Only 10 days out from Labor Day — the unofficial start of the campaign season — we bring you a scouting report on the 21 Texas House races to watch this fall. We based our picks on dozens of interviews with politicos and our own analysis of district voting patterns, campaign coffers, the relative strength of the candidates and issues that could turn each contest.
Five House incumbents have already been defeated in the primary: state Reps. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock; Norma Chavez, D-El Paso; Tommy Merritt, R-Longview; Tara Rios Ybarra, D-South Padre Island; and Betty Brown, R-Terrell. More than a dozen others — mostly freshman Democrats — appear vulnerable going into the fall.
Among the reasons for their inclusion: Voting history favors Republicans (a generic R polls nearly 10 points higher than a generic D in Texas), the Dallas Fort-Worth area is a hotbed of interesting House activity, and the “Obama wave” that swept in Democrats in 2008 may well turn into an Obama backlash. Republicans are betting the backlash will fuel a blood-red cycle in an already blood-red state. But politics being local, some allegations of unethical behavior against two Republican incumbents may swing voters against the national mood.
We broke down the races into groups ranging from most difficult seats for incumbents to hold to the longest long shots for challengers. To get a sense of their campaign kitties, our sortable campaign finance reports application has a new tab that highlights the fundraising battles in each of the races as of July 15, the last reporting deadline.
Herewith, our top 21.
FIVE SEATS MOST LIKELY TO BE OPPOSING PARTY PICKUPS
Maldonado is a freshman Democrat in a district that’s reliably Republican, setting her up for tough race even without factoring in the tough climate for Democrats this year. The former Round Rock School Board president won the seat in 2008 after longtime state Rep. Mike Krusee retired to the lobby. Gonzales — who finished second in the first round of the Republican primary but won handily in the runoff — has great friends in the GOP establishment from his days as a Capitol aide to Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and running a graphic design company that dabbles in political direct mail. Both candidates will have enough money to run strong races, but Democrats privately acknowledge Maldonado has a tough row to hoe.
Yes, this part of Williamson County district has seen more left-leaning Austinites move in — but it’s still not trending Democratic quickly enough to overcome the more energized Republican base expected to turn out. What's more, Gonzales has earned his reputation as an exceedingly hard worker, devoting almost all his waking hours to the campaign. Some Democrats have privately mused that Maldonado hasn’t done enough to fight back against the challenger’s charges that she’s ideologically out of sync with her swing district. And because both candidates have Hispanic surnames, Maldonado is not expected to have the advantage she did last time in pulling votes from that demographic.
A host of factors spell trouble for Heflin: a big-time anti-Democratic year, a huge geographic area to protect and an ideological mismatch between the district and its representative in Austin. Sure, this is the home base of well-liked former Democratic speaker Pete Laney, who was Heflin's predecessor, but it's also the most Republican House district held by a Democratic member, according to The Texas Tribune Index, a measurement of partisan rankings by district. The pro-Laney vibe that helped Heflin beat Plainview native Landtroop in 2006 appears to be less of a salve: Heflin barely won in 2008 — arguably the best year for Democrats in Texas in the past decade.
How will the incumbent persevere? To have a chance, he's going to have to find a lot of constituents who split their tickets between the two parties — because, as one consultant pointed out, “if he didn’t have help with split-ticket voting, he’d lose by like 40 percent.” Democrats hold out hope for Heflin, arguing that he has won loyalty from his district in the past four years, in part by not voting in a way that angers his conservative neighbors.
Like other East Texas Democrats, Homer is a candidate who’s almost always on the ropes, and it’s no different this year. His is one of the handful of districts held by D's that were won by John McCain in 2008. Homer and the other WD-40s (White Democrats over 40) seem to run the gauntlet cycle after cycle, and he’s managed to hold on every time.
Will his longtime loyalists have his back in the fall? Some Democrats say privately they fear they’ll lose at least one East Texas seat and that this one’s the most perilous. Homer has trade association endorsements and a strong record on rural issues, but he also has the burden of incumbency in an anti-incumbent year. Cain, an attorney and former Hopkins County party chair, will have the money he needs and grassroots support that turned out in substantial numbers for him in the GOP primary. As for the African-American vote: Democrats lack a strong turnout machine east of Interstate 35.
