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Statewide elections, a redder South Texas and Beto-mania: the biggest Texas political stories to watch for in 2022 – The Texas Tribune

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Next year, every state official and every member of the Texas Legislature and Congress are up for election. That makes for a big year in Texas politics.

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2021 was an exhausting year in Texas politics.
A power grid failure that left millions of Texans without power. A Democratic quorum break in the Texas House over new voting restrictions. Four legislative sessions that pushed the state further to the right. And persistent fights over COVID-19 rules, namely mask and vaccine mandates.
Heading into 2022, voters will get the chance to register their opinions on how the state’s elected officials handled those events. All the major statewide officials are up for reelection, as is every member of the Legislature — a function of redistricting — and every congressperson per usual.
Unlike the last election cycle, there are not many races that are expected to be hard-fought in the general election, partly due to the GOP-led redistricting process that aimed to cement their majorities. But there will still be ample political action, with plenty of open seats due to lawmaker retirements and Republicans eager to get a stronger foothold in South Texas.
Here are the top five political stories we are watching for in 2022:
Democrats landed their strongest possible candidate to challenge Gov. Greg Abbott when Beto O’Rourke announced his campaign in November. But that does not mean the race will be easy, and O’Rourke enters 2022 with a lot to prove.
He spent the first weeks of his campaign visiting over two dozen counties, reviving the go-everywhere spirit that he became known for when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2018. And he got a solid start on fundraising, collecting $2 million in the first 24 hours of his candidacy.
But he is still facing an uphill battle against an incumbent with a massive warchest — $55 million as of June — and running in a national environment that does not favor Democrats. A Quinnipiac University survey released in early December — one of the few public polls conducted since he announced — found him trailing Abbott by 15 percentage points.
O’Rourke is hopeful that he can defy the odds by capitalizing on Texans’ dissatisfaction with Abbott’s efforts to prevent another power-grid disaster like the one the state experienced in February, which left hundreds of people dead. O’Rourke is also betting voters will turn against the incumbent over the state’s hard-right turn in 2021 when it came to abortion and guns.
Abbott, meanwhile, is focusing relentlessly on border security and trying to tie O’Rourke to President Joe Biden, who has abysmal poll numbers in Texas.
Both first have to get through their primaries in March. O’Rourke’s does not appear competitive, with his competitors including Joy Diaz, a former journalist from Austin, and Michael Cooper, a 2020 U.S. Senate candidate. Meanwhile, Abbott is facing a better-known lineup that includes former state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas and former Texas GOP Chair Allen West. Polling has suggested Abbott should not be concerned, but he spent 2021 uniquely attuned to his right flank and can be expected to be out for a decisive primary win.
Redistricting and fatigue after this year’s contentious marathon of special legislative sessions is fueling an exodus of state lawmakers in 2022. Five senators are not returning, and over two dozen representatives are not seeking reelection, either to their current seat or at all.
Plus, some House Republicans are facing crowded lineups of primary challengers — as many as four in some districts — portending even more freshmen on the way.
That means there will be a lot of fresh faces when lawmakers come back to Austin for their next regular session in January 2023. While the number of seats that could change party control in November is limited, there is high potential for Republicans to be succeeded by different kinds of Republicans and the same with Democrats.
Take for example the 31st Senate District — spanning the Panhandle and the Permian Basin — where Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, is not seeking reelection. He has been the closest thing to a Republican maverick in the Senate, butting heads with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick over some of his top priorities. But Patrick — as well as former President Donald Trump — have handpicked a successor to Seliger, Kevin Sparks, who would be much more of an ally to the lieutenant governor, even if he is from the same party as Seliger.
When it comes to Democrats, one major changeover could come in Senate District 27, where Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, is retiring. He has long stood out for his socially conservative views, regularly siding with Republicans in voting to restrict abortion. But many of the Democrats running to succeed Lucio appear to support abortion rights, meaning the seat could be held by a meaningfully different type of Democrat in 2023.
Republicans have made no secret that they want to gain new ground in predominantly Hispanic South Texas after Biden posted disappointing results there in 2020.
Abbott, who has focused on the Latino vote in his past campaigns, appears to be prioritizing the traditionally Democratic region in his effort to beat O’Rourke. And down ballot, the GOP has its sights set on a host of seats. They are especially emboldened after capturing a San Antonio-based state House seat in a November special election runoff and then the decision by state Rep. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, a longtime Democrat, to switch parties.
