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Fight Club

With 198 legislators on the ballot next year, there ought to be more fear in the air. But only a few are in obvious political trouble. Who's on the list, and what makes them vulnerable?

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With 198 legislators on the ballot next year, there ought to be more fear in the air. But only a few are in obvious political trouble.

Who's on the list, and what makes them vulnerable?

For Kristi Thibaut, a Democrat, it's three things. She'll face Jim Murphy next November. He's the Republican she beat, narrowly, a year ago. It's a Houston swing district, and she doesn't have Barack Obama on the ballot — and an excited Democratic electorate — to swell the numbers in her favor. Third, she's seeking a sophomore term, which means she hasn't held the seat long enough for the powers of incumbency to flower. Those powers are partly financial, with political action committees and their ilk tending to support people who are already in office. But candidates also get battle-hardened after several elections. They know who their supporters are, who'll knock on doors, and who'll volunteer. Thibaut and her opponent, who's been in more races, come out even by that measure.

For Mark Homer, it's political geography. He's fended off challengers for years and Democrats think he's got a good chance at doing it again next year. But his is an almost overwhelmingly Republican district. He's one of several WD-40s — White Democrats Over 40 — hanging onto a rural seat where voters generally vote for people in the other party.

For Linda Harper-Brown, it's demographics. The Irving Republican represents a district that has become steadily more ethnically diverse, and steadily more Democratic. In 2008, she squeezed past a lackluster Democratic candidate after a recount, winning by fewer than two dozen votes.

Chuck Hopson was on everyone's list. He was in the most Republican House district in the state represented by a Democrat. He changed parties two weeks ago, taking himself off the list of vulnerable candidates in next November's election while moving himself to the list of people who are vulnerable in March. Hopson, now a Republican, faces a GOP primary opponent, Michael Banks, who'll be crowing about the new convert's Democratic voting record. The district is likely to send a Republican to the next legislative session, but which one?

Not all of the vulnerable candidates have opponents yet. Just wait. Major-party candidates start filing for office in two weeks, on December 3, and they have until the end of business on January 4 to add their name to the ballots. There will be four groups of names: those who have primary opponents, those with general election opponents, those with both, and those with neither.

Some, like Lubbock Republican Delwin Jones, face serious primary competition. Not everyone with an opponent will be in trouble. And there will be a lot of open seats — where members like Steve Ogden and Eliot Shapleigh and Brian McCall and David Farabee decide not to seek reelection or where Dan Gattis leaves to run for state Senate — where vulnerability isn't the issue.

The GOP has a slim advantage in the Texas House, and the game there is simple: Democrats want to regain the majority, and Republicans want to widen it. The odds are with the Republicans, after Hopson's defection and Farabee's retirement. Taken together, those moves probably give the GOP a 78-72 advantage. The donkeys remain hopeful, while the elephants are trying to wipe the smiles off their faces. "It's impossible the Democrats will win," says Republican consultant Craig Murphy. "I think the Democrats will have a hard time picking up any new ones."

Murphy also said candidates who look viable — particularly the ones who look good as the fall general election gets close — don't have to have the ability to raise money. It'll come, he says. "Money's just going to be there for a Republican in a targeted race," he says.

Matt Angle, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant who's played heavily in Texas House races for the last few cycles, admits the Democrats have more districts to defend and that the number of vulnerable Republicans has shrunk. That last part is because the Democrats have been adding seats since the Republicans drew redistricting maps in 2003. "Those districts were drawn to elect 85 Republicans," he says. "We're fighting on enemy turf."

"The key for us is to be aggressive in six to eight districts," Angle says.

Republican and Democratic consultants agree on many of the vulnerable candidates. Both sides know where the fights will be. In no particular order:

Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton. With Hopson joining the Republicans and Farabee preparing for self-retirement, Heflin now has the most Republican district represented by a Democrat. The average statewide Republican candidate in that district beats the average statewide Democrat by 32 percentage points.

Stephen Frost, D-Atlanta. He's on the list for the same reason Heflin is, and Homer, and why Jim McReynolds of Lufkin is on some lists. He's a Democrat in Republican territory, and the Republicans hope, as they hoped before, to knock him off. And by the way, there are no Republicans in the Texas House, the Texas Senate, or the state's delegation to Congress who represent areas where Democrats generally win statewide elections.

Ken Legler, R-Pasadena, and Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington. Both have the sophomore thing going. Kleinschmidt won a district that had been in Democratic hands for years and they want it back. But Democrats consider him less vulnerable than Legler, who won a tough Republican primary in 2008 and did it in Pasadena, which the Democrats think could swing in their direction. Republicans don't consider either lawmaker to be in real danger.

Diana Maldonado, D-Round Rock, Carol Kent, D-Dallas, Chris Turner, D-Burleson, and Robert Miklos, D-Mesquite. Like Thibaut, each of them took a district away from the Republicans last year. Throw in the sophomore thing. And count on tons of GOP money for their opponents. These four (five, with Thibaut) are on both the Republican target lists and the Democratic defender lists. Get ready to rumble.

A few count as outliers — reelection candidates who don't make all the lists, but make enough to merit mention here. They're less vulnerable — or appear to be — than the others, but if you were their mother, you'd worry: Reps. Dwayne Bohac, R-Houston, Allen Vaught, D-Dallas, Joe Moody, D-El Paso, and Valinda Bolton, D-Austin. Then there are long-shots — candidates who can probably expect to be targeted and who, if they goof, could move up on the list: Paula Pierson, D-Arlington, Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, Joe Driver, R-Garland, and Abel Herrero, D-Robstown.

All those names and nothing from the Texas Senate or the U.S. Congress?

We can't point you to a Senate incumbent who's vulnerable. Republican Joan Huffman of Houston represents a district that under the right circumstances could elect a Democrat. On paper, anyway: She beat well-financed Democrat Chris Bell in a special election last December. The Democrats aren't likely to spend the money this time.

Two races to watch in the congressional elections, though the operatives in the two parties disagree on vulnerability. The Democrats are making a run at Michael McCaul, R-Austin, with high-tech executive Jack McDonald. The Republicans just don't count McCaul as an endangered incumbent. The Republicans, meanwhile, will likely make another run at Chet Edwards, D-Waco. His is the sixth-most Republican congressional district in Texas, and he's successfully defended it for years. But it's Red turf, and Edwards was on the short list for vice president when Obama was shopping for a number two. That could help, and it could hurt. Either way, he's on the GOP target list.

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