, both sides, right? It’s all about giving options,” Bishop said. “Representation doesn’t just stop when I see someone who looks like me, I want to see someone who stands for the same things that I do.”

Button is reminding her business-friendly district of her accolades during her 14 years in public office, touting her leadership roles and relationships with top Republicans who control the legislative agenda. She is one of three women in the House who hold coveted chair positions on standing committees in the House.

“With that kind of experience, influence and connection, I am able to pass good, reasonable bills,” Button said. “What I can offer is my business, my technology experience and my leadership position in the House and in the community.”

If elected, Bishop would likely become the youngest member of the Texas Legislature. She already has a sizable following on social media, with about 1 million followers across multiple platforms, mostly on Instagram and TikTok.

While Bishop notes she hasn’t seen evidence that her followers’ interest in her political videos translates to people voting on election days, she does attribute early fundraising to them.

Social media influencers often do daily vlogs to show what their lives are like — which Bishop has adapted to a regular video series where she documents what it is like to run for public office as a 20-something in Texas.

“I really want this campaign to not only be about education policy, making sure that diversity and inclusion is incorporated into schools, for example, but I want it to be about visibility and transparency,” she said. “I’m pulling back the curtain so that they can see exactly what that process looks like.”

Serving in the Texas House since 2009, Button is no stranger to tough races. In 2020, she won re-election by a slim margin of less than 300 votes in a year that President Joe Biden won her district. But new maps drawn under redistricting made HD 112 redder and Biden would have lost by 1 point.

Bishop said she is hopeful the race will be competitive after Beto O’Rourke won the district in the 2022 gubernatorial campaign. That year, Button won another reelection by 10 points.

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