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Some Candidates Would Prefer Electoral Danger

No candidate wants to be in trouble at election time. But they don't want their supporters to think they're shoo-ins, either.

Vote sign outside of Pan AM Recreation Center in Austin, TX on July 31, 2012.

Most voters haven’t focused on all of the races they will decide at the polls in November. Until now, the details have been the territory of political professionals: candidates, consultants, financiers, activists, reporters and lobbyists.

Those professionals and other political oddsmakers in Texas have marked several races as over. Some calls are easy: only one candidate is in a race, or a major party candidate didn’t draw major party opposition. Some are based on the numbers.

Charles Morgan, D-Buffalo, would have to rub a lamp with a genie inside to unseat Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, in November. Barack Obama got just 29.7 percent of the vote in the district in 2008. Gov. Rick Perry got 62.7 percent in the district in his 2010 general election race. Morgan lost to Cook in a previous race by a substantial margin.

It’s not his fault — he was and is fighting on Republican turf.

Some are closer calls. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, is running in a district where both Obama and Perry were on the short end. That result for Perry had something to do with his 2010 opponent — former Mayor Bill White of Houston — but almost everybody thinks she’s got a race this year against Ann Johnson, her Democratic foe.

Rep. Jason Isaac, R-Dripping Springs, isn’t on the battleground lists. But he is nervous. His Democratic opponent, John Adams, is a former school board member and has a famous and patriotic name. He also has Isaac’s full attention, even if the incumbent has to work to convince people that he’s in trouble.

Others are in similar shape, trying to get elected in districts that don’t show up on the lists but that might be competitive in November. Some are telling the truth. Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, is in electoral peril every two years, in part because of the shifting demographics in what used to be a boringly reliable Republican stronghold.

It’s also the season for raising money for campaigns, and political money runs to power and to competition. The people writing the checks are either seeking good favor with someone or trying to fend off the enemy. In most legislative races, competition drives fundraising. Nobody wants to be in peril, really, but it doesn’t hurt the campaign if the rich folks think the outlook is perilous.

Don’t underestimate the power of paranoia. Every election has its surprises, and constant worry over possible upsets can play to the advantage of candidates trying to win attention from supporters. Williamson County, just north of the state capital, belongs to the Republicans, mostly. But a Democrat snuck into the Texas House delegation in 2008. She lost to a Republican two years later, but only after proving it was possible for a Democrat to win.

Now there’s a new district on the southern edge of that county. Conventional wisdom is that Tony Dale, a Republican, will win, but his campaign agrees with Matt Stillwell, his Democratic opponent, that it’s a competitive race even though it might not look like one on paper.

Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature. The new redistricting maps being used for this election made some of the marginal legislative districts safer for Republicans — sometimes by ceding some safe seats to Democrats.

That’s according to the numbers. But the numbers are based largely on two strange elections — a 2008 presidential race that saw changes in voting patterns that might not be permanent. The name Bush was nowhere to be found on the ballots — not a small thing in a state where someone named George had been a mainstay for nearly two decades. And 2010 was a backlash, or a Republican surge or whatever you want to call it that might or might not be an indication of something long-lasting.

It can change quickly. That 2008 election put 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats in the Texas House. The 2010 election, using the same political maps, gave us the current supermajority of 102 Republicans and 48 Democrats.

The numbers aren’t everything, and a district can change directions rapidly. Swing seats stop swinging. Safe seats fall to challengers. Races that are supposed to be close turn into landslides.

The voters don’t always do what the experts expect, and that makes the shoo-in candidates very, very nervous.

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2012 elections