Red All Over

The Republicans are (still) cruising in Texas, but there’s drama in the November elections if you know where to look.

Rick Perry has held a double-digit lead in the governor’s race all year long. Republicans are heavily favored to run the table in all the other statewide races. Does anything matter in these contests?
Strangely enough, second place matters—for the Democrats. If Chris Bell finishes behind independent candidates Carole Keeton Strayhorn and Kinky Friedman, it will be a morale buster that will make it harder to recruit candidates and raise money for 2008. Political junkies will also be looking at obscure races like court seats and railroad commissioner to get an idea of what each party’s base vote is going to be in the next election cycle.

Can Texas affect the national midterm elections?
Absolutely, and we can thank Tom DeLay for that. His redistricting scheme of 2003 netted the GOP six new House seats. Without them, the Republicans would have little hope of retaining control of the House this year. But his ill-judged attempt to get off the ballot in the Twenty-second Congressional District, and subsequent withdrawal from the race, left the Republicans without an official candidate. Former Democratic congressman Nick Lampson is gunning for that seat, and he’s a heavy favorite to fend off a high-profile write-in campaign by Republican Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, a Houston City Council member. Two other races could affect the national picture. The Seventeenth District, centered in Waco, is the most Republican seat in the nation occupied by a Democrat; nonetheless, incumbent Chet Edwards should be able to beat the GOP’s Van Taylor. Another close race is in the Twenty-third District, which stretches from San Antonio to El Paso. After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that the boundaries violated the Voting Rights Act, a federal panel redrew the lines in August and opened the race to all comers. Republican incumbent Henry Bonilla faces several Democratic challengers, including former congressman Ciro D. Rodriguez, who is 0-2 in his past two races for Congress. Bonilla’s edge in fund-raising and name identification gives him the advantage in a shortened campaign. But pundits are taking delight in this scenario: The battle for the House results in each party’s winning 217 of the 435 seats. Then, if Bonilla is in a runoff, every political hack in the country will descend on San Antonio for a winner-take-all slugfest.

Is there any drama in the races for the Texas Legislature?
That’s where the real action is. Both parties think they can gain seats this year—Democrats because of Perry’s lack of popularity and the Republicans’ problems in Washington, Republicans because of their superiority in fund-raising and get-out-the-vote techniques. Of the 150 House districts, the one most likely to change hands is the West Texas seat currently occupied by former Democratic Speaker Pete Laney, who is retiring. Republicans have also targeted a handful of conservative rural districts whose incumbents are known as WD-40s (white Democrats of middle age and middle politics). Democrats see Republican weakness in urban districts whose demographics are changing (see “Vo, Hubert: upset victory over Talmadge Heflin in 2004”). Democrats have hopes for other pickups, especially in west-central Houston, where Ellen Cohen is challenging vulnerable GOP incumbent Martha Wong, and in southwest Travis County, where realignment favors the Democrats.

So which party will pick up seats?
A swing of more than two seats either way would be a surprise. But the real question is whether Speaker Tom Craddick will have a working majority that will allow him to impose his will on issues that matter to him and Republican activists, such as capping property appraisals and implementing school vouchers. On a number of key votes involving education, a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans has sometimes prevailed over party-line Republican voting. Craddick needs to defeat some Democratic incumbents to reestablish control, and it would shock nobody to see big Republican donors like vouchers advocate James Leininger spend millions of dollars—as he did in Republican primaries this spring—to influence close races.

Are there any tight races in the state Senate?
Probably not. The only race that has generated any chatter is so far away from the Capitol it’s in another time zone: Democratic state senator Eliot Shapleigh, of El Paso, faces a no-holds-barred challenge from businessman Dee Margo, a friend of George W. and Laura Bush’s. If Margo can win the seat, Republicans will have the two-thirds majority in the Senate that is necessary to pass legislation unimpeded. But he can’t. As in the House, the real question is not which party will dominate but whether the leadership maintains control. That depends on how well Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst can manage the Senate’s incoming freshman class of aggressive, seasoned politicians. Democrats Kirk Watson, a former mayor of Austin, and Carlos Uresti, currently a San Antonio state rep, should be considerable upgrades in talent and vitality over their predecessors. On the Republican side, Houston talk-radio host Dan Patrick comes into office vowing to pass appraisal caps and an abortion trigger bill; everyone assumes he’ll run for statewide office (maybe for governor against Dewhurst) in 2010. Robert Nichols, a former member of the Texas Transportation Commission, and Glenn Hegar, a state representative from Katy, know their way around the Capitol too. With the Republican caucus giving indications of desiring independence from Dewhurst as well, this session could make or break the lite guv’s political ambitions.

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