In 2022 congressional races, Republicans are most determined to flip the 15th District, whose Democratic incumbent, U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez of McAllen, decided to seek reelection elsewhere due to redistricting. The Republican who gave Gonzalez a surprisingly close race in 2020, Monica De La Cruz, is running again, and national Republicans have coalesced behind her. Meanwhile, Democrats are playing catch-up on finding their nominee after Gonzalez bailed on running again in the 15th District. The field includes education advocate Eliza Alvarado, previous 15th District candidate Ruben Ramirez and progressive businesswoman Michelle Vallejo.
In state legislative contests, Republicans can be expected to vie for Senate District 27, where Lucio is retiring and redistricting made the seat a little less blue. Republicans also used redistricting to create a new battleground Texas House seat in the Rio Grande Valley that will likely be hotly contested.
Republicans are also gunning for South Texas even further down the ballot. One GOP group, Project Red Texas, spent the weeks before the Dec. 13 filing deadline crisscrossing the region and finding Republicans to run for county offices, offering to pay their filing fees.
Embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton has attracted a lineup of challengers from his own party in what is poised to be the most dramatic statewide primary. His primary opponents include Land Commissioner George P. Bush, former Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler.
They have been drawn to the race by Paxton’s legal problems, which include a 2015 securities fraud indictment that he is still fighting and an FBI investigation into claims by former deputies that he abused his office to help a wealthy donor. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
Paxton has the endorsement of Trump, but his GOP opponents are undeterred.
All of them say he lacks the integrity to be the state’s top law enforcement officer and could jeopardize the office for Republicans in November. Meanwhile, they are trying to differentiate themselves as challengers, with Guzman, for example, arguing she has more legal experience than anyone else.
But the biggest developments around Paxton in 2022 could be in the legal arena. Will his securities fraud case finally go to trial, or at least get closer to trial? Could he get indicted over the FBI matter? Gohmert in particular has been warning that Republicans cannot replace Paxton on the general-election ballot if he gets indicted after winning the primary.
Five Democrats are vying to take on whoever emerges from the GOP primary.
Over the past two years, major external events rocked Texas politics, namely the coronavirus pandemic and the power-grid failure. They forced state leaders to make tough decisions and enmeshed them in tricky new political territory.
Look no further than Abbott, whose approval rating began declining after the arrival of the pandemic.
What, if any, external events could shake up Texas politics in 2022?
Despite Abbott’s insistence that the grid is ready for the winter, what if it collapses again? That would amount to a political calamity for Abbott, and the attack ads would write themselves.
How hard will the latest COVID-19 surge, fueled by the omicron variant, hit Texas? As case numbers pile up, Abbott could be back in a familiar position: stuck between Democrats who want to see more aggressive statewide action to combat the virus — or at least a restoration of local control — and some fellow Republicans who believe Abbott should act as if the pandemic is effectively over. So far, with omicron bearing down on Texas, Abbott has sided more with the latter group.
Other external events could come from the courts, which are currently weighing a bevy of challenges to the red-meat laws that the Legislature produced earlier this year. Those laws include Texas’ near-total abortion ban, which the U.S. Supreme Court sent back to a federal appeals court earlier this month.
The courts could also deliver a dramatic twist to the 2022 election by striking down all or part of Texas’ new political maps. Such a ruling could push back the primary and reopen the filing period, scrambling countless competitive races.
Then there is always the lingering prospect of another special legislative session. Dozens of Republican state lawmakers have said another special session is needed to codify Abbott’s executive order banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates by any entity, though the governor so far has not appeared inclined to oblige them.
Perhaps it goes without saying — but producing quality journalism isn’t cheap. At a time when newsroom resources and revenue across the country are declining, The Texas Tribune remains committed to sustaining our mission: creating a more engaged and informed Texas with every story we cover, every event we convene and every newsletter we send. As a nonprofit newsroom, we rely on members to help keep our stories free and our events open to the public. Do you value our journalism? Show us with your support.
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Austin Local News

Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

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Remember last year’s Memorial Day travel jams? Chances are they will be much worse this year

The patience of Memorial Day weekend travelers was tested Thursday by widespread delays across the country, but there were relatively few canceled flights, raising hopes that airlines can handle bigger crowds expected Friday.

