Early voting in the party primaries starts in three weeks, and the election is in five. While there are nearly 200 legislative races on the ballot, only a few are real contests. Here's a rundown of the ones worth watching.
We're not taking a global view here — these are seats that are being fought over in the March 2 primary. People who are in trouble in November have time to prepare; the folks in trouble in the primary are in trouble right now. It's not a comprehensive list: Just because there are two people on the ballot doesn't mean there's a noteworthy battle brewing. And it's not a final list: It will change several times in the next few weeks, with new information, new candidate actions and reactions, and so on. We'll publish an updated list as primary day approaches.
The toughest race on everyone's list, including ours:
HD-11: State Rep. Chuck Hopson vs. Michael Banks vs. Allan Cain. Hopson, a Jacksonville legislator, switched parties — to the Republicans from the Democrats — in the first week of November. The Republican powers-that-be in Austin were generous in their support and praise of a move that, after all, firms up their tenuous hold on a nearly evenly split Texas House. But not everyone is on board. Hopson is running against two other Republicans: Banks, in particular, is well-known in Jacksonville (there are four counties in the district: Cherokee, where Jacksonville is; Houston; Rusk; and Panola). Hopson's in a primary he's never run in before; all the Democrats who've been helping him with phone banks and block-walking are on the other team now. He's got a conservative voting record, but he's also voted with the Democrats on lots of measures. And voters aren't fawning over incumbents at the moment. Democrats will have a hard time winning the district without Hopson on their side of the ballot, but some of them would love to see him lose, just for switching. And some Republicans — within and outside the district — would rather have a Republican legislator who's been a Republican all along. Hopson carried the district by around 120 votes two years ago and is used to close races. Now he's got a new political team and everybody's attention.
The weirdest race:
SD-22: State Sen. Kip Averitt vs. Darren Yancy. Averitt filed for reelection and has a primary opponent, and then announced — after it was too late for him to get off the ballot or for someone else to get on — that he doesn't want another term in the Senate. He's a moderate. Yancy is more conservative (watch for yourself on YouTube). Averitt's from Waco and Yancy is from Burleson — a distinction that's more important than party affiliation in some parts of SD-22. Waco would like to be the geographic center in the 10-county district, but if Yancy wins, it'll move to Johnson County. No Democrat filed in the race and if Yancy wins, he'll face only a Libertarian in November. If Averitt wins, the Republicans will get to pick a new candidate and, because election laws say so, the Democrats will, too. Averitt has talked to some supporters about resigning before the year is out — as opposed to serving out a term that ends next January. If he does that, there could be a special election on top of all this. However it falls (unless Averitt has an unexpected change of heart), there will be a new senator from Central Texas next year.
Not really a race, but...:
Congress. Conventional wisdom is that nobody in the congressional delegation is in real trouble. Conventional wisdom almost always sides with the incumbents, though, and it's hard to calculate the electoral power of Tea Partiers and others angry at Washington and entrenched establishment-types in both parties. U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, is perpetually at risk: his is the most Republican district in the country represented by a Democratic congressman. And Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, is in a seat where voters generally like Republicans more than Democrats in statewide elections. But those are general election worries. The discontent among conservatives produced 11 contested GOP primaries this year. U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Rockwall, drew five opponents, but he's been in contested primaries since switching parties a couple of election cycles ago and has survived with relative ease. Nobody in Congress (from Texas) is on the March watch list at this point.
Other incumbents at risk in their party primaries:
HD-83: Rep. Delwin Jones vs. Zach Brady vs. Charles Perry. Jones, one of the 11 renegade Republicans who toppled House Speaker Tom Craddick in 2009, faces tough challenges this time focused gently on his age (he'll be 86 in April) and on calls for change. Brady, in particular, is mounting a strong challenge.
HD-98. Rep. Vicki Truitt vs. Rich DeOtte vs. Diane Thorpe vs. Giovanni Capriglione. Whether you're worried about this has something to do with where you are. It's high on the Austin list, if the conversation involves consultants and lobbyists and political financiers. Truitt's folks are talking it down.
SD-5: Sen. Steve Ogden vs. Ben Bius. The incumbent Bryan Republican faces businessman Bius, who has run unsuccessfully for other offices. Ogden brought this on himself, saying last September he wouldn't be back. Bius got into the race, as did Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown. Gattis talked to Ogden and got out of the race. Ogden got back in. Bius stayed. Ogden's got a race and the advantage.
