AUSTIN -- - An all-time record of 13.64 million Texans have registered to vote this year, and they will start casting early ballots Monday.
At government offices, libraries, grocery stores and even Mason's lodges across the state, election workers will wait patiently for people to cast their ballots until Nov. 2. Voters carrying their registration cards will not have to show a photo ID.
When it comes to the races for president and U.S. senator, polling says Republicans Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz are likely to win in Texas. But in hundreds of other races, a handful of voters could decide some important contests. A key question will be how many people vote a straight one-party ticket, or pick and choose their candidates.
Democratic state Rep. Pete Gallego is trying to take back the 23th Congressional District from Republican incumbent Quico Canseco. Turnout will decide the race to represent the sprawling district from San Antonio to El Paso.
Former U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, a Democrat, is putting on a stronger than expected challenge to Republican state Sen. Randy Weber to replace the retiring Congressman Ron Paul. In a largely redrawn district that now includes Galveston and Beaumont, Lampson has $422,000 cash on hand to Weber's $55,000.
Lampson also has name recognition from when he represented much of the district from 2007-2009. But he faces an uphill battle, since the district has a history of voting Republican in presidential elections. The result could hinge on how many people turn out to vote in spirited races for sheriff and state representative in Galveston County.
Tarrant County officials expect a big turnout in the race between Democrat state Sen. Wendy Davis and Republican state Rep. Mark Shelton. Senate District 10 is another one of the few places where a member of either party can win.
The Davis-Shelton race pits one of the Democratic Party's rising stars against a tea party conservative for control of a critical vote in the Texas Senate. Republicans are two seats away from a supermajority in the chamber, which would allow them to pass almost any bill they wished.
Shelton has done his best to paint Davis as a liberal lawyer and has filed ethics complaints against her. Davis has called Shelton out-of-step with the district, and a tool for conservative Republicans who want to push her out of politics.
Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group in Texas, and with Anglos now less than 50 percent of the state's population, Republican leaders have made recruiting Hispanics a top priority. Studies show that Texas Hispanics are more conservative than in other states, but they also turn out less at election time.
Democrats just as fiercely want to hold on to their advantage among Hispanic voters. In June, the party elected its first Hispanic chairman, Gilberto Hinojosa.
Republicans hope to make inroads in majority-Hispanic districts in South Texas. Republican state Rep. Raul Torres is doing his best to defeat veteran state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat.
Conservative-backers have also invested a large amount of money in state Rep. J.M. Lozano's re-election bid as a Republican. He defected from the Democratic Party in March and now faces former state Rep. Yvonne Gonzalez Toureilles.
One key metric leaders of both party will watch is the number of straight-ticket voters, particularly Democrats. As much as 70 percent of Texans check either the Republican or Democrat box on their ballot and call it a day, and Republican voters do it more often.
If Democrats want a chance to win a statewide office, something they haven't done since 1994, they need to convince voters to start looking at each race individually. Victories in swing districts during a presidential year would be an important first step.
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