As Campaign Sprint Begins, GOP Enjoys Head Start

The Labor Day start of the 2010 election sprint finds Texas Republicans feverish: Even the sober ones think they could snatch up to 10 more seats in the state House this year. Democrats are hardly giving up — the optimists among them still maintain they can wrest majority control of the House away from the GOP. But a strain of the same virus that infected the donkeys two years ago has now infected the elephants. Then, Democrats were Wild About Obama, and his popular presidential campaign drove their fall efforts and helped boost turnout in November. This year, it's the Republican version of Wild About Obama — now wildly unpopular — and their enthusiasm trends the same way. With about two months left before Election Day, they're exuberant.

The Republicans, to be direct, start the sprint — the part of the election season when most voters actually pay attention — with a couple of advantages. Texas, until voters prove otherwise, is a red state that elects Republicans to statewide office unless something — personality, scandal, familiarity, a local issue — causes them to go with the Democrats. And it's a Republican year, with conservatives and independents riled about national spending, the economy, immigration — issues that play against the party in power nationally.

"I think that's pretty well documented," Democratic consultant James Aldrete says of the GOP's momentum. "The party that's out of power is always more motivated."

The GOP may be out of power at the federal level, but it controls every statewide office, the congressional delegation and the Texas House and Senate. Still, the national rage appears to be driving the state mood.

Polling in the governor's race has shown little change over the last six months, with Democrat Bill White trailing incumbent Republican Rick Perry by 9 points, more or less, in a series of surveys by different pollsters, including our own University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll in May and Rasmussen Reports polls in July and in August. Perry hasn't started advertising on television, but White has been on TV in selected markets for six weeks and advertised earlier in the summer, too. Political sympathizers in something called the Back to Basics PAC — primarily financed by Houston lawyer Steve Mostyn — have spent millions this summer attacking Perry, most recently in full-page newspaper ads calling him a "coward" for ducking debates. But none of those efforts is evident in the polls.

Both candidates have the time and the money to move the political needle. Perry and rival Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison, spurred by Debra Medina in the GOP primary, spent more than $40 million (Medina spent almost $1 million herself). White and Perry should at least match that in this general election.

It costs as much as $2.4 million to blanket the state with TV ads for one week, and Election Day is eight weeks from now. The candidates will economize where they can and probably won't buy ads in every single market. But it's typical to budget $1.8 million a week for TV on top of the other costs of campaigning: paying staff, direct mail ($1 million or more to send a piece), radio ads, get-out-the-vote efforts, phone banks, polling and so on. Double that — there are two campaigns — and the candidates could easily spend $40 million.

The outlines of the two campaigns at the top of the ballot are clear. Each candidate accuses the other of using elected office to increase his personal wealth. White says the governor has tried to duck his own record and points to the state's $18 billion budget shortfall and the public-to-private-to-public turnstile that regularly moves Perry's aides from his office to the lobby and back again. Perry has focused on Washington's failures under Democratic control and on White's ties to the Obama administration and friends. (White, for his part, has avoided ties to the unpopular president.) White points to the state's economic woes, its high unemployment and to Perry's long tenure in office. Perry says the economic woes would be worse with a trial lawyer like White in the Governor's Mansion and that it's not the right time to switch chief executives. Lately, they're arguing over whether to have a debate, a forum Perry has conditioned on the release of some old income tax returns that White has so far refused to produce.

And though neither side is revealing its strategy for the remainder of the race, it's not complicated. "At this point, you know how this works," says a White operative. "You make sure the field people are doing what they need to do, that the communications people are doing what they need to do, that the fundraising people are doing their thing, and that the yard signs aren't sitting in a warehouse somewhere."

Beneath that race on the ballot, well-financed Republicans are fending off Democrats on shoestring budgets. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, for instance, is wealthy both personally and politically, but his Democratic opponent, Linda Chavez-Thompson, is relying on White to get Democrats excited and on her own grassroots efforts to do the rest. Republicans also have a coordinated campaign to get voters to the polls that's run by a politically unencumbered Comptroller Susan Combs, who didn't draw a Democratic challenger. Democrats are relying instead on White's coattails and on various local efforts — in Harris, Dallas and other counties — to turn out voters.

"There is enough money on the Democratic side to get people talking about this," says Aldrete, a consultant to Chavez-Thompson and others. "Linda brings some grassroots energy, but Bill White has the only funded campaign on the Democratic side." Aldrete says the Democrats have the money, and the opportunity, to gain ground in Texas but concedes they face a headwind.

The GOP advantage is wired into the political maps for the Texas congressional delegation and for the state Senate, with Republicans in the majority in most places and most of the districts' representation predetermined by the way the maps were drawn. We're tracking the most competitive seats with Texas Weekly's Hot List, which we'll adjust and republish each Monday until the election as new information about the elections comes in. The 31-member state Senate has 19 Republicans and 12 Democrats — and not a single seat is likely to flip from one party to the other, an assessment shared by pols on both sides. The 32-member congressional delegation includes 20 Republicans and 12 Democrats, and only two seats — those held by Democrats Chet Edwards of Waco and Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio — are competitive this year. Both men have held off previous challenges in districts that were designed to elect Republicans. But this year they face an electorate irritated by the Washington status quo; what remains in question is whether their political ties at home can overcome the national mood against Democrats in Congress.

The Texas House has been more competitive. The same Republicans who designed those congressional and Senate maps tried to make the House a stronghold, too. In the 2002 election, right after the maps were drawn, Republicans won 88 of the 150 House seats. By the 2009 session, they held just 76 — one more than they needed to hold the majority. A party switch (Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville) added a seat for the GOP, and the retirement of David Farabee of Wichita Falls will almost certainly move that seat to the Republican column. Even so, Democrats started the year with hopes of taking the House and electing a speaker from their own party. That's a bigger prize than usual this time: The Legislature meeting next year will take up decennial redistricting.

The political environment is working against them, and so are the current political maps. Most of the swing seats on the Texas House ballot are now in Democratic hands, the result of the electoral whittling that shaved a dozen seats from the GOP majority from 2002 to now; seats that are in competitive districts were mostly held by the R's, and now they're mostly held by the D's. So Republicans have more opportunities to gain seats than the Democrats do. And if the mood of the electorate doesn't change, that could help the Republicans unseat Democrats who wouldn't be imperiled in a normal election year. Our list of 21 House races to watch includes 14 held by Democrats and only seven held by Republicans.

The Texas House and Senate are already Republican. The Senate's not in play, but a bigger majority for the GOP in the House could help that gang with political redistricting next year and would give Republican leaders a stronger hand in covering a budget shortfall estimated at $18 billion. The current split — 77 Republicans and 73 Democrats — forces the majority to negotiate with the minority on almost everything. The bigger the difference, the easier for the majority to rule without concessions — and this time, to lock in that advantage by drawing political maps to be used for the next decade.

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