What are the Democrats' prospects in House races?
Wed October 20, 2010 9:26 am

The article that follows is two years old. I published it on November 30, 2008, after the Democrats had won 74 seats and the Harper-Brown race was still undecided. It is an analysis of Democratic prospects going forward. The point of this post is that, while Democrats had a lot to celebrate, they also had a lot to be concerned about. (1) They were maxxed out on winnable districts, and (2) In the seats they picked up, none of their candidates won with as much as 52% pf the vote.

Have House D’s reached their high-water mark?

My colleague and friend Patricia Kilday Hart has written an excellent story about the speaker’s race that appears in the November 28 issue of the Texas Observer. (We will have competing stories, as I have “written” one that will appear in our January issue. You will see why “written” is in quotes when the issue comes out around a week from now.) [Note to readers: My story appeared as a cartoon strip.] In her story, Hart writes, “Now Democrats are poised to win back control of the House at the close of the decade, just in time for the next round of legislative redistricting.” This made me wonder: Are the Democrats “poised to win back control of the House?” Or are they approaching their high-water mark?

Here’s the list of all House seats won by Republicans, with district number, opposition (U = unopposed, L = libertarian only, D = Democrat only, DL = Democrat and Libertarian), and percentages of R and D candidates. Races in bold-face indicate potential swing districts. My comments follow the list.

2 — Flynn, L
4 — B. Brown, DL, 63.61 – 35.17
5 — Hughes, U
6 — Berman, L
7 — Merritt, L
8 — B. Cook, U
9 — Christian, DL, 62.75 – 35.39
10 – Pitts, L
13 – Kolkhorst, U
14 – F. Brown, L
15 – Eissler, U
16 – Creighton, U
17 – Kleinschmidt, DL, 53.99 – 42.84
18 – Otto, 65.43, D, 68.54 – 31.45
19 – Hamilton, DL, 63.92 – 33.98
20 – Gattis, DL, 64.70 – 30.52
24 – Taylor, L
25 – Bonnen, L
26 – C. Howard, U
28 – Zerwas, DL, 60.22 – 38.02
29 – Weber, D, 60.47 – 39.52
30 – Morrison, U
31 – Hunter, DL, 50.13 – 46.79
44 – Kuempel, L
53 – Hildebran, L
54 – Aycock, L
55 – Sheffield, DL, 53.92 – 43.38
56 – Anderson, L
57 – Orr, DL, 70.54 – 26.21
59 – S. Miller, DL, 61.64 – 35.80
60 – Keffer, D, 76.76 – 23.23
61 – P. King, DL, 72.52 – 24.19
62 – Phillips, D, 68.40 – 31.59
63 – Parker, DL, 72.97 – 22.65
64 – Crownover, DL, 56.95 – 39.39
65 – Solomons, L
66 – McCall, L
67 – Madden, L
68 – Hardcastle, U
70 – Paxton, L
71 – S. King, L
72 – Darby, L
73 – D. Miller, DL, 69.43 – 25.96
81 – Lewis, L
82 – Craddick, DL, 62.12 – 35.30
83 – Jones, U
84 – Isett, U
86 – Smithee, DL, 78.68 – 18.26
87 – Swinford, L
88 – Chisum, U
89 -Laubenberg, U
91 – Hancock, DL, 61.27 – 35.91
92 – T. Smith, D, 63.72 -36.27
94 – Patrick, L
97 – Shelton, DL, 55.33 – 42.57
98 – Truitt, DL, 70.42 – 26.64
99 – Geren, DL, 64.79 – 32.41
105 – Harper-Brown, DL, 48.72- 48.67 (still undecided)
108 – Branch, D, 60.60 – 39.39
112 – Button, DL, 56.06 – 39.64
113 – Driver, D, 58.50 – 41.49
114 – Hartnett, U
115 – Jackson, L
121 – Straus, L
122 – Corte, DL, 66.03-29.89
126 – Harless, DL, 59.40 – 38.41
127 – Crabb, DL, 65.64 – 32.29
128 – W. Smith, U
129 – Davis, D, 58.51 – 41.58
130 – Fletcher, L
132 – Callegari, L
135 – Elkins, DL, 58.39 – 39.94
136 – Woolley, L
138 – Bohac, D, 59.00 – 40.99
144 – Legler, D, 51.15 – 48.84
150 – Riddle, DL, 64.34 – 33.53

The most important thing about this list is that 40 of the 76 Republican seats were uncontested by Democrats.

Of the 36 contested seats, Republicans won 23 of these with more than 60% of the vote. This means that 63 of the 76 Republican seats are safe seats, unless something unforeseeable occurs, such as a scandal.

