Republicans in Texas have relied for years on a rating system called ORVS, or Optimum Republican Voting Strength, that combines results of recent elections to show which parts of the state are friendly to the GOP. The latest numbers are out, and while there are few surprises, the charts do provide something of a road map to the GOP's targets in the next election cycle.

For example, look at the numbers for the Texas congressional delegation and you see why the Republicans spend so much time plotting against U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm, D-Stamford. He's the occupant of a House seat (CD 17) with an ORVS of 59.3.

Here's what that means: It's the percentage of the vote a Republican could get in that district if the candidate could pull in the GOP base vote and (this is optimal, remember) two-thirds of the difference between that base and what the most popular Republicans got in that district in the last two election cycles. In this example, that means a generic Republican might be expected to get 59.3 percent of the vote against a generic Democrat in Stenholm's district.

Mike Baselice, the Republican pollster who cranked out the ORVS numbers this year, cautions that the system isn't meant to predict outcomes, but more to measure partisan environments, and then mainly as a tool for deciding where to recruit candidates. If voters have a reason to like or dislike a particular candidate, as they almost always do, the election numbers won't match the ORVS numbers. Stenholm offers the object lesson: In spite of the high ORVS in his district, the incumbent Democrat got 54 percent of the vote against his GOP challenger, Rudy Izzard, last year.

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Sorting Through the Targets

U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, is the other congressional Democrat with an ORVS target on his back. His CD 11 district, according to the most recent ratings, has an ORVS of 57.5, and Republicans have been actively recruiting potential challengers for months.

A half-dozen districts are within a point or two of 50, which means they're not great places for challengers, necessarily, but could be places to watch during the redistricting wars in 2001.

On the other side, the two Republicans with the lowest ORVS ratings are U.S. Reps. Kay Granger of Fort Worth and Ron Paul of Clute. The index in Paul's district is 55.3, but Democrats think they have a good shot at him and will likely put some money and attention in that race. If you go with the GOP's numbers, the state's overall rating for Republican candidates is 56.3 percent.

By chance, that's also the ORVS rating for SD 3, the seat currently held by state Sen. Drew Nixon, R-Carthage. Nixon hasn't decided whether to seek reelection yet, but because of his arrest two years ago in a prostitution sting operation in Austin, that's likely to be the most vigorously contested seat in the Senate next year. If the ORVS numbers are any indication, the district leans to the GOP, but Democrats say they have a chance at winning the district back if they run the right candidate.

The GOP has also had its eye on Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, but the GOP's own predictors aren't as good in his SD 2. Cain's district has an ORVS of 52.8. A couple of Republicans have signed up to challenge him, but it's not yet clear what kind of support they'll get from outside their districts.

Republicans have also looked admiringly at SD 18, which is held by Democrat Ken Armbrister of Victoria. In spite of that district's 58.1 ORVS, he's considered safe. When Republicans talk about trying to win that seat, the conversation is usually about convincing Armbrister to switch labels. He's not interested; party switchers haven't fared well in the district.

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Trying to Find Four More Votes

The Republicans will renew their efforts to take control of the Texas House (the state GOP will announce in about a month that U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Sugar Land, and state Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Lubbock, will head up the new attempt to win a majority). DeLay and other federales have a stake because the next Legislature will draw redistricting lines. While the GOP gained ultimate control over that in last year's elections -- by winning all but one of the seats on the state's redistricting board -- most of the detail work is likely to be done by state lawmakers, and just over half of them are Democrats.

The ORVS numbers make it fairly easy to figure out what districts the GOP is looking at.

Purely on the basis of the numbers (in other words, without regard to the individual strengths of the candidates or of their challengers), these could show up on a list of targets (district, member, ORVS): HD 20, Zeb Zbranek, D-Winnie, 54.0; HD 21, Allan Ritter, D-Nederland 53.6; HD 28, Robby Cook, D-Eagle Lake, 54.6; HD 59, Dan Lengefeld, D-Hamilton, 57.3; HD 69, David Farabee, D-Wichita Falls, 57.6; HD 70, David Counts, D-Knox City, 54.1; HD 72, Rob Junell, D-San Angelo, 61.9; HD 73, Bob Turner, D-Voss, 62.3; and HD 85, Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, 60.0.

