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Amid GOP fears of Trump effect down-ballot, Texas Senate races unaffected

Even with the presidential race closer than normal, Democrats have little chance to gain ground in the Republican-dominated Texas Senate.

The Texas Senate on the opening day of the 83rd legislative session on Jan. 8, 2013.

*Correction appended

With Republican nominee for president Donald Trump continuing to struggle in the polls, Democrats in Texas are hoping for a better-than-usual election season.

But any Democratic dreams of a Trump effect on the ballot stop at the state Senate. Major gains in the Republican-dominated body are already out of the question. Even picking up a single seat remains a long-shot.

Eight Senate seats currently held by Republicans are up for election this fall. Democrats didn't even field a candidate in six of them. In the remaining two races, it would take a huge upset for the Democrat to win.

“In the case of the Senate, even in this very favorable Democratic context, none of these Republican-held seats are vulnerable,” said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University.

On the surface, the electoral climate would appear to be prime for Democrats to chip away at the 20-to-11 advantage Republicans currently hold on the state's upper chamber. Trump's lead over Democrat Hillary Clinton has consistently polled in the single digits. One recent poll placed the margin at 4 percentage points, which was within the margin of error. 

In 2012, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney won Texas by more than 15 percentage points. Two years later, Republican Greg Abbott won the governor’s seat against Democrat Wendy Davis by almost 20 percentage points. 

But a combination of timing, money and unfavorable district lines makes an unusual political climate hard to capitalize on. Senate districts are massive — one contested race this year spans 17 counties. It takes a lot of money and time on the road to run a successful campaign. And the districts are drawn in a way that gives most of the incumbents — Democrats or Republicans — a strong advantage.  

All of those factors create powerful disincentives against running, said Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic research and strategic planning group.

“You have to not only find a candidate but you have to convince people that the candidate is worth investing in,” Angle said.

The Democrat making the most spirited run for a GOP-held seat is Jennie Lou Leeder, a former schoolteacher from Llano. She is seeking the open District 24 seat currently held by Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who is retiring. The district stretches from west of San Antonio through a small portion of southwest Austin and then up to Abilene, and Leeder is traveling the sprawling district meeting with voter groups.

But Republican Gov. Greg Abbott won the district by 21 percentage points in 2014, and Leeder faces a serious deficit in resources. She reported just $9,736 on hand in her most recent campaign finance report, compared to more than $150,000 for her Republican opponent, ophthalmologist Dawn Buckingham. 

Leeder has tried to take advantage of Trump's candidacy. On the day after a leaked recording of Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women was made public, she released a statement criticizing Buckingham for not denouncing him. 

“I call upon my opponent to join me in rejecting Trump’s sexual assault on women," she said. 

Buckingham hasn't responded to her opponent's challenge, though she has posted on Twitter about having a Trump sign in her yard. When asked about her opponent's challenge by the Tribune, she said,  "I am focused on my campaign for Senate District 24." 

Buckingham likely endured her most difficult part of the race during a four-way Republican primary. Still, she said she takes nothing for granted.

“Over the past year, I have campaigned across District 24 meeting with voters who share my priorities of fiscal responsibility, border security, improved educational opportunities for our children, property tax reform, and protecting our water supply,” she said.

Michael Collins, the only other Democrat running for a state Senate seat currently occupied by a Republican, faces longer odds than Leeder. The district represented by incumbent Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, is even more Republican-leaning seeking; Abbott won 70 percent of the vote there in 2014.

Democrats, meanwhile, are defending two seats of their own from Republicans. Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, is facing a challenge from former game warden Pete Flores. In South Texas, Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen, is vying for election against court reporter Velma Arellano. 

In those races, the incumbent is widely considered to be the strong favorite, too. 

"Every seat is either safe Democrat or very safe Republican," Jones said. 

Read More on the election:

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the profession of Dawn Buckingham.


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