- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - A tea party leader is favored to become Texas’ lieutenant governor. A Ted Cruz-endorsed newcomer is inching closer to replacing Democrat Wendy Davis in the statehouse. On television, millions of dollars in attack ads have given established Republican incumbents all they can handle.

For all the talk of Texas growing competitive for Democrats in 2016 and beyond, GOP voters are poised to make a harder turn right on Tuesday.

Though the tea party has sputtered this year in elections around the country, Texas’ conservative insurgents are the front-runners in Republican primary runoffs for major statewide offices and positioned to bolster their ranks in the Legislature. Victories now and again in November would signal an aggressive new slate of Republican priorities - from tightened spending to expanded gun rights - after Gov. Rick Perry leaves office in January.

Of the four statewide GOP races, none have been nastier than state Sen. Dan Patrick trying to oust longtime Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst. Republicans are also nominating an attorney general to replace Greg Abbott, who faces Davis in the governor’s race, and candidates for nearly a dozen statehouse races.

“We’re supposed to be this very conservative state, and the people in Texas are, yet our Legislature doesn’t always reflect that,” said Republican Konnie Burton, a tea party leader running for Davis’ state senate seat in Fort Worth. “We are going in a different direction than many states, but I don’t think we’re the only ones. We’re probably just louder. We’re Texans, right?”

For Democrats, it’s a less lively runoff. Their main decision is choosing a U.S. Senate nominee to serve as token opposition to Republican John Cornyn, and Democrats have spent much of the primary trying to dissuade their voters from picking Kesha Rogers, who’s called for impeaching President Barack Obama and still forced a runoff against Dallas dental mogul David Alameel.

But most attention - and money - has been on the Republican ballot.

Dewhurst, who finished a distant second in March, has spent $5 million of his own fortune in trying to mount a comeback and shed accusations that he’s become too entrenched and moderate after 11 years in office. But Patrick, founder of the state Senate’s tea party caucus, has attracted more outside support - a $4 million haul in the last two months, impressive even by Texas’ political fundraising standards.

Candidates have wooed GOP voters by saying Texas can do more to expand gun rights, restrict access to abortions and tackle illegal immigration. Tea party-backed candidates have also admonished the Republican-controlled Legislature as financially reckless and vowed to slash economic incentives they deride as corporate welfare.

That troubles Bill Hammond, a Republican and president of the influential Texas Association of Business, who said he’s worried about Texas losing a competitive edge in luring companies and the GOP turning away Hispanic voters.

“It’s much more so this cycle than you have in the past. You’ve seen some very solid conservative candidates defeated in the Texas Republican primary, unfortunately,” Hammond said. “It’s absolutely a concern more and more for us.”

Unlike in 2010 and 2012, tea party-backed candidates are dealing with a disappointing election year, particularly in congressional and U.S. Senate races. But Cruz, who rode the wave to Washington and bolstered Burton’s campaign with a rare endorsement, said Texas stands out with March’s primary results.

“I think Texans want principled leaders who will listen to the people,” Cruz said.

Even a GOP runoff for a seat on the State Board of Education has shades of tea party-versus-establishment. Pat Hardy, a 12-year incumbent on the solidly conservative board that has gained national attention over ideological battles over creationism and magnifying Christianity in history lessons, faces a challenge from Eric Mahroum that puzzles even her critics.

“She was a Texas Republican before being a Texas Republican was cool,” said Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network, a liberal-leaning watchdog. “She’s been pretty darn conservative. It’s sort of remarkable that’s where the division is these days.”

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