That's nine seats, but they won't automatically roll to the Republicans just because the numbers look that way. Neither House Speaker Laney nor House Appropriations Chairman Junell has had trouble winning reelection, and they're not likely to show up on a serious list of sitting ducks. The other seven potentially could be on target lists, but the outcomes will depend on how the GOP does in the candidate recruitment department. In its search for the four seats it needs to gain the majority in the Texas House, the GOP could also look further down the list of ORVS rankings, picking and choosing races against candidates they consider weak or unestablished.

Farabee's seat deserves a special mention, if only as another example of a problem in using numbers alone. Sen. Tom Haywood, R-Wichita Falls, is considering a run for Railroad Commission, and victory there could open his seat in the Senate. The Republicans profess confidence. Among other things, the district has an ORVS rating of 59. But the Democrats think a popular local candidate like, for argument's sake, Farabee, could win that slot. But that would open a problem for the Democrats, if the numbers are to be believed, because of the ORVS in Farabee's own district. A Democratic candidate with a less familiar name might have a harder time than Farabee.

Weaknesses on the Other Side of the Aisle

This isn't all one-way, though it starts with the GOP's ranking system. It's easy enough to flip the list and see where the Democrats might want to challenge. The Republican with the worst district, according to the ORVS ratings, is HD 9 Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center. The rating is 52.0, but you have to back up and look at the underlying numbers.

The base vote in the ORVS ratings is figured by examining the statewide races in the last few election cycles that earned Republicans the lowest vote percentages. Their numbers are set against those of the statewide Republicans with the highest winning percentages. That's done for each district, whether it's U.S. House, Texas House, Texas Senate or whatever. The ORVS rating is the base vote plus two-thirds of the difference between the high and low votes. To cast this in Democratic terms, you look at the Republican names on what should be the Democratic end of the list.

Christian has the lowest ORVS of any Republican in the Texas House. The base vote in his district (crunched by Baselice from past election results) is 47.5. The next weakest district, again flying by ORVS ratings, is held by Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, who is expected to announce next week that he's giving up that seat to run for Sen. Nixon's SD 3 seat. Some Republicans had hoped Staples would stay put, partly because they’re afraid they could lose the seat to the Democrats. For their part, the Democrats say they should be able to win it.

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The Recruiting Pitch

One of the theories-hopes-spins pushed by Republicans this year is that the ticket could be strong enough at the top to pull in some Republican candidates who might not otherwise make it. The line is that if Gov. George W. Bush is the Republican presidential nominee, and the next race on the ballot features the popular U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, then the benefits could/should accrue to candidates further down the ballot. If that turns out to be true, it will be truer at the top of the ballot, in congressional races, than further down, where state legislators roam. Bush led a sweep of statewide offices last November, but didn’t have much measurable impact on House races, and hopeful Republicans went home without the majority they expected.

That said, part of the pitch being made by consultants and others in some races goes like this: "In an ordinary year, you might not be able to beat ol' so-and-so, but with Bush and Hutchison on the ticket, you could have enough coattail to make it over the top." We've been told of at least two such approaches, both of them in congressional races. In both instances, the potential candidates thus approached decided not to hop onto the ballot.

Jumping In, Jumping Out, Jumping Around

We've mentioned elsewhere that Rep. Todd Staples, R-Palestine, is giving up that seat to run for Senate. And other races are starting to form up, too. Tyler businessman Richard Harvey, who said he'll run for the SD 2 seat now occupied by Sen. David Cain, D-Dallas, was only unopposed for one week. Rockwall attorney Keith Wheeler, who lost a race for district judge a couple of years ago, will seek the GOP nomination. He's hired Joe Counter as general consultant; Counter ran Bob Reese's race against Harvey, then Cain, in 1996. Wheeler has a law firm in Rockwall, and will make his official splash in the next few weeks.

