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AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – Texas is holding the nation's first primary election Tuesday with a political free-for-all in Republican races that could push the state further right, though Democrats are calling it the next big battleground on the electoral map.
Republican Gov. Rick Perry has decided this would be his last of a record 14 years in office, and his looming exit has set off a scramble resulting in the most open races in Texas in more than a decade.
DID TED CRUZ BLAZE A TRAIL FOR OTHER TEA PARTY CONSERVATIVES?
Tea party conservatives claimed important gains in the last two elections in Texas, most notably Ted Cruz's defeat of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in their U.S. Senate race in 2012. More than a dozen tea party politicians are using Cruz's underdog tactics in races up and down the ballot hoping to oust more established Republican officeholders, chief among them Dewhurst and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. For more evidence of the tea party's post-Cruz power, watch the Texas attorney general's race and the battle between U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions and Katrina Pierson in the 32nd Congressional District.
Republicans are favored to win them all come November — including Perry's seat, despite Democrat Wendy Davis building a national profile and an early $16 million fundraising haul to match. She has energized Texas Democrats, who haven't won a statewide race in 20 years but insist the tide is turning.
But that possibility, and the rising influence of tea party firebrand U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, has Texas Republicans flanking farther right this primary season. Some blasted an "invasion" of immigrants coming across the border, doubled down on the state's gay marriage ban that was recently ruled unconstitutional, and pledged to further tighten abortion laws that already rank among the strictest in the nation.
And, a new member of the Bush dynasty is on the ballot: George P. Bush, the nephew of former President George W. Bush and son of former Gov. Jeb Bush, is making his political debut by running for land commissioner. On the eve of Tuesday's primary, the younger Bush — who is widely considered a future Texas GOP leader — told voters the biggest opponent this year was President Barack Obama.
"This is a call to look out for the next generation of Texans," he said at a campaign stop in El Paso on Monday. "I want to continue to fight the good fight."
But a frigid forecast could leave voters with a dangerous drive to the polls. Polling locations around Austin are opening on a four-hour delay Tuesday because of expected icy conditions, and state elections officials are urging counties to plan for alternatives in case some sites can't open.
Six of Texas' top offices lack an incumbent; the last time Texas had so many open statewide seats was 2002, when Perry won his first full term. And while Democrats are running mostly unopposed in their primaries, crowded fields in the Republican races for attorney general, comptroller and commissioners for agriculture and railroads make May 27 runoffs likely.
But Davis' bid for governor headlines a roster of underdog Democrats girding instead for the Nov. 4 general election.
That's the only day that matters to Davis and her Republican opponent, Attorney General Greg Abbott, in the year's marquee showdown. Neither has a competitive primary, leaving Davis poised to become the first female gubernatorial nominee in Texas since Ann Richards in 1994, and Abbott the first new GOP nominee since Perry.
Unlike Davis and Abbott, few other Texas candidates have the luxury of uneventful primaries.
Almost all are on the Republican side, where candidates have wooed voters with vows to emulate Cruz's no-compromise style. Even U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, two of the state's most powerful Republicans, have spent money campaigning against longshot challengers who say the incumbents have grown too moderate in Washington.
But changes are far more likely in Austin. Republican Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who lost to Cruz in the U.S. Senate race in 2012, appears headed for his first runoff in 11 years on the job. That race has been the nastiest and most competitive this primary season.
"When there's a fair amount of negative out there it makes the electorate very unpredictable," said Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, one of four Republicans vying for the state's No. 2 job. "You couldn't accurately poll it — or you could, and that poll would be good for probably about four hours."
Illinois holds the nation's next primary March 18, followed by a flood of state primaries in May and June.