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Roughly halfway through primary season, runoffs in Texas are testing 2 prominent Republicans

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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The 2024 primary season is roughly halfway over and there have been few shakeups so far, with just one U.S. House member defeated and incumbents widely prevailing in state Capitols.

But the runoffs in Texas on Tuesday are a test for two prominent Republicans: U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, who has broken ranks over guns and the border, and powerful state House Speaker Dade Phelan, who angered the party’s hard right over the impeachment of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The fights to save their jobs have laid bare the risks of dissent in the GOP and pushed both to swing back in races that have erupted into bitter and costly battles. A Gonzales loss, his supporters warn, would give Democrats an opening to flip a traditionally moderate district in November, while a change in Texas House leadership could push the state’s policymaking even more to the right.

“You’ve got to be a brawler,” said Bill Miller, a longtime Republican strategist in Texas. “It’s expected. If you aren’t willing to do that, you are an outcast.”

Other Texas runoffs also are drawing attention.

Katrina Pierson, a former spokeswoman for Donald Trump, is on the ballot for a state House seat near Dallas. GOP voters also are picking a challenger to Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, who was indicted this month on conspiracy and bribery charges. Cuellar has said he is innocent.

Primaries have knocked out only one House member so far this year: Republican Rep. Jerry Carl of Alabama, who lost in an unusual primary to another incumbent, Rep. Barry Moore, after the state was forced to redraw congressional districts.

Gonzales, who carried 45% of the vote after drawing five challengers in March, has been tested in the primaries like few of his fellow Republicans. He faces Brandon Herrera, a gun-rights YouTube creator who calls himself “The AK Guy” in the district where the Uvalde school shooting happened in 2022.

“The state party of Texas has moved very far to the right, even farther than where the Republicans in D.C. are right now,” said Brian Smith, a political science professor at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. He called the squabbles within the Texas GOP “a fight for the soul of the party.”

Gonzales has the backing of party heavyweights including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson and has shrugged off a rare admonishment last year from the state party. The censure followed votes he cast in favor of same-sex marriage protections at the federal level and a bipartisan gun safety bill after the Uvalde school massacre.

“My voting record is very strong on the Constitution,” the 20-year Navy veteran said in April. “I swore an oath to the Constitution at 18 years old. And I’ve never stopped doing that. … We can protect the Constitution and we can protect our kids. It does not have to be either/or.”

Herrera has taunted Gonzales on social media and called his campaign “desperate.”

“It’s funny that 3 months ago I was ‘just a YouTuber’ and ‘not a serious candidate,’” Herrera posted on X, noting Johnson attended a fundraiser for Gonzales. “When your enemies are circling the wagons, it’s usually not a sign they’re winning.”

On the state level, Phelan’s two sessions leading the chamber would typically be considered a bonanza for conservatives.

Since 2021, Texas has passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country, supported Abbott’s headline-making anti-immigration measures, banned gender-affirming medical care for minors and eliminated diversity, equity and inclusion programs in higher education.

But like Gonzales, Phelan also was censured by the state party for a “lack of fidelity to Republican principles and priorities.” Hardline Republicans have targeted him since the House voted last year to impeach Paxton, setting up a Senate trial ending in Paxton’s acquittal.

Paxton led a primary push to oust Phelan, who finished a close second to oil and gas consultant David Covey. That leaves Phelan with an uphill climb to win the nomination, with a loss upending party leadership in the state Capitol.

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