Harper-Brown barely eked out a 19-vote victory in 2008, when Barack Obama carried her district by 4 percentage points. This cycle, Haldenwang — a former aide to state Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio — is getting a lot of establishment Democratic help to take out the woman they’re referring to as “Linda Harper-Benz.” The four-term incumbent, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, has endured criticism for driving a Mercedes paid for by a contractor with business at the Texas Department of Transportation. Harper-Brown has fought back against the charges in a web video, since removed, saying she did nothing wrong in using the car and insisting that Washington forces are working against her. Harper-Brown has returned the Mercedes, but the questions swirling around the situation haven't gone away.
A throw-the-bums-out mood can work against either party. On the flip side, the Benz story came out pretty early in the cycle — perhaps before many voters were paying attention. The fall will be a test to see how well the Haldenwang campaign can message the Mercedes to its advantage. “The ingredients are here to oust an incumbent,” said a hopeful Robert Jones, the political director for Annie’s List, a Democratic political action committee supporting Haldenwang.
The demographics of the district are also worth noting. The Irving area is heavily Latino and, increasingly, working class. Harper-Brown's challengers say her hard-line positions don’t match the district as it has evolved. Still, she’s rushing to the right to rally her Republican base. A mail piece that went out recently accused Haldenwang of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants, which Jones called "patently false." Haldenwang is a novice, but she got some name ID after winning a competitive primary — and for a change, she's a D who's not having to play defense.
Thibaut and former state Rep. Murphy are becoming perennial foes. He beat her in a race for this seat in 2006, and she beat him in 2008. Now he's ready to reclaim his job, and Thibaut, as a freshman Democrat, is vulnerable. The Tribune's index shows HD-133 favored the Democratic slate of candidates in 2008 by an average of less than 10 points.
One thing the R's admit could work in Thibaut’s favor: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White’s popularity in Harris County. White was twice re-elected mayor with more than 85 percent of the vote, so if independents and Republicans in Harris County bypass straight-ticket voting to support him and look elsewhere on the ballot, it could be enough to help Thibaut. “It’s a question of magnitude,” said one Republican consultant.
The district has its share of wealthy neighborhoods but also a concentration of working-class dwellings. It’s diverse, with substantial Vietnamese, black and Hispanic communities. “There aren't that many swing voters in the district,” said Thibaut consultant Kier Murray. Houston observers agree there are few undecideds here, so it’s going to be about turnout. Thibaut, a former political consultant, knows what she needs to do — get out the vote — but that doesn't make it easy.
FIVE RACES ON THE BUBBLE
The GOP sounds enthusiastic about this race. The district is anchored by the town of Mesquite, due east of Dallas, and freshman Miklos was helped by a strong Obama effect in 2008. He is a smart, articulate attorney; Burkett is a well-liked Republican activist who owns a chain of Subway restaurants in the community. Democrats say Miklos' name ID is helped by his previous run here, and he has the support of fire, police and teachers groups — so even without the straight-ticket presidential-election-year voters, he can still count on local backing.
But Republicans have a few arrows in their quiver: They have the female vs. male vote in their favor (previous voting patterns show female candidates tend to get a small boost), there’s no vote-shaving Libertarian candidate in the race to worry about, and the reliably Democratic African-American turnout will be much smaller than it was in 2008. “We have a great candidate in a great district in a great year,” said Burkett consultant Craig Murphy.
Even in 2008, when Republicans didn't have the wind at their backs, McCain beat Obama in this district by 12 percentage points. But news that Driver double-billed his campaign and taxpayers for the same expenses to the tune of at least $17,000 just doesn’t sound good — never mind that it might be illegal. Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg says she’s looking into “the Driver situation.” Driver admits the double-billing but calls it a mistake and emphasizes that he’s already paid the money back to his campaign account. His supporters counter that Dorris, a human resources consultant and political newbie, is living with her parents.
The factors at work here mimic the Harper-Brown situation: In recent election cycles, when longtime incumbents have been accused of personally benefiting from campaign or tax dollars — former state Rep. Toby Goodman, R-Arlington, and former state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Fort Worth, for example — voters have punished them come Election Day. Driver’s explanation — that he didn’t know any better — makes him look incompetent at best. On the money front, Dorris has run a lean campaign so far, though donors may be more motivated now. She'll likely have enough to pay for ads hammering Driver, who could well survive, given the district's political makeup. But criminal charges or an indictment could change the game.