By early evening on the East Coast, more than 6,000 flights had been delayed Thursday, with the biggest backups at the three major airports in the New York City area and Dallas-Fort Worth International.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

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Pasha Pidlubniak waits for a domestic flight at Miami International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Miami. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

 

The Transportation Security Administration predicted that Friday will be the busiest day for air travel over the holiday weekend, with nearly 3 million people expected to pass through airport checkpoints. It could rival the record of 2.9 million, set on the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year.

“Airports are going to be more packed than we have seen in 20 years,” said Aixa Diaz, a spokesperson for AAA.

When they aren’t waiting out flight delays, travelers are reporting sticker shock at the prices.

At Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, Larisa Latimer of New Lenox, Illinois, said her airfare was reasonable but other expenses for a getaway to New Orleans were not.

 

 

 

 

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Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

Motorists travel along Interstate 24 near the Interstate 40 interchange Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to hit the pavement over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

“I just have to make the accommodation,” she said. “The rental car is up … this year, the hotel accommodations were very unusually expensive.”

Kathy Larko of Fort Meyers, Florida, used frequent-flyer miles — and some flexible scheduling — to pay for her trip to Chicago.

“I’m really conscious of looking at the cost of the entire trip. We’re staying a little farther out than we normally would” to get a lower hotel rate, she said. “We’re also flying back a day later, because we could get cheaper miles.”

More travelers will be on the road. AAA estimates that 43.8 million people will venture at least 50 miles (80 kilometers) from home between Thursday and Monday, with 38 million of them taking vehicles.

 
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Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Travelers wait at a TSA checkpoint at the Los Angeles International Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Los Angeles. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

 

Airport unions are using the holiday weekend to highlight their demands.

About 100 workers who clean airplane cabins and drive trash trucks at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, started a 24-hour strike Thursday, demanding better pay and healthcare, according to the Service Employees International Union. About 15% of flights were delayed, but it was unclear whether the strike played any role.

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A planned strike at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was averted, however. Teamsters Local 553, which represents about 300 workers who refuel passenger and cargo jets at JFK, said that it reached a settlement with Allied Aviation Services and called off a walkout planned for Friday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

George Ridley, 4, left, rides on a suitcase as he and his father Chris Ridley make their way through the Nashville international Airport, Thursday, May 23, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. A record number of Americans are expected to travel over the 2024 Memorial Day holiday. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

 

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“We are happy an agreement has been reached, a need for a strike averted, and we are hopeful that the deal will be ratified by our members,” said Demos Demopoulos, the secretary-treasurer of the local.

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Associated Press video journalist Melissa Perez Winder in Chicago and Associated Press radio reporter Shelley Adler in Washington contributed to this report.

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Austin Local News

Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

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Texas health department appoints anti-abortion OB-GYN to maternal mortality committee

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas’ health department has appointed an outspoken anti-abortion OB-GYN to a committee that reviews pregnancy-related deaths as doctors have been warning that the state’s restrictive abortion ban puts women’s lives at risk.

Dr. Ingrid Skop was among the new appointees to the Texas Maternal Morality and Morbidity Review Committee announced last week by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Her term starts June 1.

The committee, which compiles data on pregnancy-related deaths, makes recommendations to the Legislature on best practices and policy changes and is expected to assess the impact of abortion laws on maternal mortality.

Skop, who has worked as an OB-GYN for over three decades, is vice president and director of medical affairs for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion research group. Skop will be the committee’s rural representative.

Skop, who has worked in San Antonio for most of her career, told the Houston Chronicle that she has “often cared for women traveling long distances from rural Texas maternity deserts, including women suffering complications from abortions.”

