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Eyes on GOP as Texas holds nation’s 1st primary

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FILE – In this Nov. 4, 2013 file photo, Republican candidate for governor, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott smiles as he responds to a reporter’s questions during a news conference in Dallas. In the nation’s first primary of the season, Texas politicians scramble to fill a void left by an extraordinary shakeup in state offices. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

FILE – In this Nov. 4, 2013 file photo, Republican candidate for governor, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott smiles as he responds to a reporter’s questions during a news conference in Dallas. In the nation’s first primary of the season, Texas politicians scramble to fill a void left by an extraordinary shakeup in state offices. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez, File)

FILE – In this Oct. 3, 2013 file photo, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, smiles as she addresses supporters at a rally in Haltom City, Texas, where she declared her candidacy for Texas governor. In the nation’s first primary of the season, Texas politicians scramble to fill a void left by an extraordinary shakeup in state offices. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

George P. Bush makes a campaign stop in El Paso, Texas, on Monday, March 3, 2014. In the nation’s first primary of the season, Texas politicians scramble to fill a void left by an extraordinary shakeup in state offices. Bush, the nephew of one former president, grandson of another and son of an ex-Florida governor is expected to officially join the family business of winning elections when he secures the Republican land commissioner nomination during Tuesday’s Texas primary. (AP Photo/ Juan Carlos Llorca)

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott and Republican candidate for governor, speaks to a crowd gathered at a local restaurant Friday, Feb. 28, 2014, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald, Rod Aydelotte)

FILE – In this Jan. 9, 2014 file photo, Texas Sen. Wendy Davis smiles as she heads to speak to reporters after an education roundtable meeting in Arlington, Texas. Davis is expected to face Republican Greg Abbott in the Texas governor’s race. Battleground Texas, a major Democratic effort aimed at turning one of the reddest states blue, will face its first test in the Democratic primary on March 4. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

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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.

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

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