Status of the Races–and a Contest
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This is going to be a long post that covers all of the statewide races, the major legislative races, and any other race that could be interesting. I’m going to start with races for the state House of Representatives, because this is where the action is in this election cycle, the one area where Democrats are competitive–in selected areas, that is. Then I’ll do the statewides and the few congressional races that are worth commenting on.
I would also like to invite readers to submit their comments about races they have opinions — hopefully educated ones — about.
And I’m going to offer a free subscription to TEXAS MONTHLY for the best election analyst. Two runners-up will get honorable mentions. Here are the questions. Please e-mail your answers to [email protected] with your real name and contact information:
1. In 1853, Elish Pease won the governship of Texas with 36.67% of the vote. Will Rick Perry do better or worse than Pease?
2. What percentage of the vote, in round numbers, will each of the four leading contenders for governor receive?
3. The partisan division of the Texas House of Representatives is currently 86 Republicans and 64 Democrats. What will the partisan division be when the 80th Legislature is sworn in come January?
4. How many statewide offices will Democrats win and what races will they win?
5. What percentage of the vote, in round numbers, will Henry Bonilla receive in the 23rd congressional district election?
6. Who will win the race between Nick Lampson and Shelley Sekula-Gibbs in the 22nd congressional district and what will the spread be, in round numbers?
7. After Kay Bailey Hutchison, what Republican candidate will receive the most votes statewide?
8. Which race for the state House of Representives will have the smallest margin of victory?
9. Which statewide race will produce the best showing for the Libertarian candidate?
10. Other than Rick Perry, which Republican statewide candidate (NOT counting judicial candidates) will have the lowest percentage of the vote?
The statewide ballot is available on the Secretary of State’s Web site: http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/voter/whatisontheballot.shtml
The House of Representatives
In the past week, Republicans concerned about tightening House races have poured huge sums of money from the usual suspects–James Leininger, Bob Perry, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, Tom Craddick–into House races. Democrats don’t have the same level of resources available, but they have been able to answer in some districts. Trying to predict how these races will come out is very difficult. The fog of war shrouds what is really happening. Polling is expensive, and money is often better spent on mail. The best indicator is when one party or the other rushes late money into a district; that is surely an indication that a race is close enough that party strategists see a chance to win a seat, or are worried about losing one. What is done with late money is rarely restrained by truth or scruple.
In September, Democrats were optimistic about picking up 4 to 7 seats. Republicans acknowledged that they were likely to lose at least a couple of seats. My best guess–and it’s just a guess–is that the swing will be in the range of Democrats picking up two seats to Republicans picking up two seats. Here is my list of seats that are in play for each party (10 D, 5 R), from most to least vulnerable, based on conversations with consultants and street talk in Austin. Many candidates have Web sites, for which links are available in “Election 2006,” a compilation of all the federal and state races that may be accessed through the icon in the right-hand column on the main page of this blog.
Vulnerable Democratic Seats
Pete Laney, Hale Center (open seat). This West Texas district is bright red , and the Republican candidate, Jim Landtroop, ought to win. His endorsement by the Plainview paper was a significant event. But Landtroop is a doctrinnaire conservative, and Laney has campaigned vigorously for Democrat Joe Heflin, forcing Rs to pump late money into the district. Democrats had all but conceded this race early this week, taking solace that their expenditure of $50,000 had forced the Rs to spend half a million bucks to win a race that should have been easy. As of Friday, they thought Heflin still had a chance. Republican favored.
Robby Cook, Eagle Lake. Once upon a time rural conservative Democrats like Robby Cook ran the House. Now Cook is one of a handful of survivors known as WD-40s (white Democrats of middle age). Republican Tim Kleinschmidt struck a clever note in this district situated an hour’s drive west of Houston by using humorous cartoons of animals to criticize Cook for supporting a bill that farmers and ranchers resent; it requires them to tag their livestock in order to help track the spread of disease. Cook may be responsible for some of his own problems; one Democrat told me, “He has spent an awful lot of time in the Starbucks on Fifteenth Street” [near the Capitol in Austin]. Leans Republican.
