Electioneers at the Harmony Hills Elementary School polling location approach a voter as he approaches the site.
Electioneers at the Harmony Hills Elementary School polling location hold signs as a voter approaches the site. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Texans got their say Tuesday in the nation’s earliest midterm primary, with incumbent State Rep. Tomas Uresti losing his re-election bid and State Rep. Diana Arévalo trailing in her race

Uresti’s surprising loss came to former Bexar County Democratic Party chair Leo Pacheco in District 118. In House District 116, Arévalo was narrowly defeated by her predecessor, Trey Martinez Fischer, who won 4,742 votes, or 51 percent, to Arévalo’s 4,627, or 49 percent.

Arévalo, one of only 29 women lawmakers in the 150-seat Texas House, won the seat in 2016 after Martinez Fischer gave it up to launch an unsuccessful bid for José Menéndez’s District 26 Senate seat. Martinez Fischer represented the district – stretching from the area west of downtown northwest to Loop 1604 – for 16 years, earning a reputation as a legislator skilled in blocking bills opposed by Democrats. He also earned a nickname: “the prince of POO,” referring to procedural “points of order.”

The night’s biggest upset came in the Democratic primary race for Bexar County District Attorney, where incumbent Nico LaHood conceded to challenger Joe Gonzales, a defense attorney, at about 8:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls Lupe Valdez and Andrew White landed in a runoff for the right to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott, who coasted to a primary victory over two mostly unknown challengers.

Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff, led White, the son of late Gov. Mark White, by 13 percentage points — 42 percent to 28 percent.

Democrats saw a surge in statewide voter turnout, with more than 1 million votes cast in the U.S. Senate primary, but Republicans voters surpassed that mark with more than 1.5 million ballots submitted. During early voting, the number of Democratic ballots cast rose sharply in the 10 counties with the largest numbers of registered voters, with 370,219 ballots cast compared to 282,928 Republican ballots. In 2014, Republican ballots outnumbered Democratic ones, 253,019 to 184,489.

In Bexar County, voters cast 86,313 Democratic ballots versus 69,284 GOP ballots with 100 percent of the vote in. At 14.49 percent of the county’s total of registered voters, turnout was slightly higher than the nearly 12 percent turnout during the 2014 midterm primary.

Whether turnout numbers signal a meaningful surge in Democratic enthusiasm in the first primaries since Trump was elected is an open question.

“I think that we’re definitely seeing a [Democratic] surge compared to four years ago,” said Walter Wilson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “But we need to keep in perspective that the turnout for Democrats is pretty similar to 2016. It’s more a dropoff of Republican enthusiasm in large part.”

What may help motivate Democrats is the general election clash between State Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) at the top of the ballot, Wilson said.

“That bodes well from the get-go in terms of turnout,” he said.

Cruz was facing only token opposition in the primary from four GOP challengers, while O’Rourke claimed the Democratic primary over two opponents, although his margin was less than expected.

Crowded ballots in three races, including two Congressional races, were headed to runoffs with no candidate securing 50 percent of the vote. A second round of voting is set for May 22.

The retirement from Congress of Republican U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith attracted 18 GOP candidates and four Democrats, while the perceived vulnerability of U.S. Rep. Will Hurd in the sprawling and competitive Congressional District 23 drew five Democrats vying for the opportunity to challenge him.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Joe Straus’ decision to give up his traditionally Republican seat in Texas House District 121 pulled in six GOP hopefuls.

U.S. House District 21

As expected, the crowded field  produced runoffs in both parties for the right to contest the seat currently held by Smith, who was first elected in 1986.

On the Republican side, Chip Roy, former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, emerged at the front of the pack and held onto the lead in the crowded contest. Roy got 27 percent, and, according to his Twitter feed, spent the evening behind home plate watching his son’s baseball team.

The race was much tighter for Matt McCall, a Boerne resident and business owner who previously ran twice against Smith. McCall edged out Bexar County resident William Negley, a former CIA agent who served in Afghanistan, by 1,000 votes. McCall had 12,088 votes, 17 percent of the vote, to Negley’s 11,088, 16 percent.

The Republican ticket included another 15 candidates, with some of the standouts including Texas State Rep. Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs, who finished fourth, and longtime Republican operative Jennifer Sarver, who was fifth. The field also featured Robert Stovall, the former Bexar County GOP chairman, in sixth place.

In the Democratic primary, U.S. Army veteran and Austin tech entrepreneur Joseph Kopser earned a spot in a runoff against Cedar Park minister Mary Street Wilson, an openly gay former math teacher.

“I would like to believe that it was the message I had of caring for people, people over profits, caring about human beings and listening to one another,” Wilson said.  “I think our country has felt like we have lost that some way.”

Wilson pulled slightly more votes than Kopser, 31 percent to 29 percent, despite raising around $40,000 to Kopser’s $774,000.

“We are really, really excited about the amount of turnout that we got,” said Kopser’s spokeswoman, Maddi Kaigh. “It means great things for the Democrats in November.”

The contest eliminated former Congressional staffer Derrick Crowe and Elliott McFadden, CEO of Austin B Cycle, who finished third and fourth, respectively.

Neither Kopser, who was endorsed by Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, nor Wilson has previously held elective office.