Sen. Tom Haywood, R-Wichita Falls, told us at our deadline that he has made up his mind about whether to run for Railroad Commissioner, but that he won't emit a hint on the subject until next week. He's been mulling a run against Michael Williams, an appointee and personal friend of Gov. Bush, but has been discouraged from entering the race by the governor and any number of Bush allies. Haywood is a former director of the North Texas Oil & Gas Association, and said early on that he would not get in the race unless groups like that one were willing to offer financial support. That's unlikely with the governor's interest in the other candidate, but if the money is there, Haywood would have a free ride on the 2000 ballot: His Senate term ends in 2002.

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, isn't closing any doors, but the only announcement he's ready to make is that he'll run for reelection next year and that it will probably be his last term. He gave a speech to the Texas Coalition of Black Democrats that was interpreted by some to mean that Turner wants to run for statewide office. He's not ready to say yes. He's not ready to say no. He does say, however, that finishing his tenure in the House doesn't mean an end to his public service.

Almost Real-Time Disclosure

Gov. Bush has been saying for some time now that he favors instant disclosure of campaign contribution information, and he's moving his campaign closer to that. By the time you read this, his website (http://www.georgewbush.com) will have all of his contributions listed, including those under $200, but with a two-week delay. That not only means you can see who gave, but that you can see a two-week old running total of contributions. Through August 26, Bush had raked in $49.3 million. Those contribution totals are ordinarily not available until paper reports are filed with the Federal Election Commission. The next of those will be available next month, and it's not until then that you'll be able to find out how the other campaigns -- Democrat and Republican -- are doing, unless they decide to jump in and follow Bush.

The governor's campaign expenditures are not part of the new instant disclosure policy. In fact, none of Bush's expenditures are available on his Internet site. They are in the FEC reports, however.

Defanging the Office of Lieutenant Governor

Sen. David Sibley, R-Waco, is telling his colleagues that the Senate should think about changing its rules the next time it changes leadership. Specifically, he has floated the idea of taking two critical powers away from the next lieutenant governor and giving them to the Senate: the power to name chairs of committees and the committee memberships, and the power to set the calendar that determines what the Senate will do in a given day's session.

He's also told other senators that he might not be interested in running for the lieutenant governor's job on a statewide ballot. Those rule changes would take a lot of the juice out of one of the most powerful number two spots in any state. The lite guv has other duties, but few that can be used to punish and reward unfriendlies and friendlies than the committees and the calendar.

In the words of one wisenheimer in the Pink Building, making those changes and then not running for reelection would be a little like voting a town dry and then moving away.

All this is against a backdrop of Ifs that we've written about before: If Gov. Bush is elected president and moves out of the Governor's Mansion, it would clear the way for Lt. Gov. Rick Perry to get an automatic promotion (and the keys to the Mansion). That would, in turn, clear the way for the Senate to replace Perry, and Sibley, alone among the senators, has said directly that he wants that job if it comes open. (He's not the only one who's interested; the most recent addition to that growing fraternity is Sen. Jeff Wentworth, R-San Antonio, who told a Republican group a few days ago that he'd like to be the Senate's corner-office tenant.)

The official version from Sibley's camp is that he's talking about possible changes to the rules without necessarily endorsing those changes. And he hasn't decided whether he'd run for the lieutenant governor's job in a statewide election if all of those ifs fell into place and the Senate moved him to the head of the class.

Tax Breaks, Welcoming a New Lobby Group

There will be more detailed looks at this later on, but the early numbers from the Texas Education Agency show the school tax relief passed by the Legislature earlier this year will result in tax breaks for some, flat taxes for others, and tax increases for the rest. Depending on how you slice it, you can argue that people in more than half the school districts in the state will get breaks or at least no increases, or that more than half will get tax hikes or no break. These are billed as preliminary, but 341 districts told the agency they plan to cut taxes by an average of about 6.5 cents. No rate changes, up or down, were expected in 265 districts, and 345 districts said tax increases averaging 7.4 cents are in order. The spin: Rates would have gone up even more without the state help. A fact: It is almost impossible to write a piece of legislation at the state level that forces school districts to pass along a tax break.