Carlos Uresti, San Antonio (open seat). Uresti, of course, is headed for the state Senate. The Republicans have the better candidate to succeed him and have a chance to steal a seat in Democratic territory. George Antuna, a former staffer for both Kay Bailey Hutchison and Rick Perry, won the endorsement of the Express-News against Democrat Joe Farias, a former Harlandale school board member. Farias has run a lackluster campaign and Democratic hopes rest on a big turnout generated by the race for the 23rd congressional district, in which Republican Henry Bonilla is the incumbent, and Uresti’s Senate race. This week, the Express-News scolded Antuna for a “mudslinging” mailer that took language in a news story in the paper out of context to accuse Farias of improper conduct. But its endorsement did not change. Tossup.
Hubert Vo, Houston. Two years ago Vo stunned the political crowd by upsetting House Appropriations chairman Talmadge Heflin by a handful of votes in a race that was not decided until Heflin gave up an election challenge. Heflin had run a complacent race, notwithstanding adverse publicity about his attempt to adopt his maid’s child. This time, however, it is Vo and the Democrats who appear to have been bitten by the complacency bug, and Republicans are trying to take advantage. A victory by Heflin, who was the speaker Craddick’s chief enforcer in 2003, would create the possibility that Craddick would give him back his chairmanship, a prospect that dismays members from both parties, since Heflin’s successor, Jim Pitts, is as popular as Heflin was unpopular. Dirty tricks abound in this race, including a phony automated call featuring an effiminate male voice inviting voters to join in a gay and lesbian block walk for Vo. Tossup.
Chuck Hopson, Jacksonville. Another of the endangered WD-40s, Hopson represents a district that voted 71% for Bush in 04; nevertheless Hopson, a pharmacist who is well liked in Austin and back home, won with 52+% of the vote. He faces former Jacksonville mayor Larry Durrett, whose campaign Web site emphasizes his opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Hopson won the endorsement of Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Tossup.
Yvonne Gonzalez-Toureilles, Alice. She barely won her first race, in 2004, by around 800 votes; for awhile, it seemed to be headed for an election contest. The Republicans have directed big money to challenger Michael Esparza in a district that Bush carried with 59% of the vote in 2004; more significantly, the district voted Republican in a contested Supreme Court race between largely unknown candidates. Tossup.
Jim McReynolds, Lufkin. If the Democrats were still in control of the House, he would be an important committee chairman, but those days are irretrievably gone, and he has had to settle for being an effective member of the opposition. McReynolds is a prime target of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, and his opponent, Jody Anderson, got some early momentum by accusing him of not living in the district. But Republicans are increasingly pessimistic about their chances of defeating him. Leans Democrat.
Vilma Luna, Corpus Christi (open seat). Luna’s midsummer resignation from the House created a situation in which the precinct chairs in both parties were able to pick their nominees. Democrats chose Solomon Ortiz Jr., son of the area’s controversial congressman, after considerable political infighting, while Republicans nominated businessman Joe McComb. McComb came out swinging with a TV spot that refers to Ortiz as “my youthful opponent” and “Junior,” mentions “the same old puppetmasters,” and shows a vaguely Hispanic figure dancing as if on strings. Meanwhile, Ortiz has had to try to mend fences after a brusing battle for the nomination with Danny Noyola, whose supporters may defect to McComb. Bush carried the district with 54% of the vote, but Ortiz Sr. won by a 2-1 margin and Democratic candidates for railroad commissioner and Supreme Court won by narrow margins. I wouldn’t be surprised if McComb won, but the prevailing opinion is: Leans Democrat.
Mark Homer, Paris. This is a rematch of the 2004 race, in which Homer, yet another endangered WD-40, defeated Kirby Hollingsworth by only 214 votes. The closeness of that race was attributed to Homer’s failure to campaign vigorously, although Bush’s 68% margin in the district didn’t help. Lassitude has not been a problem this time. Curiously, Hollingsworth announces his opposition to Robin Hood on his Web site, even though, given the economic conditions in Northeast Texas, most of his school districts surely benefit from the share-the-wealth approach to school finance. Leans Democrat.
David Farabee, Wichita Falls. With Pete Laney’s retirement, Farabee is the only Anglo Democrat who represents a district situated west of Interstate 35 other than Joe Pickett in El Paso, which is a Democratic town. This race is another 2004 rematch, with Shirley Craft as the Republican challenger. Farabee won the first round, 53-47, while Bush was carrying the district with 72+% of the Republican vote. The assumption is that the Farabee name–his father, Ray, was a highly respected state senator and late mother, Helen, was a beloved community leader–still carries enough weight here to provide Farabee with a winning margin. Leans Democrat.
