AUSTIN, Texas – 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 electoral battleground.
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.
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.
"If people don't start supporting the Democratic Party and voting as a Democrat, instead of being a Democrat voting in the Republican primary, then we're never going to win races and we're never going to establish ourselves as a serious party here," said Janet Veal, 43, a Texas Tech student adviser who cast a Democratic ballot in Lubbock.
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 have blasted an "invasion" of immigrants coming across the Texas border, where immigration arrests have almost tripled in recent years but remain at about one-third of their historic highs. Others pledged to further tighten some of the nation's strictest abortion laws and doubled down on the state's gay marriage ban – one of several state bans recently ruled unconstitutional by federal courts.
"I think we need to bolster the border security and get tougher on immigration," 38-year-old conservative Republican Glendon Paulk said after voting in Lubbock. "I'm all for people who come over here legally but the illegal immigrants, it doesn't make sense for them to get a break while we're working and having to pay taxes."
A new member of the Bush dynasty was on the ballot Tuesday: 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 is President Barack Obama.
"This is a call to look out for the next generation of Texans," he said at a Monday campaign stop in El Paso. "I want to continue to fight the good fight."
Frigid weather greeted some voters with a dangerous drive to the polls, and locations around Austin opened on a four-hour delay because of icy conditions.
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. 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 runoffs likely.
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.
Beverly Hanson was among a handful of voters who voted at a Houston elementary school on a cold, rainy day. She said women's issues are a key component in the election.
"And that means Wendy Davis," the 68-year-old retired teacher said, later explaining, "She's not one of the old boys. In Texas, we have for so many years had the old boys in office."
Hanson said Davis has an uphill battle against Abbott but believes the attorney general erred by campaigning with shock rocker Ted Nugent, who called Obama a "subhuman mongrel," a comment for which he apologized.
"It just an example of Republicans having a narrow perspective of what Texas is," Hanson said, adding, "It will be a fight."
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.
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 for the state's No. 2 job, which doubles as the state Senate president and exerts considerably more influence than elsewhere in setting the legislative agenda. The race has been the nastiest and most competitive this primary season.
Illinois holds the nation's next primary March 18, followed by a flood of state primaries in May and June.
Associated Press writers Will Weissert in Austin, Juan Carlos Llorca in El Paso, Betsy Blaney in Lubbock and Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston contributed to this report.