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The Ouija Board

Uncertainties over the presidential race, Hurricane Ike's after-effects, and the rapidly changing economic news have political people on both sides of the aisle looking at bloated lists of hot races in the Texas House.

Uncertainties over the presidential race, Hurricane Ike's after-effects, and the rapidly changing economic news have political people on both sides of the aisle looking at bloated lists of hot races in the Texas House.

With all those moving parts, it's difficult to tell what's really in play and what just appears to be competitive. It'll thin out some, but it's late in the game to be looking at so many races. The next finance reports, due next week, will clear the air, as will (maybe) some of the polling both parties are doing in various districts. We'll thin our own lists after a look at those reports; the most recent version is available in our Files section.

Four congressional races are still on the list, and three Senate races. And there are 19 to 21 House races that, depending on your informant, are worth considering. So is this: Consultants on both sides are expecting only incremental change in the makeup of the House. A pickup of more than two or three seats would be a big day for either party.

But there's still a month to argue about it.

The polls and partial polls that've been shared with us aren't at all clear. In the Panhandle, Rep. Joe Heflin, a Crosbyton Democrat, is trying to win reelection in a House district where John McCain and John Cornyn — the Republicans in the top two races on the ticket — have two-to-one leads over their Democratic opponents. But Heflin, according to some of those same polls, is far ahead of Republican Isaac Castro of Hamlin.

Republicans are chattering about East Texas polls that show those same two top of the ticket Republicans well ahead in districts with incumbent Democrats — so-called WD-40s, or White Democrats over 40 years of age. They're pondering late investments in the challengers to Reps. Stephen Frost, Mark Homer and Chuck Hopson. Democrats with similar numbers in hand are taking things seriously but aren't having a cow about it: They point out that all three incumbents won in those districts when George W. Bush was stomping John Kerry there four years ago. Ballots in areas like those tend to be red at the top and blue at the bottom.

That tendency is purely local.

In El Paso, Democrats are trying to take away a House seat that's been in Republican hands for years and year. It's a Democratic town in a Democratic county, but the local favorite in the presidential race, Hillary Clinton, lost the presidential primary. A sizable military population in HD-78 might look favorably on McCain.

And then there's this weird proximity thing going on. New Mexico is a swing state in the presidential election and also has a hot U.S. Senate race going on. If you're a candidate running television ads in New Mexico, you put ads on broadcast stations in El Paso to reach the southern half of that adjacent state. El Pasoans, as a result, are getting a run of presidential campaign ads that voters in the rest of the state will never see. That could drive up turnout. Dee Margo, the Republican who unseated Rep. Pat Haggerty in the primary, hopes it turns out his voters. Joe Moody, a Democrat whose father has won judicial races in the district, is hoping his locally known ballot name will out. Bush got 56 percent of the vote in 2004. And Gov. Rick Perry, who got only 39 percent statewide two years ago, won 53 percent of the vote in this district.

How Big?

She hasn't firmed up the number yet, but Secretary of State Hope Andrade expects to have more than 13.2 million Texans on the voter rolls for this election and expects a "huge turnout" in November, partly because of growth in the state and partly because of high interest levels in both major political parties.

Monday, October 6, is the last day Texans can register to vote. Early voting starts two weeks later (on October 20), and Election Day is now less than five weeks away. Once they've got voter rolls and see how early voting is coming along, her office will make some predictions about election turnout. But everything else has been big this year, and she's anticipating more of that.

The 13.2 million number isn't huge, historically, though it would be a record. Nearly that many — 13.1 million — were on the rolls two years ago, before the gubernatorial elections. And Texas had 13.1 million voters registered as of the 2004 general election for president. Andrade's number might prove to be conservative.

As of September 22, 13,187,823 voters were registered in the state, according to Andrade's office. That number includes 2.9 million Hispanics. About two-thirds were over 40 years old. Women outnumbered men by about seven percentage points (though one in eight voters didn't check off the optional gender ID box on their registrations).