Vulnerable Republican Seats
Martha Wong, Houston. Even Republicans acknowledge that this race is gone. Wong is just too abrasive and made too many mistakes in the campaign, and her Democratic challenger, Ellen Cohen, has broad support and ample funding. Democrat Favored.
Gene Seaman, Corpus Christi. Democrats have tried to beat him before and failed, but they may have found the perfect candidate in Juan Garcia, a Robstown native who graduated from UCLA and Harvard law school and served as a naval aviator. Garcia has hammered Seaman for his pro-industry votes on the Insurance committee. The incumbent also has ethics problems: He used campaign funds to pay his wife rent on a condo she bought in Austin. Seaman is a backbencher in Austin, but at 76, he remains a vigorous campaigner, and the district voted not only for Bush in 04 (66.8%) but also for the Republican running against congressman Solomon Ortiz. Republicans say that Seaman is “stabilizing,” which does not sound very confident to me. Tossup.
Toby Goodman, Arlington. Had things worked out a little differently–say, had Pete Laney named Goodman as his chosen successor in the fall of 2002 and released Democrats from their commitments to himself–Goodman might have been speaker of the House. Instead, speaker Craddick has kept him on the outside. This is a shame, because Goodman is one of the best members of the House. But his district has been going through demographic changes, and in one of the most Republican counties in the state, Goodman (and Bush) got only 56% in the district in 2004–and Kenny Marchant, the Republican nominee for Congress, trailed his Democratic rival here. Goodman is in hot water for paying his wife rent for Austin property, and his Democratic opponent, Paula Hightower Pierson, is well known in the community as a former Arlington city council member and civic activist. Republicans are very worried about this race. Tossup.
Terry Keel, Austin (open seat). This is the most Republican district in Austin; even so, Bush carried it in 04 with just 53% of the vote. Republicans are worried, as well they should be, that Travis County has had an attitude shift in the past four years, with the result that the county has become even more liberal, if that is possible. Consequently they have put a lot of money behind Bill Welch, who lost a Republican primary battle for the seat against Keel’s predecessor, Susan Combs (soon to be state comptroller) back in the nineties. The Democrats, however, had a weak field that produced Valinda Bolton, the director of a domestic violence center, who has run a low-energy campaign that was late to get on television and then had only a single low-energy spot. Democrats have a good turnout machine in Austin, and congressman Lloyd Doggett’s race will help bring voters out, but they may have let this race get away from them. Tossup.
Tony Goolsby, Dallas. Like Goodman, Goolsby managed to combine a Republican voting record with support for Democratic speaker Pete Laney, and consequently has spent the Craddick era in political purgatory. Also like Goodman, he has ethics problems, having used campaign funds to buy furniture made by prison inmates and sold to lawmakers at a substantial discounts. Goolsby did not help himself by commenting to a Dallas Morning News reporter, “We’re all born the same way, but we’re not equal. Everbody gets perks.” Goolsby’s opponent, Harriet Miller, filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission over the incident. Miller lost to Goolsby in 2004, 53%-47% and the rematch should be just as close. Republicans seem slightly less worried about this race than about Goodman’s. Tossup.
The Texas Senate: Vulnerable Democratic seat
Eliot Shapleigh, El Paso. This should be a safe seat. John Kerry got 56% of the vote here in 04, and Bob Scarborough, an unknown Democrat running for railroad commissioner against an incumbent Hispanic Republican, Victor Carrillo, fared a point better. But the combination of Shapleigh’s propensity to alienate and the possibility of Republicans holding 21 seats–the magic number for total procedural control–have thrust this race into the spotlight. GOP challenger Dee Margo has raised more money than Shapleigh, and a rock-’em, sock-’em race has ensued. Shapleigh favors an income tax and toll roads, two stands that are unpopular locally, and he has also criticized low graduation rates at UTEP, whose football and basketball programs have substantial community backing. The Republicans are getting help from the White House, no less, as Laura Bush came to town and did a big fundraiser for Margo, whose wife is one of her best friends. Leans Democrat.
U.S. Senate: The only question is whether Hutchison will double Radnofsky’s vote. Not quite.
