The Republican primary in the Texas House largely appears to be ending with little drama and few incumbents in trouble — a departure from the dramatics that historically have accompanied such contests.
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There are two notable exceptions, though: state Reps. J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville and Dan Flynn of Canton, who are both locked in three-way races featuring challenges from their right — and are at real risk of being forced into runoffs. While the two have fended off similar attacks before, they now stand out as perhaps the most vulnerable House Republicans days out from the primary.
Sheffield, who is vying for a fifth term, is up against self-funding businessman Cody Johnson and lawyer Shelby Slawson, both from Stephenville. And Flynn, who is battling for a 10th term, faces Bryan Slaton, a businessman who is running for a third time after almost beating Flynn in 2018, and Dwayne “Doc” Collins, founder and chairman of the Edom Tea Party.
Beyond those races, the state House primary season has been relatively calm as both parties look to November, when Democrats are working to capture the majority. On top of that, the hardline conservative wing of the GOP has curiously changed its approach to primaries, with its allied donors focusing on a select few candidates instead of funneling millions to groups like Empower Texans and Texas Right to Life.
This time, those donors have largely targeted their largesse to just three candidates: Slaton and open-seat contenders Jeff Cason and Jon Francis. Both Slaton and Cason, who is running to replace retiring Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, have each received $150,000 in donations from Tim Dunn and then Jo Ann and Farris Wilks. Francis, who is the Wilkses’ son-in-law, has received $650,000 from them.
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Some political observers have speculated that the change in approach from donors like Dunn and the Wilkses was prompted by the sizable losses their crowd saw during the 2018 primary. Others, though, point to the apparent moderation of the state House GOP after the 2018 elections — and question whether hardline conservatives even have motivation to play in races that do not pay off for them in the long run.
“Conservative Republican donors get criticized regardless of what they do,” said Luke Macias, a campaign consultant working with Slaton. “It has nothing to do with how the money gets to conservative Republicans. It has to do with the fact they are willing to challenge the status quo.”
Beyond Sheffield and Flynn, there are several other House Republicans who have legitimate primary challenges. State Rep. Briscoe Cain of Deer Park, a favorite of the hardline right, faces Baytown City Council member Robert Hoskins, who has endorsements from a slew of local elected officials. State Rep. Jared Patterson of Frisco is up against Marine Corps veteran James Trombley, who has gotten almost all his funding from conservative donor Darlene Pendery. Gov. Greg Abbott visited the districts of both Cain and Patterson this week to get out the vote for them.
House Democrats, too, have at least a few credible primary challenges on their hands, including one against state Rep. Harold Dutton of Houston. His three challengers include Houston City Council member Jerry Davis.
But with just a few days left until the primary, the Sheffield and Flynn primaries rise above the rest.
“Replacing the most liberal Republican in the Texas House”
Sheffield, a soft-spoken doctor from Gatesville, has been a perennial target of conservative activists since he first won his seat in 2012. He defeated his last primary challenger by 16 percentage points.
However, Sheffield faces a new kind of opponent this time in Johnson, who is pitching himself as a “true conservative outsider” in the mold of President Donald Trump. Declaring himself free from “special-interest money,” Johnson has largely self-funded his campaign to the tune of over $1 million.
“Good man, good doctor, just not a good representative,” Johnson said of Sheffield in an interview, noting that House District 59 is “not a metro purple district.”
A second primary challenger, Slawson, a Stephenville lawyer, is making a more strictly ideological case against Sheffield, targeting him over things like his vote against the controversial “Schaefer amendment” to the 2017 “sanctuary cities” ban. At a recent forum, Sheffield said he did not regret opposing the amendment, which allows police officers to question a person’s immigration status during a detainment.
Slawson is also attacking Sheffield as insufficiently supportive of Trump in a district where Trump won 77% of the vote in 2016. She has aired a TV spot that claims Sheffield has “never said a positive word about President Trump” on social media.
“For us out here in the heart of Central Texas, it’s about replacing the most liberal Republican in the Texas House with an authentic conservative representative,” Slawson said in an interview.