In a district that was long held by Republican Tony Goolsby, Carter hopes to pick off freshman Kent, yet another incumbent who was helped by the Obama wave of 2008. Now that the GOP base is energized, the simple math of the district may be enough to swing it back. Carter is a Harvard-educated former Collin County prosecutor, and she’s an African-American Republican, which could help her win a portion of the black vote that typically goes Democratic. Opponents have accused her of plagiarizing an Obama speech, but her team is taking on Kent for allegedly benefiting from the per diem she receives from the state. Still, the biggest factor in the race is enthusiasm — or lack thereof. How frustrated is the Democratic base with the president and Congress? Will they turn out?
Republicans think the district, which includes some of the area's most affluent suburbs but also is home to white-collar job cutbacks, gives them a chance to turn part of Travis County red. Bolton first won here in 2006 and was re-elected by just a couple thousand votes in 2008. Workman is battle-tested after winning a tough primary and runoff, and he's raised an impressive amount of money — $100,000 in the first half of this year. (He also has deep enough pockets to self-finance.) The key for Workman is to turn his message from the Republican raw meat he served up during the primary to more local issues that will sway independents. Still, Bolton has the edge. She survived a test in her first re-election race against Donna Keel, and the Travis County Democratic Party is working hard to protect her. A sustained high turnout in the county, where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2-to-1, will work to her advantage.
Based on demographics alone, this rematch between Turner and former state Rep. Zedler favors the latter. The Republicans supporting Zedler will try to turn Turner’s voting record against him. “In 2008, he was running as an outsider against the system, and [he] now has a record that’s going to be tough to explain to some of the folks in the district,” said Republican consultant Todd Olsen, whose Associated Republicans of Texas group is financially supporting Zedler. The only hitch may be Zedler himself. Republicans privately say hard-working Turner couldn’t have drawn a more ideal opponent than Zedler, whose awkward personal style and hard-right values are detached from his suburban Arlington district, where new voters are moving in and the issues they care about are in flux.
ELEVEN RACES WHERE UPSETS ARE POSSIBLE
The incumbent represents a swing district that elects Republican officials: a GOP county judge, a GOP sheriff and three GOP county commissioners. It also chose McCain over Obama in 2008. Scott challenged Herrero that year and lost, and Democrats are confident their man will prevail again. But the shift locally from R to D could be a bad harbinger for Herrero, especially since Scott comes armed with money and a motivated volunteer force she didn’t have in 2008. Another element: The district has twice the number of senior citizens than most on the list, and that bloc tends to favor R's. Scott and her husband, who owns a big construction company, have both been involved in Republican politics in the area for years, which helps her offset Herrero's good name ID. “Tea Party folks may not have been involved before but are interested in a number of issues created by the Obama administration,” said Craig Murphy, a Republican consultant who's not working for Scott. “And they’re disproportionately in that district.”
This is an East Texas race, so the raw numbers aren’t with the Democrat. Lavender is a small-business man who’s been active in the GOP within the past few years, but sources on both sides of the aisle have said Lavender — who made a failed bid for the House two years ago — hasn’t impressed donors enough to get the money he needs to make a real run at the incumbent. “I think he will be outspent, especially running against someone like Frost, who will get a lot of money from outside the district,” Olsen said. But there's still time for the financial tide to turn in Lavender's favor. "He ain’t the same candidate he was two years ago," said Republican consultant Allen Blakemore. "He’s taken a few more test drives and is a far more confident, polished candidate this time around."
This Houston district remains Republican-leaning, but it's slowly trending Democratic. It has a heavy concentration of apartment homes and an increasing Latino population, which is enough to make Bohac a target. Yarborough-Camarena’s father, Ken Yarborough, lost this seat to Bohac in 2002, and she's going to make an issue of the 2009 flap over Bohac’s business partner working inside the Harris County Voter Registration office, potentially to the benefit of Bohac or his consulting clients (Bohac has denied any wrongdoing). The challenge for the D's is that Bohac, who was born and raised in the district, has done a great job of paying attention to his constituents, and the numbers show he consistently outperforms other local R's. He’s also a tenacious campaigner who “block-walks like no one I’ve ever met,” said a Republican consultant who's not on Bohac’s payroll.
This is another Democrat-held house district that McCain carried in 2008. “Isaac is the perfect candidate in a perfect year,” said GOP consultant Eric Bearse. Isaac raised a few eyebrows this summer when he showed a fundraising haul that was more than that of Rose’s last three GOP opponents combined. He's running in a year when Rose can’t rely on strong Democratic turnout to get him re-elected. But Rose is a prolific fundraiser himself and almost certainly won't be outspent. It’s not cheap to advertise in the Austin media market, but Rose has paid for plenty of TV before and will do it again if need be. “Anyone who underestimates [Rose] is a fool,” said GOP consultant Jason Johnson. “Rep. Rose has consistently proven to be a hard worker who communicates with his constituents and evaluates legislation based on how it will impact his district first and his party second. ... The district he represents is probably to the right of him, but at the end of the day, he really works very hard to thread the needle.”