Andrade says voting officials in parts of the state hit by Hurricane Ike are fairly optimistic about the elections and says that Galveston and Chambers counties in particular had contingency plans and are telling her they'll be ready to go. Her office is also trying to get word out about voting by mail for people displaced by the storms (and anyone else who wants to vote that way). "Those that are displaced will have a way to vote," she says. "We're going to be very proactive, reaching out."

Free Advice

The two national governors' associations — one for the Democrats and one for the Republicans — hold hands and tell Congress to vote out a plan.

Govs. Rick Perry of Texas and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the heads of the Republican and Democratic governor's associations, fired off a letter to the House and Senate majority leaders telling them to put their party hats away and work out an economic fix. The letters are identical -- here's one that went to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid:

Texans in the U.S. House voted strongly against the bailout in the first round, and all four members who face serious challenges voted against it, including Democrats Nick Lampson of Stafford and Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio and Republicans John Culberson of Houston and Michael McCaul of Austin.

The Ayes of Texas in that round were Republicans Kevin Brady of The Woodlands, Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Pete Sessions of Dallas, and Lamar Smith of San Antonio, and Democrats Chet Edwards of Waco, Charlie Gonzalez of San Antonio, Ruben Hinojosa of Mercedes, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, and Silvestre Reyes of El Paso. That's five Democrats and four Republicans. The rest of the Texans — eight Democrats and 15 Republicans — voted No.

Both Texas senators voted for a sweetened version a couple of days later, and that was on its way back to the House for another try when we went to press.

Horse Race

The U.S. Senate race is closer than you think, according to a new Rasmussen Poll.

That outfit has Republican John Cornyn just seven percentage points ahead of Democrat Rick Noriega, 50 percent to 43 percent. They've had the distance between the two in the double-digits since June (a May poll by Rasmussen put it at four points before the June measured the gap at 17 points). That survey shows Cornyn with higher favorable ratings and lower unfavorable ratings than the Democrat. By Rasmussen's measure, 57 percent of voters have either a very or somewhat favorable impression of Cornyn, as against 46 percent for Noriega. Negatives? For Cornyn, 30 percent; for Noriega, 36 percent.

That polling firm has John McCain nine percentage points ahead of Barack Obama in Texas, the same margin that's separated those two since June. Their latest reading has McCain at 52 percent and Obama at 43 percent. McCain has left voters with a better impression, they said, getting favorable ratings from 63 percent of Texans. Obama's corresponding number is 52 percent. Unfavorables for McCain were at 37 percent, as against the Democrat's 46 percent. And Texans, in this poll, like Sarah Palin more than they like Joe Biden. Her favorable/unfavorable percentages in Texas are 55/43; his are 46/48.

Those results are from the same survey, a telephone poll of 500 "likely voters" done on September 29, with a margin of error of +/- 4.5 percent.

Help from the National Office

Rick Noriega got an endorsement — and more importantly, a fundraising visit — from U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, who came to McAllen to front a fundraiser for the Senate hopeful. That area was one of Clinton's strongest in the presidential primary last March, and the visit offsets a string of South Texas endorsements for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican Noriega is challenging.

Sarah Palin's first two gigs after the vice presidential debate will be in Dallas. She's scheduled to be at breakfast meeting with Hispanic leaders Friday morning, followed by a lunch in the same building with to help the Republican National Committee raise money.

And House Minority Leader John Boehner will be in the state over the weekend to help raise money for Pete Olson, the Republican challenging U.S. Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Stafford. That is, as you can see, one of the national GOP's target races this year.

