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The Life Jacket

For some incumbent Republican House members who might otherwise be struggling to stay above water — Harper-Brown, Bohac, Driver, Kleinschmidt, Anderson, Hartnett, Legler — President Barack Obama may be just the flotation device they need.

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For some Republican incumbents struggling to stay afloat, Barack Obama may be the sweetest political gift this campaign season: a life jacket.

Two years ago, a Democratic tide helped usher into the Texas House a new crop of lawmakers who narrowed the GOP’s majority. This year, the tide has reversed, with Republicans hoping the anti-Democratic sentiment fueled by public disappointment with Obama will help cement their grip on the lower chamber. “The pendulum has swung the other way, and the reaction has been swift, and it’s been severe,” says Republican Party of Texas spokesman Chris Elam.

GOP state Reps. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving, Joe Driver of Garland, Charles "Doc" Anderson of Waco, Tim Kleinschmidt of Lexington, Will Hartnett of Dallas, Dwayne Bohac of Houston and Ken Legler of Houston find themselves squarely in the sights of Democrats as the Nov. 2 election draws closer. In a typical year, those Democrats would pose a significant threat because the legislators represent swing districts — where demographic change means Republicans and Democrats have a pretty even shot at winning — and because some of them have been tarred by scandals. But this year, unhappiness with Obama’s perceived inability to deliver the nation from its financial woes could trump the targets' problems and allow them to keep their jobs. “The Republican-favorable environment will insulate Republican candidates in these races, but it’s not going to save them on their own,” says Texas Tribune pollster Jim Henson, who runs the Texas Politics Project and teaches government at the University of Texas.

"All the Republicans are happy, and all the Democrats are in a state of depression," says Republican campaign consultant Allen Blakemore. In some cases where incumbent GOP legislators have faced personal and political setbacks, Blakemore says, the Obama backlash could be a saving grace. But in other cases, he says, it will just give the Republican incumbent a larger victory. "Whether they had a bump in the road or not is really immaterial," Blakemore says. "These guys have got nothing to worry about."

In the Houston area, Bohac faces a tough challenge from Democrat Kendra Yarbrough Camarena, a public school teacher and the daughter of former state Rep. Ken Yarbrough, who served in the Texas House from 1991 until 2003. In the last year, Bohac has faced ethical questions related to a company he started, Computer Data Systems, that sells voter information. A director at the company also worked as associate voter registrar in the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector's office. Keats Norfleet, Bohac's campaign spokesman, says the legislator has done nothing wrong, and that voters in the district are happy with the job he's done. "Dwayne works harder than any other politician I've been around, and he has delivered for his local community," Norfleet says. While the anti-Obama mood may motivate more people to go to the polls, Norfleet says Bohac would win without the president's unwitting help. Bohac was re-elected with 59 percent of the vote in 2008, when Obama's popularity was at its peak. "He's going to do well because he’s payed attention to his district," Norfleet says.

Craig Murphy, a spokesman for Driver, says Obama outrage is just one factor that works in his client's favor. Driver’s campaign ran into trouble recently when The Associated Press reported that he double-billed taxpayers for $17,000 in travel expenses. The Dallas Morning News subsequently endorsed his Democratic challenger, Jamie Dorris, who works at a human resources consulting firm. Still, Murphy claims, the campaign's internal polling shows Driver ahead, although the incumbent isn't taking anything for granted. “He’s running a full-out campaign,” Murphy says.

Obama could be the difference-maker for Harper-Brown, though. She's in perhaps the most dire straits this political season, having defeated her virtually unknown Democratic opponent two years ago by just 19 votes. “She’s been in trouble really since the day after she was certified in her last election,” Henson says. “And it’s only gotten worse.” This year, she faces Democrat Loretta Haldenwang, a young Dallas business consultant whom the Morning News also endorsed this month. Harper-Brown, who serves the House Transportation Committee, came under fire in June when the Morning News reported that she was driving a Mercedes-Benz owned by "a company that makes millions through state transportation contracts" — a company that also employed her husband. Harper-Brown has since returned the car, and Elam says she’s working hard to keep voters’ support. “Linda Harper-Brown has shown she’s a fighter,” he says. From July to September, she raised more than $185,000 and spent some $167,000 to finance her fight — more than twice what Haldenwang raised and spent during the same period. If Harper-Brown survives, Henson says, it will almost certainly be the result of Obama outrage. 

In other swing districts, including those held by Legler, Hartnett and Kleinschmidt, the incumbents haven’t had to explain away high-profile scandals, but in any other year they would still face challenging re-election odds, Henson says, simply because their constituents are unpredictable. This year, however, GOP voters are much better mobilized, Henson says. “In the absence of some … race-specific factor, these Republican candidates in these districts can expect a low- to mid-single-digit bump from the political environment,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Democrats are confident that they can wire around the Obama effect, particularly in districts with scandal-tainted incumbents. The anti-Obama rhetoric is a "distraction," says Texas Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirsten Gray. “We’ve seen among Texas Republicans a real desire to convince voters that they are somehow running against Washington. This is a state election year, and our candidates have been very active in their communities talking about Texas issues.”

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