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Seat Warmers?

Dallas County Republicans are jockeying for a chance to topple two freshman Democrats who seized House districts in 2008. The incumbent Dems — hoping to claim their first House majority in eight years — are girding for battle.

Rep. Carol Kent, D-Dallas, and Rep. Robert Miklos, D-Mesquite

Texas Republicans have Dallas County in their crosshairs.

From Far North Dallas to Mesquite, GOP candidates are vying for a chance to reclaim traditionally Republican House seats and to hold on to or expand their majority in the Legislature. But Democratic incumbents are clinging to their seats — and fighting uphill to win their party’s first House majority since 2002. At stake? Not just neck-and-neck policy votes, but the advantage in the 2011 House redistricting battle.

GOP operatives say freshman state Reps. Robert Miklos, D-Mesquite, and Carol Kent, D-Dallas, were swept into office in 2008 by a one-time-only surge of Democratic enthusiasm directly tied to Barack Obama's historic run for the presidency. Their House districts — 101 and 102, respectively —  supported George W. Bush in 2004 with more than 56 percent of the vote. In 2008, Obama got 50.2 percent of the vote in both districts.

Democratic lawmakers say the 2010 election will have its own turnout-driving candidates on the ballot, including Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and Houston-mayor-turned-gubernatorial-hopeful Bill White. And Miklos and Kent say they’re confident their districts switched parties in 2008 because voters were ready for a change, not because Obama led the ticket. Republicans have only won back two House seats Democrats have claimed since 2002. Still, Kent says, “We’re not taking anyone for granted, no matter who the challenger might be.”

Dallas County Republican Party Chairman Jonathan Neerman calls Miklos, an attorney, the "A-1 in danger Democratic candidate in Dallas.” “District 101 is the most likely to flip to be Republican,” Neerman says. There are three Republican candidates running in the March primary to challenge Miklos: former Mesquite Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Greg Noschese, former state Rep. Thomas Latham and local businesswoman Cindy Burkett. “We still feel it’s a Republican district,” Neerman says. “I mean no disrespect to Miklos, but I do consider [his election] a fluke.”

Miklos says that idea is laughable. In 2008, he defeated popular Mesquite Mayor Mike Anderson, someone who he says had far more name recognition than any of the Republican candidates running for his seat this time. “No doubt, it will be a hard race,” Miklos says. “But the people who elected me, and elected me for a reason, didn’t move away. They’re still here.”

The Dallas GOP’s second target is Kent’s North Dallas district, where two Republicans — former Collin County prosecutor Stefani Carter and Geoffrey Bailey, a consultant to T. Boone Pickens — are competing in the primary. Neerman says that in Kent’s 2008 election, some majority-minority precincts showed up to the polls in unexpectedly high numbers. He says it’s unclear whether Kent can replicate that turnout without Obama at the top of the ballot. “I’m not sure she can,” Neerman says. "102 is a seat I think we can win."

Kent says she’s not under any illusions that her re-election bid is "going to be a cakewalk.” But she says she won in 2008 not because of Obama but because of her history of school board service and volunteerism in her district. “I have seen myself as a solid representative for the people who live here,” Kent says. “I hope that in 2010, I’ll again be their choice.”

While Republicans are plotting how to take back 101 and 102, Democrats are hopeful they can grab the Irving House seat held by Republican Rep. Linda Harper-Brown. They nearly snapped up District 105 in 2008; after a recount, Democrat Bob Romano lost by 19 votes — out of nearly 40,000 cast. Neerman says Democrats shouldn’t get their hopes up with candidates Loretta Haldenwang, a business consultant, or Kim Limberg, a former Texas Department of Transportation director, both of whom are running in next month’s primary. Harper-Brown “was able to survive the 2008 tidal wave, and it made her realize she’s going to have to run an even harder campaign in 2010,” he says. “I don’t think the race will be nearly as close this time.”

But state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, says North Texas Democrats should be aggressive. He says that year after year, Dallas County becomes increasingly Democratic, and that the party should take advantage of it. “Regardless of how strong or weak a Democratic ticket is,” Anchia says, “I’ve seen no sign of a reversal in that trend.”

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