Endorsements and Strange Bedfellows

Rigo Villarreal, chief of staff to Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas, took a leave of absence to help with U.S. Sen. John Cornyn's campaign. The man-bites-dog bit here is that Salinas is a Democrat and Cornyn is a Republican. The Villarreal hire was part of a Cornyn announcement that 40 South Texas leaders from both parties have endorsed his reelection effort against Democrat Rick Noriega, a state representative from Houston. Salinas isn't on the list himself, but former Webb County Judge Mercurio Martinez and current Jim Hogg County Judge Lupe Canales both are. And there are a dozen sheriffs among the people on that list.

• The Texas Parent PAC likes Democrat Donnie Dippel in the race to replace Rep. Robby Cook, D-Eagle Lake. That group disagrees with the Republican, Tim Kleinschmidt, on publicly funded vouchers for private schools. He's not against them, apparently, and that's their key issue. Kleinschmidt, meanwhile, picked up an endorsement from the Texas Farm Bureau's AGFUND over Dippel, a longtime employee of the Texas Department of Agriculture.

• The Parent PAC also endorsed Sam Murphey, the Democrat in the race to replace Rep. Dianne White Delisi. The Republican in that contest is Ralph Sheffield.

Joan Huffman won over the Texas branch of the National Federation of Independent Business in the special election in SD-17. She's one of four Republicans in that six-candidate race to replace Republican Kyle Janek in the state Senate. Chris Bell, one of the two Democrats, snagged the endorsement of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association.

Greg Meyers has a list of educators who are endorsing him over Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, and it's got a few Democrats on it. One is Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon; another is former state Rep. Diana Davila of Houston. Meyers, a Republican, is a former Houston ISD trustee. Vo, meanwhile, got the endorsements of the Texas Federation of Teachers (HFT's parent), and the Texas State Teachers Association.

Political Notes

It turns out there's a section of the state's property tax law that lets local governments ask for reappraisals of property after hurricanes and other disasters.

That would lower the tax bill for a property owner whose building was damaged or destroyed by, say, Hurricane Ike. And Republican Austen Furse got the jump on everyone, calling on governments in the 17th state Senate district to give the break to property owners there. Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, and Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, quickly joined the chorus. It has to be in an area declared a disaster by the governor (check). The taxing entity — school district, hospital district, whatever — has to call for reappraisals (not yet). Then the tax bills are prorated for the part of the year affected. In the case of Ike, that would mean taxes on the old property value for 256 days of the year, and taxes on the new value for the remainder of the year.

• Consider the source, but Mike Anderson's campaign says his polling shows he's well ahead of Democrat Robert Miklos in HD-101. The poll, done by Austin-based Shaw Research, has the former Mesquite mayor up by 13 points. They think they found the reason: Only one in eight of the respondents had heard of the Democrat.

• Same caveat, different race: Democrat Larry Joe Doherty's new poll shows him, he says, within five percentage points of U.S. Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Austin. He says McCaul's "reelect" number — the measure of how many people want him back — is under 50 percent. And two-thirds, Doherty says, don't know the incumbent's name.

• A group of groups has formed to promote career and college readiness in public schools, better career and technical education, and incentives for teachers. The members of the new Texas Coalition for a Competitive Workplace include the Texas Association of Business, the Texas Institute for Education Reform, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, the Governor’s Business Council, and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. They'll be pushing for new accountability measures to track student progress, for curriculum changes aimed at getting students ready for college, and for "pay for performance" grants to schools that do the best job.

• Flip on the oven light, peek: A Dallas appellate court heard arguments in Sen. Kim Brimer's lawsuit seeking to knock Wendy Davis off the ballot, but there's no decision yet. Brimer, the Republican incumbent, says Davis wasn't eligible to challenge him because she was still on the Fort Worth City Council after the filing deadline. It's too late to take her off the ballot if he's right, and a lower court disagreed with him this summer. No indication when the Dallas court might rule.

Political People and Their Moves

Eleanor Kim is leaving the government for DuCharme, McMillen & Associates, a tax consultancy. She was most recently head of the tax division at the State Office of Administrative Hearings and before that was a tax attorney with the Comptroller of Public Accounts.