In a district that went 69 percent for McCain in 2008, incumbent Anderson would have nothing to worry about — if not for news that two federal tax liens totalling nearly $70,000 were filed against him this year. He blames a dispute between him and the IRS. The two-term Central Texas veterinarian beat former state Rep. Mabry in 2004, the first cycle after 2003’s mid-decade redistricting. Mabry’s hoping voters will remember him this time around. Anderson will have to run more aggressively than he has in the past two election cycles to maintain his advantage. Democrats are desperately hoping that they can benefit from the anti-incumbent mood that plagues them elsewhere.
Margo has gone 0-for-2 so far in his bid for a spot in the Legislature, but the insurance company CEO — an exceptional fundraiser, with big El Paso backers like Paul Foster and Woody Hunt in his corner — could take what Olsen calls "as much of a Republican district in El Paso as you're going to get.” Some argue that he lost two years ago to freshman Moody only because Obama advertised on El Paso TV to win New Mexico. The district was held for years by Republican Pat Haggerty, whom Margo beat in the GOP primary in 2008. His consultant, Kevin Shuvalov, calls Moody’s victory an anomaly made possible by Obama’s straight-ticket vote. This time around, Moody has a voting record that Margo can take issue with: Margo’s going to argue that, in the face of the state deficit, voters will want a fiscal conservative. But Democrats don’t sound too concerned. They say Moody has served the district well, that El Paso is still Democratic and that the incumbent will be helped by his father, Bill Moody, a respected jurist in the community.
The possible concern for Democrats here is the seven-county district that stretches from just south of San Antonio to north of Corpus Christi and around to Alice. Here, too, Obama lost by double digits in 2008. Gonzalez Toureilles counts on the Alice and Kingsville parts of her district; Aliseda calls Beeville home. With so much ground to protect, geography's a major factor in this race. Aliseda, a former George W. Bush and Rick Perry appointee, doesn’t have the name ID of the incumbent and supporters say Gonzalez Toureilles can count on strong support from the cowboys in in the district — the agriculture community loves her. Then again, in a year in which anything can happen, she has to be on the list. “When you have multi-media markets, resources are going to be important,” Olsen said.
Howard is helped by having won a few re-election bids already, by stockpiling cash for a couple of cycles, and by the anecdotal wisdom that indicates women turn out more than men in this west Travis County district. According one of his fundraising letters, Neil, the former UT All-American and Denver Broncos offensive lineman, will be targeting Howard's record on a few social issues, like when she voted against putting "In God We Trust" over the House voting board. But how well will social issues play with the business Republicans in this district? Howard is in safer shape than Bolton, her fellow Austin delegation member, though in a Republican year, she'll still have to watch her back.
Freshman Kleinschmidt hasn’t been in office long enough to get thrown out because of the anti-incumbent wave, and his district is reliably red. But it was long held by Democrat Robbie Cook. Jacobs, whose family has owned a cattle ranch in the area for 50 years, is said to be a substantive, credible candidate who'll be able to stand her ground on rural issues like protecting water and conservation of natural resources. This Highway 71 corridor district is anchored by La Grange in the East and Bastrop County in the west. Bastrop accounts for about 40 percent of the votes; to the extent that Bastrop has become an Austin bedroom community, with more voters who vote like Austinites, Democrats have a small sliver of hope.
This district, previously represented by conservative state Rep. Robert Talton, is now becoming very Hispanic on the north side, so the numbers here might give Democrats an outside chance. The freshman incumbent won by a hair in 2008. “It's pretty Democratic — it just doesn't vote in high numbers,” Murray said. To his advantage, Legler has a base of voters that turns out. Democrats privately fret that Molina, a former prosecutor, hasn’t worked as hard as he could, so the threat of an upset is less than it could have been.
Hartnett is in a district gradually becoming more of a swing area, and Wellik, an accountant, is expected to get enough money in the fall to run a decent challenge against the 10-term incumbent. Democrats hang their hopes on the fact Hartnett hasn't been tested for a long time, but privately they concede this district will be tough to take.