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The Hunted

Republicans looking to grow their majority in the Texas House have set their sights on rural districts held by "WD-40s" — white Democrats over the age of 40, who hope their personal reputations will trump political considerations in what's shaping up to be a GOP year.

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As a Democrat in the Republican stronghold of rural Texas, Wichita Falls state Rep. David Farabee followed a simple recipe for keeping his seat: avoid hard stands on guns, abortion and tort reform.

“If we are flexible on those key issues,” he says, “then I think a Democrat can prevail in a district that is small, where you can communicate your true position and not let your opponent paint you with a broad partisan brush.”

This election cycle, like the last one and the one before, will put that theory to the test as Republicans attempt to gain House seats by winning conservative rural districts held by House Democrats informally known as the "WD-40s" — white Democrats over the age of 40. (Though one of them, state Rep. Stephen Frost, D-New Boston, currently defending his seat against Republican George Lavender, is a mere 38.)

The WD-40s (except for state Rep. Allan Ritter, D-Nederland, who drew no opponent this cycle) will have to rely on their established reputations to defeat well-heeled GOP challengers in what pundits maintain is a Republican year. Lately the group has lost two of its members — but not because they’ve gotten voted out. After 12 years in the House, Farabee is retiring to focus on family and business, he says. Another WD-40, state Rep. Chuck Hopson of Jacksonville, quit the group this year via an alternative route: He switched parties.

“The decision I made better reflects my district,” Hopson says. “The people up here have told me, ‘Thank you very much. You’re the only Democrat I ever voted for. This way, I’ll get to vote straight ticket.’”

The WD-40s depend on voters willing to step away, momentarily, from their otherwise unshakable allegiance to the Republican party. In 2008, as a Democratic wave swept much of the country, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama only managed to garner 28 percent of the vote in the district of state Rep. Mark Homer, D-Paris, leaving him to climb out of a 22-point hole to win a majority (in fact, he finished with nearly 52 percent of the vote).

“What doesn’t kill rural Democrats only makes them stronger,” says Democratic consultant Jim Dow, the executive director of the WD-40-friendly Texas 20/20 political action committee. “Every time someone’s taken their shot and missed, our candidates have spent time and money to grow their name ID, lists, field operation, grassroots and connections to their communities.”

This year, Homer faces a tough challenge from Republican Erwin Cain, who has raised more money ($265,945) than any other challenger in a Texas House race. That’s also more money than any candidate, period, except for state Rep. Patrick Rose, a rural Democrat who hauled in $291,936 — thanks in part to the generosity of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the tort reform backers who give mostly to Republicans.

In the Panhandle, the tort group is backing Republican Jim Landtroop, who has a cash advantage in his rematch against state Rep. Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton. Heflin gained entry to the Texas House in 2006 by defeating Landtroop by a margin of less than 1 percent. Libertarian David Schumacher took nearly 3 percent of the vote that year — ultimately helping the Democrat prevail, as Libertarian candidates in a three-way-race often do. But no Libertarian is on the ballot in 2010, and Heflin now must win a straight-up race.

“They’re going to see through his voting record that he’s not a true conservative,” says Landtroop, who anticipates a Republican wave fueled by Obama fatigue. “They see what happens when Democrats get in control, and even though it’s on a national level, it trickles down.”

Democratic consultant Jeff Crosby doesn’t buy that argument. “There’s a wave of people out there who are angry as hell at the U.S. Congress and, to a large extent, President Obama," he says. "That does not mean automatically that that they are mad at a state legislator who’s a Democrat.”

Heflin says West Texas issues will sway his race. "My constituents look on this race as a local race," he says. "They know I’m not Washington." When Republican presidential candidate John McCain got 76 percent of the vote in his district in 2008, Heflin managed to win with 53 percent. This non-presidential election year will almost certainly attract lower turnout and feature more-local issues, which Heflin hopes will work in his favor.

Also potentially working in Heflin's favor: He's one of the Legislature's more conservative Democrats. “Good grief,” Crosby says. “The Republican legislators recruited Heflin to switch parties last November. He’s hardly what somebody would call a liberal.”

Republican James White is aiming at a target on the back of state Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, this year, and he’s employing some of those broad strokes with that partisan brush Farabee described. “Unfortunately,” White says of McReynolds, “the current incumbent has taken on the liberal Democratic playbook.”

Though it might ease the path to re-election, McReynolds, who has 14 years' worth of legislative reputation and record behind him, says he would never consider switching parties. “I was Jim long before this, and I’m going be Jim long after it’s over,” McReynolds says. “I’m not having an identity crisis — I promise you that.”

Put another way, he says, “In the Church of Christ, if you get a sex change, I won’t sit by you next Sunday.”

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