“He assiduously courted the conservative and reactionary wing of the party, and they have rewarded him with high enthusiasm and loyalty,” says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Paxton might be more vulnerable to a challenge than other top GOP candidates, including Abbott, who is a favorite for a third term as governor. But, says Henson: “Paxton is where the base of the Republican Party is right now.”
While voters at the Georgetown event praised all three challengers for consistency on key issues, it’s less clear whether they could sense differences among the candidates. As they were walking out of the forum in January, Viv and D.W., an elderly married couple who own a nearby ranch and who didn’t want to share their last names, each were trying to win the other over to their side. The pair usually vote for the same candidate, so their votes don’t cancel each other out. But Viv, an energetic, petite blonde woman wearing a red vest, was a fan of Guzman’s, while her husband, wearing a plaid shirt, favored Gohmert; like the congressman, D.W. went to Texas A&M, and he said he wanted to stick by his fellow Aggie.
“I didn’t hear that many differences,” said D.W.
“I did. I heard a lot of differences,” said Viv. “I heard Guzman. She got strong.”
D.W. noted Gohmert used to be a judge.
“Yeah, but how many years ago, how many years ago?” asked Viv. “He’s a posh D.C.-er, whatever you wanna call it. I will be thinking about this.”
The best hope for Gohmert, Guzman and Bush is a second-place finish, and the chance to take on Paxton in a runoff if they can collectively keep him under 50 percent of the vote. An estimated 1.5 million Texans will cast ballots in the primary, meaning no one candidate has to win over all that many voters in order to get into a runoff. And about a 16 percent of Republican primary voters were undecided in the recent Dallas Morning News poll. In the final stretches of the campaign, the lines of attack have been drawn more firmly: Paxton and Gohmert are going after each other, while Bush is turning on Guzman. But mostly they are just trying to get voters to know who they are.
“I’m not speaking to 30 million Texans,” Guzman said in a January interview. She had been polling last for months, but more recently has moved ahead of Gohmert, yet still behind Bush. Her team insists she’s the sleeper candidate who will pull out a last-minute, second-place finish. “I’d love it if every Texan saw my commercials. But, frankly, to win this race, I need to speak to enough voters to get to the runoff.”
Many Republican strategists here argue that the fact that there used to be more ideological diversity in the Texas GOP helped the party to cement control over wide swaths of the big state. Now, there are fewer lanes for candidates to maneuver in, and there’s a private fear among some on the right that as the state becomes more urban and more diverse, Republicans could eventually lose their grip on power. Texas Hispanics, who will soon make up a majority in the state, are not moving to Republicans at the pace that the party would like to believe, says Jason Villalba, the chair of the Texas Hispanic Policy Foundation; a former Republican state lawmaker, Villalba lost his 2018 primary to a candidate further to the right, who then got beaten by a Democrat in the general election that year. Some GOP strategists similarly worry that if Paxton wins the AG primary, Republicans could lose the office altogether. In 2018, he only narrowly defeated his less well-known Democratic challenger.