• From the Department of Idle Questions: When's the last time a group of state senators and state representatives and members of the Texas congressional delegation lined up in the Texas Senate Chamber to cheer the formation of a new lobby group?

The Technology Network, or TechNet, that we told you about a couple of weeks back is now open for business, and apparently has a ready audience. The group doesn't give money, but its members do. In its first initiative in its home state of California, Technet raised $40 million and succeeded in limiting the places where stockholder lawsuits can be filed.

In Texas, they're not pursuing a particular agenda, at least not on the state level. Roberta Katz, the group's executive director, admits most of the group's issues are federal matters like what to do about national policy on taxing Internet transactions. The association has no Washington, D.C., office, but Katz says the Texas members of Technet -- most of them CEOs of high tech concerns -- wanted the group to have a presence in Austin.

Technet doesn't contribute to candidates, and doesn't plan to start. It was formed to get public officials and tech executives talking, and members do their political spending separately.

Today's Studies, Tomorrow's Melees

After a quiet summer, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry kicked out interim committee assignments in a hurry, sending folks to work on reports that are due before the elections in November 2000.

• The Border Affairs Committee will look at transportation needs and financing schemes along the Texas-Mexico line, make short- and long-term recommendations on water and wastewater treatment, examine health conditions on the Border, and work on economic development strategies.

• Criminal Justice may have gotten the longest list of chores of any committee. Among other things, they'll look at whether the state should spend more time on investigations of unsolved crimes, examine information exchanges between law enforcement and mental health care outfits, review state laws on the privacy of criminal records, examine laws affecting violent criminals under age 10, look at programs for criminals going back into public after terms in prison or juvenile centers, and recommend improvements to collections of criminal fees imposed by courts.

• Economic Development will look at the availability of business financing in the private sector, work with the Intergovernmental Relations Committee on revisions to the state's 9-1-1 network and study the convergence of banking, insurance and securities industries. The committee will also bird-dog federal legislation on banking and bankruptcy.

• The Education Committee will see whether public education and higher education are working together to get kids into college, look at teacher shortage problems and incentive programs for math and science teachers, and try to figure out a reliable way to keep track of public school dropout rates.

• Finance will look at state investment practices and the operation of the various funds, look to see how the tobacco settlement money is being spent by state agencies, look at the funding and effectiveness of graduate medical education in Texas, and work with State Affairs on teacher and employee benefits and on the effects of federal government duties becoming state responsibilities.

• Health Services will be looking at Medicaid managed care services, doing an inventory on medical (and related) research in Texas, surveying laws and practices to find out how private people's medical records really are, look at the availability of health care workers in Texas. That committee also has Senate oversight of the Children's Health Insurance Program passed earlier this year.

• Human Services will study long-term care in Texas (they're also under orders to figure out how to guarantee individual and family choices in long-term care), analyze and rework the state's funding for long-term care under Medicaid. The panel will also look at welfare-to-work issues and try to figure out what to do about welfare recipients that are hardest to serve.

• Intergovernmental Relations will look at ways to save the state money on construction projects, study funding of and spending by regional councils of government, and look at the powers of city governments to regulate residential development.

• Jurisprudence will be looking for ways to improve enforcement of child custody orders and watching legislation that is supposed to enhance child-support collection.

• Natural Resources is loaded up with contentious issues. That panel will look at how to get the state into compliance with federal air quality laws, do a comprehensive look at groundwater resources in the state and consider groundwater regulations, review everything there is to review regarding river authorities in Texas, study low-level radioactive waste options, and do some studied speculation on the futures of the Texas Coast, the oil and gas industry and port expansion and growth in the state.

• State Affairs is looking at NAFTA-related transportation issues, the effect on the state of moving formerly federal responsibilities down to the state level, trucking safety issues, and at spending and funding at metropolitan transit authorities. They'll also examine whether the licensing requirements made of automobile dealers should also be made of mass transit buses, emergency vehicles and heavy equipment, examine insurance and surety bonds issued by state agencies.

