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Incumbent Republicans With a Shared Problem

Two Republican Dallas legislators — one state, one federal — each face conservative challengers in the coming primary elections. Their districts overlap, and so do their risks that anti-establishment voters might come knocking.

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In Dallas County, two established Republican incumbents — state Sen. John Carona and U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions — are under fire from conservative challengers in the 2014 primaries.

That’s not the only place in Texas (or in the U.S.) where conservatives are chasing down their own incumbents, but it’s an interesting case. The two districts overlap significantly, and the challengers — Donald Huffines of Dallas in the Senate race and Katrina Pierson of Garland in the House race — are looking for the same kinds of voters.

Each is betting, to some extent, that conservative voters are tired enough of incumbents, their own party’s incumbents included, that they will seriously consider political newcomers next year.

Last year’s election of Ted Cruz to the U.S. Senate provided a shred of hope. If a political unknown like Cruz (then) could beat a conservative, well-known statewide official like David Dewhurst, maybe the little guy has a chance.

Texas has 31 state senators and 36 members of Congress, so Senate districts are bigger than congressional districts. Sessions represents 698,488 people, according to the Texas Legislative Council, which tracks these things for the state; Carona represents 816,670.

Given their relative positions in the political establishment and the fact that both have drawn Republican primary challengers from their right flanks, what is interesting is the overlap of the two districts.

They share 384,337 residents, 230,182 of whom are registered to vote. In last year’s general election, turnout in that overlapping area was high: 69.4 percent.

Sessions’ Congressional District 32 includes the Park Cities and big chunks of North Dallas, Richardson, Garland, Sachse and Rowlett and takes a bite out of southeastern Collin County, getting most of Wylie.

Carona’s Senate District 16 shares the Park Cities, a large swath of North Dallas, Rowlett and much of Garland. Unlike the congressional district, it includes northwestern Dallas County and does not hop the line into Collin County.

Cruz showed that it was possible to win against the odds, inspiring people to jump into races in the same way that news of a lottery and stock market windfalls might prompt people to pull out their wallets. Candidates who have never run before are jumping into races.

Pierson and Huffines are running for their own reasons and don’t appear to be conspiring or coordinating their campaigns. But they share some attributes. Each is running against a powerful establishment incumbent. They share a significant amount of electoral real estate. They are running from the right. And they overlap on a particularly hot message, the idea that their opponents have been in office long enough.

It's one of those things that works in politics but not in normal life, time on task is called experience — in fields like banking, law enforcement or farming. But for officeholders, long incumbency can be a liability, an easy-to-exploit overexposure to a system that voters love to hate. That anti-incumbent strain is especially strong in the Republican Party in Texas right now, and these two races illustrate it.

Here stand the chairman of the U.S. House Rules Committee and the chairman of the Texas Senate Business and Commerce Committee, being challenged at home by fellow conservatives who think they’ve been drinking the water in Washington and Austin long enough to have become natives of those undesirable territories.

The challengers don’t have to work together any more than the incumbents do. Both Sessions and Carona will run well-funded campaigns. Both are working; if they fall next year, it probably won’t be blamed on laziness. And they’ve both been on the ballot a number of times.

The challengers are both new to this. Huffines is expected to bring some personal wealth to the race, which could even up the race for resources. Pierson is hoping a steady stream of public appearances over the last few years give her an edge.

To a large extent, they are talking to the same voters, and that is where the synergy could be troublesome for the incumbents. A voter lured by the anti-establishment idea in one race could be open to it in the other. The two districts are bordered by some hotbeds of Tea Party politics: Tarrant, Collin and Denton Counties.

Huffines and Pierson are betting that movement has spilled into Dallas County. Carona and Sessions are hoping it’s harmless.

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