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Texas primary leaves tea party influence unsettled

Wednesday - 3/5/2014, 1:12pm  ET

Greg Abbott talks to supporters after winning the primary election Tuesday night, March 4, 2014 making him the Republican candidate for the general election. Abbott clinched the Republican nomination for governor and Democrat Wendy Davis locked up her party's selection, thereby making official a showdown poised to become a record-shattering arm's race of fundraising in a Texas gubernatorial election. (AP Photo/Daily Texan, Shelby Tauber)

Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- The first primary in what Republicans hope is a triumphant election year sent a message that U.S. Sen Ted Cruz and the tea party still wield considerable influence in one of the nation's most conservative states.

But to find out exactly how much, Texans will have to wait.

In a primary where an extraordinary number of statewide positions were up for grabs following Gov. Rick Perry's decision not to seek another term, some incumbent candidates successfully fought to beat back tea party challengers Tuesday. But several candidates who forced runoffs in May were either praised by the outspoken freshman senator, Cruz, or ran with his no-compromising swagger.

"In Texas, we will show the rest of the country what it means to be conservative," said GOP state Sen. Dan Patrick, who forced longtime Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst into a runoff, less than two years after Cruz beat Dewhurst in the Senate primary.

The primary was the first since Cruz barreled into the U.S. Senate in 2012 and yanked Republicans nationwide further right, and many watched results within Texas to see how strong his influence would be on the state's next generation of Republican leaders. Amid the Republican contests, however, is Wendy Davis, a rising star who has energized the state's Democratic base and is running for governor in November.

Davis, who catapulted to national political stardom last summer with a nearly 13-hour filibuster over abortion restrictions, vowed to topple two decades of GOP dominance in Texas. Though an underdog, she is the first female gubernatorial nominee in Texas since Ann Richards in 1994.

"I will be for all freedoms. Not just certain freedoms for certain people," Davis told supporters Tuesday night after formally securing the nomination, needling Republicans.

With Perry leaving the governor's mansion after 14 years, albeit mulling a second presidential run, Attorney General Greg Abbott coasted to the GOP nomination for the state's top job.

Warnings about Davis' star-making run for Texas governor dealt complacent conservatives a new reason to vote. So did a rare opportunity to select an entirely new stable of leaders.

Abbott, who only three weeks ago unapologetically campaigned with shock rocker Ted Nugent, never mentioned Davis in becoming the GOP's first new gubernatorial nominee other than Perry since George W. Bush in 1998.

"If you're looking for a way to get ahead, if you're looking for a way to succeed or elevate or advance yourself, then I'm your candidate," Abbott said.

Perry's decision to not seek re-election launched a stampede of 26 Republican candidates vying for six of Texas' top offices. Among them was George P. Bush, the 37-year-old nephew of former President George W. Bush and son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who easily won the nomination for land commissioner in his political debut.

Not all tea party upstarts prevailed: U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, two of the most powerful Texans in Washington, clobbered their longshot challengers. But others knocked out or were seriously threatening establishment Republicans in the statehouse, which in the past few years has already passed some of the most restrictive voter ID and abortion laws in the country.

Some candidates even started to mimic Cruz's unreserved style.

For Patrick, even some Republicans say he went too far this campaign by bemoaning an "invasion" of immigrants crossing into Texas. Cruz never backed Patrick but did call Sen. Ken Paxton, who's running for attorney general, a fighter against "Obamacare, voter ID and religious liberty." Paxton is now in a runoff.

Although Cruz made few public endorsements, among them was for Republican Konni Burton, who is running for Davis' state Senate seat and has followed Cruz's lead on various social issues.

Texas candidates willingly went along with Cruz and craved his endorsement.

But he was picky: Cornyn didn't even get the support of his fellow Texas senator, though he still routed Congressman Steve Stockman, who ran a bizarre campaign.

"I say they are not going far right enough," said Marlin Robinson, 56, after casting his primary ballot in Houston. "They need to go farther right as far as I'm concerned because I'm tired of this liberal crap that's running this country."

With Abbott and Davis advancing to the November ballot, the showdown is poised to become a record-shattering arm's race of fundraising in a Texas gubernatorial election.

Democrats set on breaking the nation's longest losing streak in races for statewide office, meanwhile, hoped a charismatic headliner in Davis would turn out long-dormant voters.

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