HD-100: Rep. Terri Hodge vs. Eric Johnson. Hodge's trial on public corruption charges starts just days after the primary, so Johnson's got something to talk about. He's also a Harvard-Princeton-Penn-trained attorney with his own practice. He's organized and raising lots of money. Other Dallas Democratic officeholders — at least at the state level — are sticking with Hodge, but Johnson is getting some support from locals. Advantage: the challenger.
HD-43: Rep. Tara Rios Ybarra vs. Jose Manuel Lozano. The first race for reelection is the hardest. Rios Ybarra, a dentist from South Padre Island who defeated incumbent Juan Escobar in 2008, has a tough, well-financed opponent. She has a messy divorce case that's made headlines, and that might be behind her depending on whether her opponent wants to stir the pot. But she also has the backing of Texans for Lawsuit Reform and others, who helped her win last time.
Primaries getting attention because the winners will challenge targeted incumbents in the fall:
HD-47: David Sewell vs. Holly White Turner vs. Paul Workman. The winner will face Rep. Valinda Bolton, D-Austin, in a district where voters like statewide Republicans. Bolton held off a stiff challenge two years ago and the Republicans are hoping (as in other districts) that some of her strength came from a Democratic surge in 2008 that won't be there, they hope, in 2010.
HD-52: Stephen Casey vs. Alyssa Eacono vs. Larry Gonzales vs. John Gordon. The figuring is the same as in the Bolton race, with this difference: Rep. Diana Maldonado, D-Round Rock, is in her first defense of the seat and hasn't been battle-hardened by tough reelection contests. Gonzales and Gordon appear to be in front of the pack.
HD-78: Luis Rene Diaz vs. Robert Kleberg vs. Dee Margo. The winner will face Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, in what was, for years, a Republican seat in the Texas Legislature (Jack Vowell held it, followed by Pat Haggerty). Margo lost to Moody last time. Kleberg and Diaz are new to this.
HD-101: Greg Noschese vs. Cindy Burkett vs. Thomas Latham. Start at the back of the alphabet: Latham, a former state representative, lost a primary challenge in 2008 to the guy who then lost to Robert Miklos, now the Democratic incumbent. Burkett owns Subway franchises and is making her first run. Noschese was a Mesquite city councilman. Miklos is running for reelection for the first time, and the Republicans want to see if he was a fluke, winning in a district that belonged to the GOP for years.
HD-105: Kim Limberg vs. Loretta Haldenwang. The winner will face Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, who had the narrowest margin of victory of anyone in the Legislature on the 2008 ballot (less than two dozen votes).
Open seats where the incumbents have opted out:
HD-20: Milton Rister vs. Charles Schwertner vs. Stephen Thomas vs. Patsy Williams. This is the race to replace Rep. Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown, who's not seeking reelection. Rister and Schwertner seem to have a jump, but Thomas was on the Cedar Park city council and has a political base. Expect a runoff.
HD-36: Sergio Muñoz Jr. vs. Sandra Rodriguez. Rep. Ismael "Kino" Flores, D-Palmview, holds the seat now; he defeated Sergio the elder (and is related, through his wife) in 2000, and then survived a strong challenge in 2008 from Rodriguez. Flores' political forces are with Muñoz.
HD-66: Mabrie Griffith Jackson vs. Wayne Richard vs. Van Taylor. A race to succeed Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, with no Democrat on the horizon. The winner here will likely take office (barring an unprecedented Libertarian surge). Jackson quit the Plano city council to make the race and is the establishment favorite. Taylor ran for Congress (against Chet Edwards) a couple of cycles ago and has the ability to self-finance.
HD-84: Ysidro Gutierrez vs. Mark Griffin vs. John Frullo. Outside of Lubbock, Griffin is the best-known of the candidates to succeed GOP Rep. Carl Isett, who's not seeking another term. He's a former Texas Tech regent who says he was asked to leave for supporting Kay Bailey Hutchison over Gov. Rick Perry, who appointed him.
HD-87: Victor Leal vs. Walter Price. Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, is leaving a district that's ripe for extinction when the new redistricting maps are drawn in 2011. It's Republican territory now, and the winner of this primary will face Democrat Abel Bosquez in November.
HD-127: Martin Basaldua vs. Susan Curling vs. Dan Huberty vs. Addie Wiseman. This race to replace Rep. Joe Crabb, R-Atascocita, is going to be expensive. And it's a hard race for some trade groups. For instance: Basaldua and Curling are both doctors. Wiseman is a former Houston city councilwoman. Huberty is an energy exec and president of the Humble school board. All four had respectably stout fundraising numbers at the end of the year. A distinct runoff possibility.