• Veteran Affairs will look at ways to keep military bases in Texas from closing down, in part by recommending ways to attract new missions to those bases.

Political People and Their Moves

D'Ann Johnson is the new executive director at the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. She had been assistant general counsel at the Texas Department of Banking... Gov. George W. Bush stopped long enough to appoint some folks, to wit: Ann Murray Moore of McAllen, named to head the 389th District Court; Ernest Aliseda of Edinburg to the 398th District Court. She was an assistant district attorney; he is a partner in a civil law firm. Both will take over new courts in Hidalgo County. The governor picked Karren Price of Center as judge of the 273rd District Court. She is presently Shelby County's district attorney... Bush also picked the members of the newly reconstituted Texas Funeral Commission: Harry Whittington of Austin, a private attorney who's served in a variety of appointed government positions, as chairman; Frank Maresh of Hunt, a CPA and consultant; John Taylor King, president of a funeral home company in Austin; Martha Rhymes, a businesswoman from White Oak; Dorothy Grasty of Arlington, who had been on the board at the Texas Commission on Alcohol & Drug Abuse after a career in health care; and Jim Wright of Wheeler, a funeral home director. King, Rhymes, and Wright are reappointments... Ed Hodges, who worked for U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm for the better part of a decade, is flogging a book -- The Wins of Change -- on the ascent of Republicans in Texas in general and on Gov. Bush in particular. It's not in the stores, and we haven't read it yet (so don't come crying if you buy it and don't like it). He's selling it on the Internet (http://georgewbush-win.com)... There's reading material coming soon from the other side of the aisle. Former Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower will have a new book out in February: If the Gods Had Meant for Us to Vote, They Would Have Given Us Candidates. It's a mixed bag, half a take on the candidates for president (mainly Bush and Vice President Al Gore, and mainly on the author's view that there isn't much difference between them), and half a polemic on what Hightower thinks the candidates ought to be talking about. Same caveat: We haven't seen it and this is information, not reading advice... After a four-year, $9 million investigation, former San Antonio Mayor and cabinet secretary Henry Cisneros pleaded guilty and agreed to pay a $10,000 fine. He admitted lying to the FBI about payments made to a former mistress. The woman, Linda Jones, is in jail on a bank fraud conviction that also stemmed from the investigation.

Quotes of the Week

Austin lobbyist Robert Spellings, former aide to then-Speaker Ben Barnes, on whether they did a favor for a particular congressman's son: "Sometimes when people needed some help getting into the National Guard, they would call me or they would call Ben, and he would turn it over to me. Did we help anybody get into the Guard? Of course we did. Did we help George W. Bush? My answer is no."

Houston businessman Stephen Adger, in a Dallas Morning News story about whether Adger's deceased father, Sidney, helped Bush get into the National Guard by calling for a favor from then-Speaker Ben Barnes or from Walter "Buck" Staudt, who commanded the Guard's 147th Fighter Group: "He may have done it or he may not have done it. But it didn't take Gen. Staudt. I mean, here George W. shows up, a graduate of Yale, a great guy, son of a congressman. That's all he needed."

Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, endorsing Gov. George W. Bush for higher office, and saying that also goes for Lt. Gov. Rick Perry: "He will be the next governor, hopefully."

Gov. Bush, refusing to join a fight over whether South Carolina should fly the Confederate flag at its state Capitol: "My advice is for people who don't live in South Carolina to butt out of the issue... I didn’t particularly like it when people came in to tell me what to do in Texas."

Sen. Teel Bivins, R-Amarillo, on news that most school districts are not lowering taxes as expected when the Legislature's passed a huge education bill: "With the largest infusion of state funding in education in state history, this just kind of leaves me shaking my head."

Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, who's not running for higher office yet, repeating the remark that led a Houston audience to think he wants to move up soon: "I want to take my little boat out where the big ships are... and I want you to come along."


Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 11, 13 August 1999. Copyright 1999 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

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