Slawson has the support of state Sen. Pat Fallon of Prosper, whose district overlaps with one of the biggest counties in HD-59, Erath. He formally backed her Thursday, saying he has never endorsed against a fellow Republican in the Legislature but that Slawson is a "rising conservative star who would be an incredible asset to the Texas House and our shared conservative cause."
Sheffield, a full-time physician who works for rural medical clinics, is defending himself as a practical advocate for small-town Texas who makes progress on Republican issues but defies the narrow definition of conservatism that he says his critics use.
“I’m not afraid to stand up for rural issues — and basic human issues — that don’t fit on a scorecard or have a powerful interest group,” Sheffield wrote in a recent mailer.
In recent weeks, the primary has turned particularly nasty between Johnson and Slawson. After the local sheriff’s office revealed a “state representative candidate campaign” had filed a public records request for a 2017 sexual assault complaint against Johnson, he blasted Slawson for trying to dredge up an unfounded accusation, comparing himself to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. A Johnson TV ad also says Slawson has been a “corrupt lawyer in California” and associates her with “drunk driving.” Slawson says she’s “never been in trouble in California” and acknowledges she had a DUI when she was 17 years old, calling it a “teenage girl’s mistake a quarter of a century ago.”
As for the public records request, in an interview, Slawson did not deny her campaign filed it as part of research on her opponents but insists she has never intended to make an issue out of it. She does not use Johnson's name, instead referring to him as "the third candidate."
The Johnson-Slawson dustup has taken some heat off Sheffield, who is airing a TV ad that prominently features his endorsement from Abbott. In both Sheffield’s primary and Flynn’s, though, the challengers are unswayed by the governor’s involvement, noting he has endorsed every House Republican for reelection — even moderate Houston-area Rep. Sarah Davis, whom Abbott tried to unseat last cycle.
“There’s been a change in [Abbott’s] policy this last session that our incumbent is benefiting from, but there hasn’t been a change in politics,” Slawson said at a recent forum in seeking to counter Sheffield’s Abbott endorsement.
“Is the district for sale?”
Flynn, like Sheffield, has long been criticized by the hard right, which has been unsuccessful in its efforts to oust him over the years. Slaton, who narrowly lost to Flynn in 2018, is hoping his third run at the seat finally pays off as he continues to champion hardline conservative items like “constitutional carry.” This year, though, Collins is also running for the seat — and there is not much daylight ideologically between him and Slaton.
Both challengers have criticized Flynn for not representing the conservative values of the district while legislating at the Capitol and not pushing certain party priorities, such as legislation that would ban local governments from using taxpayer dollars to pay for lobbyists. Collins told The Texas Tribune he backed Flynn for his first two terms in office, but that the lawmaker over time “had fallen off the conservative bandwagon.”
Flynn has dismissed such a notion, pointing to the legislation he has passed for constituents over the roughly 15 years he has been in office. Flynn has also not held back on attacking Slaton over the major money he has received from Dunn and the Wilkses, the conservative mega-donors, arguing that Slaton is effectively a puppet for groups like Empower Texans.
“This race comes down to only a few points,” Flynn said in a statement to the Tribune. “Is the district for sale? Can Empower Texans buy a seat? I have stood by my district before and I always will.”
Slaton said he does not buy Flynn’s argument that such donations are an attempt to own a seat in the Texas House — and, when asked about the criticism, likened smaller contributions Flynn has received from lobby groups as effectively the same thing.
“As far as I know, everyone gets money outside their district — even Mr. Flynn,” Slaton told the Tribune. “Are all the lobbyists and special interests in Austin that have given to his campaign trying to buy the district? I think he’s trying anything he can to hold on to the voters who are leaving him daily.”
In both the Sheffield and Flynn races, the winners March 3 will be considered shoo-ins to represent their districts when the Legislature reconvenes in 2021. No Democrat is running for the Sheffield seat, while one is on the ballot in the Flynn race. If no single candidate gets more than 50% of the vote on primary election day, the two candidates with the highest number of votes will head to a runoff in May.