Patrick Reinhart left Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, for the private sector. He's now in the lobby shop at the Brown McCarroll law firm.

Geoff Connor stepped down as chairman of CACH Capital Management, but the former Texas Secretary of State is still one of the firm's owners. He's got a lobby practice and a law firm to tend to.

Texas Parks & Wildlife is searching all over for a new deputy executive director for natural resources at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. That's a new position overseeing the agency's Wildlife, Coastal and Inland Fisheries divisions.

Speaker Tom Craddick appointed Rep. Vicki Truitt, R-Keller, to the State Pension Review Board.

Gov. Rick Perry had a slew of appointments, naming:

Alan Kirchhoff of Austin the director of the Texas Emerging Technology Fund, replacing Mark Ellison, who left Perry's staff to become associate vice chancellor of economic development at the Texas A&M University System. Kirchhoff was Ellison's deputy.

Donna Williams to the Texas State University System Board of Regents. She's an exec with Parsons Infrastructure and Technology.

Myrna Patterson McLeroy of Gonzales to another term on the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority Board. She's the owner of the McLeroy Land Group.

Lisa Caldwell Brent and Cole Camp of Amarillo, and Penny Cogdell Carpenter of Silverton to the Red River Authority of Texas. Brent is a clothing retailer. Camp is a designated alternate for the Panhandle Water Planning Group. And Carpenter is a rancher.

Deaths: Lobbyist and Capitol wizard Robert "Butch" Sparks, Jr., a little more than two years after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. A liquor lobbyist known as one of the Booze Brothers, he was 65.

Quotes of the Week

U.S. Rep. Louis Gohmert, R-Tyler, talking about the bailout package in USA Today: "It's like a big cow pie with a little bit of marshmallow inside and I don't want to eat the cow pie."

U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Flower Mound, on constituent reactions to the vote and the drop in stock prices, in The Dallas Morning News: "It's two-thirds 'you did the right thing,' one-third 'I wish you thought about this more'. Or maybe even a little stronger language."

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, in the Seattle Medium: "My feeling is that if you've been making eight, ten, twelve or twenty million dollars a year, why should we bail you out? You should have saved something. I think we ought to be talking about saving people who have lost their homes."

President George W. Bush: "I recognize this is a difficult vote for members of Congress. But the reality is we are in an urgent situation and the consequences will grow worse each day if we do not act."

Sahotra Sarkar, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, talking about curriculum standards with the San Antonio Express-News: "We should teach students 21st-century science — not some watered-down version with phony arguments that nonscientists disingenuously call 'weaknesses. Calling 'intelligent design' arguments a weakness of evolution is like calling alchemy a weakness of chemistry, or astrology a weakness of astronomy."

Republican House candidate Brian Walker, quoted in the Jacksonville Daily Progress on illegal immigration: "The problem is simple, find out why they are coming and then turn it off. And it's not rocket science — the magnet that is drawing them here is the jobs... We will continue to get more and more of the same until we start to heavily penalize the employers who knowingly and illegally hire illegal aliens."

Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, telling the Fort Worth Star-Telegram why he's asked for a legal opinion on the state's college tuition benefits for undocumented aliens: "If it's in violation in California, I would assume that we are also in violation here in Texas. I'm hoping to make people realize that we are a nation of laws. We have to obey our laws, and if we're in violation of federal laws then we have to correct it."

Matt Young, a Republican running in HD-45, quoted in the Austin American-Statesman on undocumented immigrants: "I'm not talking about the God-fearing, hard-working Mexican Texans that live with us. I'm talking about those who are coming over illegally, using our infrastructure, draining our resources and not paying a dime in taxes."

Texas Weekly: Volume 25, Issue 38, 6 October 2008. Ross Ramsey, Editor. Copyright 2008 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited. One-year online subscription: $250. For information about your subscription, call (512) 302-5703 or email For news, email, or call (512) 288-6598.

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