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Texas primary tests strength of Tea Party Republicans

2:40 PM, Mar 4, 2014   |    comments
Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, participates in a mock swearing-in ceremony on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, in Washington.
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WASHINGTON (USA TODAY) -- Texas voters kick off the 2014 primary season Tuesday in Round 1 of races for Congress, governor and other statewide executive offices that will test the strength of the conservative Tea Party movement in one of the nation's reddest states.

Democrats, who haven't won a statewide race in two decades, are mostly watching the battles on the Republican side as they gear up for the governor's race in November. The last Texas polls close at 9 p.m. ET.

"This is a historically tumultuous election in Texas," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "There will be runoffs between business friendly, institutional Republicans and Tea Party Republicans ... that will highlight either the continued strength or the beginning of the weakness of the Tea Party in Texas."

Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 GOP leader in the U.S. Senate, is favored against Rep. Steve Stockman, a firebrand who has little money and angered a coalition of Tea Party groups who recently blasted him for his "missing in action" campaign.

In a U.S. House race, Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions - a former leader of the party's campaign committee - is facing Tea Party leader Katrina Pierson, who racked up key endorsements for the Dallas-area congressional seat but has been underfunded.

But Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who is not on the ballot Tuesday, may still have the broadest impact on the election. His decision to leave office after a record 14 years as governor has set off a free-for-all for statewide offices including governor, attorney general and comptroller

The Texas primary will also mark the first time George P. Bush - the fourth generation of one of the nation's enduring political dynasties - will be on a ballot. Bush, the son of a former Florida governor and the grandson and nephew of two presidents, is expected to easily win the Republican nomination for Texas land commissioner. The office is widely considered to be Bush's stepping stone to statewide political office.

GOVERNOR, STATEWIDE POSTS UP FOR GRABS

In a sign of what's to come in November, Republican Greg Abbott and Democrat Wendy Davis are expected to easily win their parties' nominations for governor. Abbott, whose bid for higher office sets up a scramble for his current job as attorney general, has socked away nearly $30 million for the fall. Davis, who became a national sensation with her filibuster last year of an abortion bill, has a little more than $11 million.

No Democrat has won the governor's race since 1990, but Texas Democrats are mobilizing behind Davis and registering voters in a bid to capitalize on the Lone Star state's changing demographics. Political experts say Davis' quest is a long shot and it could be years before Democrats can be truly competitive in statewide races.

"Winning the Texas Republican primary is tantamount to winning the general election at the statewide level," said Mark Jones, chairman of the political science department at Rice University in Houston. "In Texas, it's extremely unlikely anybody who wins a Republican primary will not be elected in the fall due to the strong Republican advantage in the state combined with straight-ticket voting."

BATTLE IN CONGRESS

In the Senate race, the question is what will be Cornyn's margin of victory. The Republican, who is running for a third term, is expected to easily vanquish Stockman, who surprised many in December with his last-minute decision to challenge the Senate minority whip.

Stockman has refused to appear at campaign events and answer questions from voters, which prompted a coalition of Tea Party groups to endorse Dwayne Stovall, another GOP candidate in the Senate primary. On the Democratic side, businessman David Alameel is expected to defeat four rivals for the party's nomination.

The other notable primary for Congress in the state is about seniority.

GOP Rep. Ralph Hall, the oldest member of Congress at the age of 90, is being challenged by five Republicans in the 4th Congressional District based in Texarkana and Rockwall. Hall, who has vowed this would be his last campaign, has said he expects to be in the May 27 runoff with John Ratcliffe, a former U.S. attorney who has made Hall's age and 17-term tenure an issue.

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