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The holiday break is over, and the first leg of the 2018 election cycle — the primary sprint — has begun.

Texas has the earliest primaries in the country, on March 6; everybody else gets to sleep late. (Louisiana gets to sleep the longest; that state’s all-comers primary election coincides with its general election on Nov. 6, with a December runoff for races where no candidate gets a majority in the first round.)

The early Texas primaries force some quick deadlines on candidates and campaigns. Early voting begins on Feb. 20 — just seven weeks from now and two weeks before Election Day.

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If you’ve been in and around politics, you already watched the prelude, in the form of a flood of emails and telephone appeals for political money that littered the holidays ahead of an end-of-year fundraising deadline. State candidates have to report the results — how much they raised, borrowed and spent, and how much cash they have on hand — by Jan. 15.

While their accountants are getting those reports together, the candidates are trying to get the word out. Their first step of filing for office passed last month, and the lists of people who’ll be on the Republican and Democratic primary ballots are now complete (The Texas Tribune’s election brackets can be found here).

Ten Democrats filed for governor, for instance, and none of them are particularly well known across the state. They have just a few weeks to remedy that. With the exceptions of Attorney General Ken Paxton and Comptroller Glenn Hegar, every statewide elected official in the executive branch drew a Republican primary opponent. They might or might not be threatened by that, but it will keep them busy for a couple of months.

A large number of seats in the state’s congressional delegation will be open, with eight current officeholders retiring. Those free-for-alls, along with a few districts where incumbents in Congress could be politically vulnerable, attracted a herd of candidates. An example: In the 21st Congressional District, where Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, is stepping down, 18 Republicans and four Democrats are running to replace him.

Nearly everybody in the Texas Senate up for re-election wants to return. Van Taylor, R-Plano, is leaving that gig to run for Congress. At least three of those incumbents — Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo — have serious primary challengers.

Those three races — contests between social conservatives and establishment Republicans, or some variations of that GOP duality — will be mirrored in a number of races for the Texas House, where primaries and the general election will run alongside a subterranean contest for speaker of the House. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is giving up that post and his seat in the House at the end of the current term. After 10 years with the same speaker, there’s some pent-up ambition at play; any number of members are seriously considering a run, and everyone’s political viability depends on who is in the House when the 2019 legislative session begins a year from now.

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For those candidates — and for anyone who’ll have to deal with the new speaker — the 2018 elections are, in part, about electing the people who’ll elect the speaker.

Control that electorate, control that election.

It’s unlikely that the House will change enough to swing hard in any particular direction, but people will try. And enough wins for any faction will have an influence on the survivors, who will be looking to the 2018 election results — primary and general — for signs of what Texas voters really want from the state Legislature.

Statehouse politics won’t be the only signal they get; it probably won’t be the most important one. Voters are likely to weigh in, one way or another, on President Trump, on the recovery from Hurricane Harvey, on state and local issues from property taxes to bathrooms, and on whatever is grabbing public attention when the voting actually takes place.

It’ll be a short wait.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • 2017 was the year when House Speaker Joe Straus found his voice, when the culture conservatives lost out to the business conservatives and when the fault lines that define today’s Texas GOP opened up for everyone to see. [Full story]

  • Some of the political kids in Texas wanted a quick ruling on redistricting for Christmas, a perennial request that never seems to be granted. With just two Texas elections left in the decade, the courts are still arguing over the state's maps. [Full story]

  • The end of the year is when property owners have to pay their taxes — an increasingly large bill in Texas that’s a key part of the state’s rickety school finance system. Here’s a sampling of columns tracking that debate in 2017. [Full story]

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