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A Sophomore Slump?

Half a dozen Democratic House members first elected in 2008 face an important test this fall: Can they win re-election on their own merits, without the help of high turnout generated by a popular presidential candidate? Republicans believe the combination of the current anti-incumbent mood, the Obama backlash and the built-in advantage that the GOP enjoys in Texas spells doom for Dems up and down the ballot. But the freshmen playing defense point to a few factors working in their favor.

These freshmen state lawmakers are battling to hang onto their seats this fall.

Texas House Democrats may be facing a freshman-retention problem. Of the two-dozen contested House races this fall, six are matchups in which a Democrat elected in 2008 — by a small margin — will have to fight hard to hold the seat.

Democratic state Reps. Carol Kent of Dallas, Robert Miklos of Mesquite, Joe Moody of El Paso, Kristi Thibaut of Houston, Diana Maldonado of Round Rock and Chris Turner of Arlington each won two years ago at least in part thanks to high turnout generated by a high-wattage presidential election. Each of their districts was previously held by a Republican — and not just for a term, but multiple terms. “I’ve lived in the district for 25 years, and I’ve never had a Democrat representative [until 2008],” says Cindy Burkett, a Republican challenging Miklos in southeast Dallas County’s House District 101. When Moody won in HD-78 in 2008, he became the first Democrat to occupy the seat in nearly three decades.

That was then. Now, the GOP is working to reclaim those districts, relying on anti-incumbent, anti-government fervor. Texas Republicans, who already dominate the Capitol, expect this November’s elections to serve up the largest majority they’ve seen in the House since 2002.

“[Voters] are angry. A lot of the folks we talk to don’t feel confident in the direction of our country, and that’s translating down to the local politics as well,” says Larry Gonzales, the Republican hoping to unseat Maldonado in Williamson County's HD-52.

Back to normal

Republican challengers and their consultants believe 2008 was an outlier. Once turnout returns to non-presidential-year levels, they say, the natural equation will return Republicans to the seats they held for years. “It’s gotten back to normal now,” says GOP consultant Craig Murphy, whose clients include Burkett and Republican Stefani Carter, who’s challenging Kent. “These are solidly Republican districts for the most part, and so they are going to perform as a normal 'R' district in a normal 'R' year.”

This year might be worse than normal for Democrats. Poll numbers point to the likelihood of depressed Democratic turnout. A Sept. 7 Gallup poll shows Republicans are twice as enthusiastic about their prospects this fall — 50 percent of Republicans are “very enthusiastic” about voting in November, while only 25 percent of Democrats are. Mix that with the state’s built-in advantage for Republicans and you get a pretty poisonous cocktail for Democrats up and down the ballot.

Beyond the fundamentals, challengers have a new weapon at their disposal: their opponents’ voting records. Ask Gonzales for an example of how he and Maldonado would differ as lawmakers and he points to her vote to approve an amendment last session that called for the state to buy a refrigerator for store owners who stocked fruits and vegetables. “I’m a 'no' vote on that; she’s a 'yes' vote on that. I’m 'no' because I believe a free-market system. I’m not going to put the state in the position to go into a bad business deal, because that’s not what’s going to sell,” Gonzales says. Burkett cites Miklos’ support of the local option transportation bill last session that would have allowed communities to vote on possible tax increases to pay for road infrastructure needs. “That’s basically a tax increase,” Burkett says.

But talk to the freshmen playing defense and they’ll remind you that politics is local — while numbers and fundamentals shape conventional wisdom, personal relationships and candidate performance can go a long way in shaping voter decisions. Do voters remember, for instance, Maldonado’s time on the Round Rock ISD School Board? Or Murphy’s time in the 2007 Legislature? How many voters will be moved by a convincing conversation at their door? “I wouldn’t necessarily say I came in on some sort of [Obama] wave,” Miklos says. “The people in each of these districts make a personalized, personal decision as to who they want to represent them in the Legislature.”

The freshmen also see changing district demographics as a silver lining. Urban areas favor Democrats, so to the extent that those urban dwellers have relocated to suburban areas like Round Rock, Mesquite and Arlington, Democrats have some hope of hanging on. “We don’t think this was a fluke,” says Keir Murray, a Houston consultant working for Thibaut. “These were districts that were already moving rapidly in the 'D' direction, and 2008 simply accelerated that trend. We now have the ability to identify more than enough races to win in an off year, and that’s the largest part of the battle. 2008 gave us a much bigger universe to go after.”

Endorsement edge

Then there are endorsements. Opinions vary on whether voters are swayed by them, but when you’re a member of a group backing an incumbent, that might be enough to move you. Several of the targeted freshmen have backing from major interest groups with thousands of members, like the Texas Association of Realtors, the National Federation of Independent Business and others. “I would like to think that our endorsement does help back at home. In a couple of these races, a few hundred votes can swing it your way. If we get behind a candidate we like, the members [of the group] take our information we put together and they’ll back him,” says David Reynolds, who leads TEXPAC, the political arm of the 45,000-physician-member Texas Medical Association. Reynolds says his group chose Turner over his challenger, former lawmaker Bill Zedler, largely on the “friendly incumbent rule.”

“You’re never going to agree 100 percent,” Reynolds says, “so you say, well, this person is an incumbent. Are they friendly? It’s subjective. If you line anything up and can say, yeah, you have no reason to not endorse them, not support them and you want to be friendly and you want them to be friendly to us. I suspect that most associations probably follow that rule.”

Associations also tend to pour money into the campaigns, which helps fuel the incumbents’ messages. But campaign finance numbers from the latest reporting period show challengers outraised all six defending freshmen and that only three of the six head into the final sprint to Election Day with the lead in cash on hand.

In El Paso, Moody says he’s used to a money disadvantage. His Republican opponent, Dee Margo, is outraising and outspending him just as he did in 2008. “He’s famous for raising a lot of money, and he’s also lost two general elections,” Moody says.

Turnout, turnout, turnout

As in any close election, both sides agree voter turnout will be key factor this fall. That built-in Republican advantage is substantial: A generic Republican running for the Legislature registered 15 percentage points higher than a generic Democrat in the September University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. And it’s hard to know whether — and to what degree — Democratic voting will be depressed. “It’s hard to even find Democrats who want to take part in a poll,” Murphy says.

But Democrats argue that 2008 gave them so much voter data — identified so many households that voted in the Democratic primary — that just getting a good chunk of them back this fall will be enough to tip the scales in their favor. “We don’t think we’re going to get all of those people back," Murray says. "But we can get a good number back by simply aggressively talking to them at the door and telling our story.”

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State government 2010 elections Chris Turner Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature