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Analysis: The Names Might Change, but the Party Labels Won't

By the numbers, there are some federal and state legislative districts in Texas that can be considered competitive in November general elections. There just aren't many of them.

Congressman-elect Will Hurd answers a question during a Texas Tribune event on Dec. 18, 2014.

Not counting their U.S. senators, Texans elect 217 federal and state legislators, and all but 15 of those seats will be on the ballot next year.

Voters will dump some people. Other officeholders will hang it up — some already have. This, however, you can take to the bank no matter how many of the faces change: fewer than a dozen of those 217 positions will see a change of party.

Probably not even that many. The maps are rigged to favor the parties that are in power in each district.

Start with the congressional maps. In the average competitive statewide race in Texas in the last two presidential years — 2008 and 2012 — the Republican candidate beat the Democratic candidate by 11.7 percentage points. The margins in congressional districts range from a Democratic high of 58.1 points to a Republican high of 52.4 percent. It’s safe to say that Dallas’ Eddie Bernice Johnson and Clarendon’s Mac Thornberry don’t have anything to worry about in next November’s elections. Their primaries could always be interesting, but you’re not going to beat either of them with a candidate from the opposing party.

The only Republican in real general election trouble — by the numbers — is Will Hurd of San Antonio. He’s in the 23rd congressional district, a slice of Texas that has flipped from one party to the other four times in the past 10 years.

Hurd is on all of the defensive Republican lists and all of the offensive Democratic lists. Few others are. Only one other Republican — Randy Weber — failed to beat the average statewide margin for presidential years. Every member of Congress who beat that statewide mark is a Republican; everybody else below it is a Democrat.

The Texas Senate looks the same way. Two seats (so far) will be open, both because of retirements. Both of those are safely Republican, barring sunspots, red moons or witchcraft. Senators serve four-year terms, and only half of them will be on the ballot next year. A 14.1 percentage-point margin separates the parties in the closest of those districts. Bottom line: No targets for party flippers.

The primaries are full of House races, particularly on the Republican side. But only 10 House districts fall into what could be called the danger zone, if “danger” is a political synonym for “competition.” All of those are held by Republicans. In each district, the margin between those average statewide candidates from the two parties was less than 10 percentage points.

State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen is not seeking re-election in the House District -54 seat, where the average Republican advantage in presidential election years is 5.6 percentage points.

Several of the remaining nine seats are held by Republican state representatives who have made their political livings fending off challenges: Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs, Cindy Burkett of Mesquite, Kenneth Sheets of Dallas and J.M. Lozano of Kingsville.

Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie had a seat, lost it and then won it back. The Democrats haven’t won it yet, but the numbers are threatening.

And the remainder are held by freshmen lawmakers who will be defending themselves for the first time in 2016: Linda Koop of Dallas, Wayne Faircloth of Galveston, Gilbert Peña of Pasadena and Rick Galindo of San Antonio.

The other seats — 35 in the Texas congressional delegation, 15 in the Texas Senate and 140 in the Texas House — are unlikely to change parties under normal political circumstances.

The big election turnouts are in November, when voters are choosing governors, presidents and others in contests that get a lot of publicity, advertising and get-out-the-vote activity. The competition comes from the other party.

In districts where the parties of the winners are predetermined, candidates who win their primaries are in no danger of losing general elections — no matter how many people turn up to vote for the next president. Those candidates get into office with smaller shows of support than candidates who have to compete in both primary and general elections. And their competition comes from inside their own parties, requiring them to mind their partisan manners.

It’s harder for candidates like Hurd to extend their time in office than it is for the Thornberrys and Johnsons. Hurd’s voters have more choices. In politics, that’s another synonym for danger.

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