This leaves the Democrats with 13 seats to work with. Let’s take a look at them:

17 – Kleinschmidt (53.99%). This was the Robbie Cook open seat. Donnie Dippel proved to be a poor candidate, despite hype to the contrary (D’s were ridiculously optimistic about their prospects in races where their candidates were clear underdogs). Kleinschmidt is well placed, having won by 7,000 votes. The only way for the Democrats to cut into this margin is continued outmigration from Travis County into Bastrop County. I can’t see that happening in the current economic crisis. Homebuilders are on the front lines of the credit crunch. Republican favored.

32 – Hunter (50.12%). Another case of misplaced optimism. Juan Garcia won the seat because his opponent in 2006, Gene Seaman, self-destructed. Garcia was the better candidate in ’08, but the R’s had the better numbers, and the numbers prevailed, as they usually do, despite Garcia’s spending a million bucks. The final nail in the coffin was low Hispanic turnout; ironically, Garcia and Barack Obama are close friends. Lots of second-guessing in this race about the performance of Garcia’s consultants too. Hunter should have no trouble holding the seat. Safe Republican.

55 – Sheffield (53.92%). The Democrats made a smart play by going after Sheffield in the Dianne Delisi open seat. Sheffield won a brutal primary and was a vulnerable candidate. The D’s had the better candidate in Sam Murphey. But they were late to focus on this race. Murphey needed money and time, and the Democrats didn’t give him enough of either. Sheffield has a checkered past, and he could screw up. Leans Republican.

64 – Crownover (56.95%). New voters held down Crownover’s margin in Denton County. Without Obama on the ballot in 2010, those voters are unlikely to come back. Growth in the district favors the R’s. Republican favored.

95 – Shelton (55.33%). This was the district Dan Barrett rented for 11 months after winning a special election. That was a fluke. Republican favored.

105 – This is the Harper-Brown district. The Democrats completely blew this race. The House Democratic campaign committee gave $7,500 to Yvonne Davis at the end of the campaign, in a race she won with 79.05%. Do you think that $7,500 could have helped Bob Romano turn 21 votes against Harper-Brown? Somebody’s head ought to roll for this. Yvonne Davis didn’t need or deserve that money. Why did she get it? The D’s can think about that when Harper-Brown offers a bill to yank all services from illegal immigrants. Leans Democratic.

112 – Button (56.06%). This is a district with a large Asian population that is undergoing demographic change. If this were the middle of the redistricting cycle instead of the end, the Democrats could anticipate winning the seat in four to six years. They should target the seat anyway, but they will have to field a strong Asian candidate, and they have probably run out of time to benefit from the demographics before the 2011 redistricting. Republican favored.

117 – Driver (58.50%). As is the case in all the older suburbs, Garland is experiencing demographic change that works in the Democrats favor. It is hard to envision a 9+ point swing in one election cycle, though. Republican favored.

126 – Harless (59.40%). Forget it. This is a 60% Anglo district in which Republicans candidates up and down the ballot were getting 70% of the vote in 2006, give or take a point or two. Safe Republican.

129 – Davis (58.51%). The Republican-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board knew what it was doing when they drew the Harris County districts in 2001. These are hard for Democrats to win; despite all the demographic changes in the county, Democrats have picked up only a couple of seats over the decade. One was Vo’s victory over Talmadge Heflin in 2004. The other was Thibaut’s win over Jim Murphy this year. Davis’s district started this redistricting cycle as 71% Anglo and single-digit black. Davis’s ethics problems were the only reason Sherrie Matula held him to under 60%. Safe Republican. So safe that I can’t figure out why the Democrats thought they had a chance.

135 – Elkins (58.39%). Another majority Anglo district. Safe Republican.

138 – Bohac (59.00%). This district was 41% Anglo and 41% Hispanic when it was created in 2001. A lot of demographic change has occurred since then — enough, Democrats believed, to put Bohac’s district in play. Their candidate didn’t put much effort into the race; had she done so, this race would have been closer. For all the talk about how important Harris County was, Democrats didn’t seem to have their act together for phone banks and get out the vote. Democratic turnout on election day was pitiful. Leans Republican, but Democrats will target it.

144 – Legler (51.15%). This was another district, the Talton open seat, that was won in the redistricting room. It’s only 5% black. Hispanics are 37%, but more than a third do not speak English at home. Leans Republican, but another Democratic target.

Of these thirteen seats, there is one in which a competent Democrat should be favored in 2010 (Harper-Brown’s seat) and two more in which they have a shot (Bohac’s and Legler’s). The rest of these seats seem solidly Republican.

And don’t forget: The Democrats have a lot of seats that are on the razor’s edge. As they found out with Juan Garcia, winning a seat doesn’t really mean a lot unless and until you hold it.

Turner 51.30%
Bolton 51.19%
Moody 51.05%
Thibaut 50.62%
Miklos 50.55%
Vaught 50.44%
Hopson 49.27%
Maldonado 48.60%

The D’s have a lot more to defend in 2010 than the R’s do. The odds are that, rather than gaining a majority in 2010, Democrats will lose ground.

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