Governor: This race was over when the trial lawyers who fund Democratic races decided to back Carole Keeton Strayhorn rather than try to persuade a big-name Democrat to get in the race against Rick Perry. Or maybe they did try, only to fail. In order to win, a Democrat has to have crossover appeal, and Chris Bell had none. The best choice would have been John Sharp, not only because Sharp has great credibility with the business community, which could have translated into money and votes, but also because Sharp would not have been around to pull Perry’s chestnuts out of the fire in the school finance special session. It is easy to criticize the Strayhorn campaign–it had a too-many-cooks quality that prevented the development of a clear message or workable media strategy–but I think it was doomed from the start for lack of a base. An independent candidacy can succeed in this state, but only for a true outsider, and Strayhorn was a phony one. The ingredients were right–an unpopular incumbent from one party, a weak nominee from the other, and a high level of disgust with partisan politics–but not the personalities. Someone who starts with money and name ID could do it: Ross Perot Jr., to pick a name out of the air. But not Strayhorn, and not Kinky Friedman, who couldn’t even decide whether he was serious or just on a lark. If this campaign taught us anything, it is that Texas should move its primary elections back to August, when they used to take place. The filing deadline in Texas this year was January 2. Who knew then what the national mood would be in the fall? As a result, our election will not reflect that mood. The reason that the filing deadline is in January is precisely to insulate politicians from unpredictable events. Only serious activists are thinking about filing for office during the holiday season. But our early deadline makes our politics nonresponsive to change–which is exactly what the politicians want. Which is exactly why they won’t change it.
Lieutenant Governor: David Dewhurst wants to lead the Republican ticket (after Hutchison), to position himself for governor in 2010, but I don’t think he’ll get his wish. In fact, political novice Maria Luisa Alvarado, the Democratic nominee, could make things interesting for him. A lot of Latinos will vote for Perry, and many of them will switch back to the Democratic column to vote for a Latina.
Attorney General (Greg Abbott)/Comptroller (Susan Combs): There’s no suspense in either of these races–Abbott vs. David Van Os, Combs vs. Fred Head–but either Abbott or Combs, both of whom started out as straight shooters only to take distinctly partisan stances lately, is likely to be the leading Republican vote-getter after Hutchison. Whether this designation is worth anything is dubious; it didn’t help Strayhorn hold Republicans against Perry.
Land Commissioner: Jerry Patterson is a shoo-in against VaLinda Hathcox, but his vote-getting power, or the lack of it, will be watched, as he wants to run for Lieutenant Governor in 2010. Abbott could be in that race as well.
Agriculture Commissioner (Todd Staples)/Railroad Commissioner (Elizabeth Ames Jones): These are the bush leagues of the Republican farm system, two offices that have little statewide clout other than to build name ID for a future race that means something. Staples is the favorite of conservatives to move up the ladder, even as far as governor, and Jones too has potential. Both should win; however, they are little known (Staples is a state senator; Jones was a state rep), and there is some danger that ticket splitters could vote for a Democrat or two down-ballot as a protest against Perry and the Republican leadership. An upset is a far-fetched scenario, but some Rs are concerned about the possibility. Hank Gilbert, Staples’ Democratic opponent, is an East Texas rancher with a good name for an agriculture commissioner. Jones faces 74-year-old oil patch veteran Dale Henry.
Supreme Court: Incumbent judge Don Willett is probably the most vulnerable Republican on the statewide ballot. His opponent, District Judge William Moody, of El Paso, got some publicity with his walk across Texas. It is the only Supreme Court race in which a Democrat is running.
Tom DeLay’s congressional redistricting map was drawn to maximize Republican gains, but his own seat will almost surely be won by Democrat Nick Lampson following DeLay’s own snafu that left the Republicans only with the write-in candidacy of Shelley Sekula-Gibbs. Arlene Wohlgemuth couldn’t defeat Democrat Chet Edwards in 2004 in the 17th district, and Van Taylor won’t do it this year. Henry Bonilla is favored to retain his hold on the redrawn 23rd congressional district, which runs from San Antonio to El Paso, but this is a special election, and if the Democratic field can force Bonilla into a runoff, an upset is possible. Lukin Gilliland and former congressman Ciro Rodriguez are the frontrunners to make the runoff on the D side. One race that has gotten little attention is in the 14th district along the middle Texas coast. Republican Ron Paul, an antediluvian conservative and onetime Libertarian presidential candidate, has a self-styled conservative Democratic opponent in Shane Sklar, a rancher who is the executive director of the Independent Cattleman’s Association of Texas. The Victoria Advocate endorsed Sklar. Paul has brushed off previous Democratic challengers, but the DeLay-drawn district has only 31% of the territory Paul represented in 2000. Still a very, very long shot.