Analysis: For Some Texas Republicans, Useful Distractions Back Home

Republicans who want to stay out of the national conversation about the presidential race — the speaker of the Texas House, to name one — there are a handful of races at home that offer plausible excuses.

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus is shown at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 19, 2016.

This year’s general election ballot doesn’t offer many shady spots to a Republican trying to escape the presidential campaign’s glare. But for those who want to stay out of that national conversation — the speaker of the Texas House, to name one — there are a handful of races at home that offer plausible excuses.

Joe Straus told the Texas delegates at the Republican convention in Cleveland that he’ll be busy this election cycle helping a half-dozen Republican incumbents who have real challenges in the general election.

It’s a dodge. A thin dodge.

There are only a handful of races up in the air in Texas, if by up in the air you mean “yeah, maybe.”

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But Straus talked local in Cleveland when he was ducking reporters’ questions about whether he was endorsing Donald Trump. “I know there’s some tension over the presidential nomination, but not everything that happens at a nominating convention is about the top of the ticket," he said. “There are a whole lot of people here working where I am on down-ballot races.”

Straus did say he won’t be supporting Democrat Hillary Clinton, but didn’t say he would vote for Trump.

No matter how the presidential race goes in Texas, few of the candidates running down-ticket races have much to worry about. Officeholders left voters with district maps that take away voters' real choices over who serves in legislative or congressional office.

That said, there are a few people in the Texas Legislature who will have to fight to keep their seats. The presidential race isn’t their chief concern, but it creates a lot of the political climate around the November election.

Straus pointed to a half-dozen Republican House incumbents he thinks have hard contests ahead:

 He didn’t mention a few more of his party’s incumbents, but could have, based on close electoral results in their districts in recent elections:

In each of those nine districts,  Republican and Democratic statewide candidates finished, on average, less than nine percentage points apart. Many of them have shifting demographics that would seem — given current voting patterns — to lower the chances for Republican candidates. In one — House District 118, where Republican John Lujan won a special election this year — Democratic candidates have routinely beat Republican candidates in statewide races, even as they were losing their elections in other parts of Texas. Lujan is fighting to hold what has been, in political terms, enemy territory.

These aren’t predictions — they’re baselines. Measure this year’s general election by its relation to these numbers, and you’ll see whether and how the state’s voters are changing.

The Republicans have an important advantage in several of the districts: They’ve been through one tough election after another. They’re unlikely to fall victim to the sorts of sneak attacks that often claim incumbents who aren’t paying attention.

There are only a handful of races up in the air in Texas, if by up in the air you mean “yeah, maybe.”

And the GOP’s advantage in the Legislature is safe, no matter what happens at the top of the ballot. In most House districts, Democratic and Republican candidates finished more than 10 percentage points apart, on average, in the last two presidential races. Incumbents in those districts — the ones who have opponents, that is — just aren’t in trouble.

A couple of extreme examples make the point. State Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo, is in a district where the average Republicans in those last two presidential races beat the average Democrats by 61.1 percentage points. On the other end of the scale, state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, represents a district where the average spread was 76.8 percentage points — in favor of the Democrats.

You’ve heard this before: Most Texas legislators — in the House and in the Senate — are much more vulnerable in their own primaries than in general elections. Those who survived the spring, for the most part, can relax.

A few cannot. The Republicans drew a good map to protect their advantages, but not a perfect one. Even those flaws, if you want to think of non-competitive political districts the way majority parties think of them, have their uses, too.

If it wasn’t for them, the presidential spectacle would be the only show to watch.

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