U.S. House District 23

First-time candidate Gina Ortiz Jones held a sizable lead over her opponents but was unable to avoid a runoff, pulling 41 percent of the vote in a five-person field vying to face Hurd, who easily defeated his primary challenger, Uvalde dentist Alma Arredondo-Lynch, with 80 percent of the vote.

Ortiz Jones had the backing of Emily’s List, a national organization that works to elect Democratic women to national offices, and led her opponents in campaign contributions.

San Antonio teacher Rick Treviño edged out Judy Canales, a former Obama and Clinton appointee in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to get into the runoff with Ortiz Jones. With all precincts reporting, Treviño had 216 more votes than Canales.

Former federal prosecutor Jay Hulings, who pulled in nearly $500,000 in donations, trailed with 15 percent.

Treviño ran unsuccessfully for the District 6 City Council seat. He is positioning himself as the field’s truest acolyte of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I-Vt), the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate. Treviño has campaigned on ideas such as a Medicare-for-all healthcare system, free public college tuition, and a $15 minimum wage. His focus on those issues has earned him endorsements from both the state and national arms of the group that grew out of Sanders’ White House bid, Our Revolution.

State House District 118

Uresti appeared to be feeling political blowback from the conviction of his younger brother, State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), last month on 11 felony counts relating to his affiliation with a bankrupt fracking sand company. Tomas Uresti was seeking re-election after serving his first term in the Texas House in the district that wraps around the east and southeast edges of Bexar County.

Uresti trailed Pacheco, who is an adjunct professor at San Antonio College, by almost 15 percentage points.

Pacheco will face Republican John Lujan, who ran unopposed on the GOP ballot, in the general election. Lujan represented District 118 after winning a special election in January 2016 but lost later that year to Uresti.

State House District 121

When Straus, House Speaker since January 2009, announced last fall he would not seek re-election, six Republicans jumped into the race for his seat representing District 121 in northeast Bexar County. Matt Beebe won 29 percent of the vote, 4,351, over Steve Allison with 26 percent, 3,884 votes.

Beebe, a small business owner who challenged Straus in the 2012 and 2014 GOP primaries, has campaigned as a “true conservative,” voicing support for the controversial “bathroom bill” and getting an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

“We always expected a runoff, and I am humbled by the support we have received,” Beebe said. “I have gotten to know Steve over the last few months, and I have great respect for him.

“But we do have stark differences on how to approach the challenges facing Texans in general, and District 121 residents in specific. I look forward to a positive, issues-based campaign as we head into the next phase.”

Allison served on the Alamo Heights Independent School District board for 12 years, including a three-term tenure as president. Considered a moderate, Allison supported the recent “sanctuary cities” bill, votes pro-life, and is a lifelong NRA member. Allison favors giving voters the power to “veto” what he calls skyrocketing property taxes with automatic local elections on large tax increases.

In the general election, the winner will face Democrat Celina Montoya, who faces an uphill battle in the Republican stronghold district.

Former San Antonio City Councilman Carlton Soules missed the runoff, pulling just 13 percent of the vote. Soules is well-known among the city’s voters for his opposition to a controversial VIA Metropolitan Transit streetcar project in 2014.

State House District 122

State Rep. Lyle Larson gained an easy victory over challenger Chris Fails, Hollywood Park Mayor and gun store co-owner, 59 percent to 41 percent. The race was one of three across the state in which Abbott intervened, endorsing a sitting Republican’s primary challenger and contributing funds from his $43 million campaign war chest. 

“I’m just glad that the people in District 122 rejected all the negative, deceptive campaigning that went on,” Larson said. “They sent out 27 fliers that were factually incorrect.”

Larson said Fails called him to concede and pledged to support his re-election effort. But Larson aimed most of his criticism at Abbott and other Republicans who backed Fails.

“I don’t think that Republicans really appreciate all the things they tried to do in this campaign,” Larson said. “The negativity and the deception, maybe that works in some elections, but across the state I think that type of electioneering has been rejected.”

In a campaign appearance with Fails on Feb. 21, Abbott repeatedly referred to the four-term representative as “Liberal Lyle.” Although Larson’s voting record is solidly conservative, he introduced an ethics bill in the last session that would have restricted a governor’s ability to appoint political donors to state boards or commissions. It died in the Senate, but the bill drew Abbott’s ire.

Said Larson of Abbott, “There’s a lot of mending that needs to take place.”

Bexar County Commissioner (Pct. 2)

The Democratic primary race seemed poised for a runoff. Commissioner Paul Elizondo, who has held the seat for 32 years, claimed just 45 percent of the vote. He was followed by Queta Rodriguez, Bexar County’s veterans service officer and a Marine veteran, with 30 percent of the vote.

Party chairs

Both of Bexar County’s political parties will have new chairs.

Following his unsuccessful mayoral run last spring, Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina lost his race for re-election to Monica Ramirez Alcantara, a political newcomer who won 67 percent of the vote and enjoyed the endorsement of several local Democratic officeholders who had clashed with Medina.

The GOP race will be decided in a May runoff between top vote-getter Cynthia Brehm, who pulled 45 percent of the vote, and Jo Ann Ponce Gonzalez, with 23 percent of the vote. Gonzalez edged out Dwight Parscale, the father of President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Brad Parscale. Stovall, the former Republican Party chairman, stepped down to pursue his Congressional campaign.

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Wendy Lane Cook

Wendy Lane Cook is the managing editor at the San Antonio Report. Contact her at wendy@sareport.org.