Texas has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the U.S., and doctors have sought clarity on the state’s medical exemption, which allows an abortion to save a woman’s life or prevent the impairment of a major bodily function. Doctors have said the exemption is too vague, making it difficult to offer life-saving care for fear of repercussions. A doctor convicted of providing an illegal abortion in Texas can face up to 99 years in prison and a $100,000 fine and lose their medical license.

Skop has said medical associations are not giving doctors the proper guidance on the matter. She has also shared more controversial views, saying during a congressional hearing in 2021 that rape or incest victims as young as 9 or 10 could carry pregnancies to term.

Texas’ abortion ban has no exemption for cases of rape or incest.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which says abortion is “inherently tied to maternal health,” said in a statement that members of the Texas committee should be “unbiased, free of conflicts of interest and focused on the appropriate standards of care.” The organization noted that bias against abortion has already led to “compromised” analyses, citing a research articles co-authored by Skop and others affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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Earlier this year a medical journal retracted studies supported by the Charlotte Lozier Institute claiming to show harms of the abortion pill mifepristone, citing conflicts of interests by the authors and flaws in their research. Two of the studies were cited in a pivotal Texas court ruling that has threatened access to the drug.

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

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Michigan farmworker diagnosed with bird flu, becoming 2nd US case tied to dairy cows

A Michigan dairy worker has been diagnosed with bird flu — the second human case associated with an outbreak in U.S. dairy cows.

The male worker had been in contact with cows at a farm with infected animals. He experienced mild eye symptoms and has recovered, U.S. and Michigan health officials said in announcing the case Wednesday.

A nasal swab from the person tested negative for the virus, but an eye swab tested Tuesday was positive for bird flu, “indicating an eye infection,” U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said.

The worker developed a “gritty feeling” in his eye earlier this month but it was a “very mild case,” said Dr. Natasha Bagdasarian, Michigan’s chief medical executive. He was not treated with oseltamivir, a medication advised for treating bird flu, she said.

The risk to the public remains low, but farmworkers exposed to infected animals are at higher risk, health officials said. They said those workers should be offered protective equipment, especially for their eyes.

Health officials say they do not know if the Michigan farmworker was wearing protective eyewear, but an investigation is continuing.

In late March, a farmworker in Texas was diagnosed in what officials called the first known instance globally of a person catching this version of bird flu from a mammal. That patient reported only eye inflammation and recovered.

Since 2020, a bird flu virus has been spreading among more animal species — including dogs, cats, skunks, bears and even seals and porpoises — in scores of countries.

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The detection in U.S. livestock earlier this year was an unexpected twist that sparked questions about food safety and whether it would start spreading among humans.

That hasn’t happened, although there’s been a steady increase of reported infections in cows. As of Wednesday, the virus had been confirmed in 51 dairy herds in nine states, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Fifteen of the herds were in Michigan.

The CDC’s Dr. Nirav Shah said the case was “not unexpected” and it’s possible more infections could be diagnosed in people who work around infected cows.

U.S. officials said they had tested 40 people since the first cow cases were discovered in late March. Michigan has tested 35 of them, Bagdasarian told The Associated Press in an interview.

Shah praised Michigan officials for actively monitoring farmworkers. He said health officials there have been sending daily text messages to workers exposed to infected cows asking about possible symptoms, and that the effort helped officials catch this infection. He said no other workers had reported symptoms.

That’s encouraging news, said Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota epidemiologist who has studied bird flu for decades. There’s no sign to date that the virus is causing flu-like illness or that it is spreading among people.

“If we had four or five people seriously ill with respiratory illness, we would be picking that up,” he said.

The virus has been found in high levels in the raw milk of infected cows, but government officials say pasteurized products sold in grocery stores are safe because heat treatment has been confirmed to kill the virus.

The new case marks the third time a person in the United States has been diagnosed with what’s known as Type A H5N1 virus. In 2022, a prison inmate in a work program picked it up while killing infected birds at a poultry farm in Montrose County, Colorado. His only symptom was fatigue, and he recovered. That predated the virus’s appearance in cows.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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