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Analysis: A political fishing guide for the 2018 elections in Texas

A small group of Texas Republican officeholders in the Legislature and Congress have something new to worry about in the Donald Trump era: They won their November elections, but Hillary Clinton beat Trump in their districts.

Trump supporters at the Harris County Republican Party headquarters election watch party  in Houston on Nov. 8, 2016

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What follows is not a prediction. It’s more in the realm of a fishing guide saying, “Maybe — but not certainly — you will find some fish in this spot.”

That’s how a successful — and an unsuccessful — day of fishing begins.

Enough caveats.

Election numbers recently released by the Texas Legislative Council point to some soft spots in this red state’s political underbelly — places where Republicans hold office now but where Democrats at the top of the ticket have recently done well.

Specifically, they are the districts where Republicans won federal or state legislative races in 2016 while the same voters electing them were choosing Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump.

Trump won Texas, but not by as much as Republicans normally do.

The non-prediction here is that every single one of these officeholders might win re-election next time they’re on the ballot.

On the other hand, a political fishing guide, in this instance, would tell you that these are districts Democrats should examine if they’re trying to win seats in the congressional delegation or in the Texas Senate or House.

The November results are more a commentary on the voters themselves — and on the Republican candidate who became president — than on the Texas candidates. These aren’t districts where everything was nominal except for the Texans. They’re districts where — for Republicans — something wasn’t working according to plan.

Political rhetoric is interesting and entertaining, but political numbers are actually important.

Look at the Texas Senate, for instance. Three of the districts that will be on the ballot in 2018, an election year that will soon be known as the Trump mid-term, rest on this seemingly competitive foundation.

In Senate District 16, where Republican Don Huffines of Dallas will be finishing his first term next year, Clinton beat Trump by 14,183 votes, or about 3.5 percentage points. That’s the kind of number that turns Democrats’ heads. It’s the same thing that happened when Republicans noticed how many legislative Democrats were in Texas districts where Obama lost to John McCain in 2008, or to Mitt Romney in 2012.

Political rhetoric is interesting and entertaining, but political numbers are actually important.

Two more Republican senators face numbers that are about as welcome as a tremor under a nuclear plant. Konni Burton of Colleyville in SD-10, where Trump won by a skinny 0.58 percentage point, and Joan Huffman of Houston, where Trump’s winning margin was 0.9 percentage point.

In elections that close, a good hard rain can decide who wins. Those senators will be running scared — even if it turns out on Election Day in November 2018 that there was really nothing to worry about.

In the state’s congressional delegation, Houston Republican John Culberson has some Democratic tendencies to confront: Clinton won his district by 3,518 votes. Clinton’s margin was 5,194 votes out of more than a quarter-million votes cast in Dallas Republican Pete Sessions’ district, inspiring some hopeful Democrats to poke around there. And the state’s one true swing district — CD-23, where Republican Will Hurd of Helotes was just re-elected — was Clinton territory, too. She got 49.4 percent of the vote to Trump’s 45.9 percent in that enormous West Texas district.

A number of Republicans in the 150-member Texas House find themselves in potentially unsafe territory.

Several Republicans find themselves in districts where Clinton beat Trump, including Sarah Davis of West University Place, where the Democrat thumped the Republican by more than 15 percentage points. Several Dallas-area representatives are on that list: Linda Koop, Jason Villalba, Rodney Anderson, Matt Rinaldi, Morgan Meyer, Cindy Burkett and Angie Chen Button. Tony Dale of Cedar Park and Dwayne Bohac of Houston are there, too.

Still more Republicans are in districts where Trump won, but by slim-enough margins — less than four percentage points — to deepen Republican worry lines and brighten Democratic faces: Paul Workman of Austin, Larry Gonzales of Round Rock, Gary Elkins of Houston and Matt Shaheen of Plano.

No Democrats in the House, the Senate or the congressional delegation had this particular problem in the last election; they all won in districts where Clinton was winning at the top.

After the 2008 election, there were 76 Republicans in the Texas House and 74 Democrats. But for a couple of dozen votes in a race in Irving, it would have been a 75-75 tie. Barack Obama was elected that year, too, and as he was taking office, activists who felt they had been “taxed enough already” began holding rallies. By 2010, that Tea Party had become the most energized faction in the Republican Party, and the results showed when the Texas House settled into its work in 2011 with 102 Republicans and 48 Democrats.

That followed years of talk of the Democrats who’d been hanging on in districts where Republicans won statewide races — a formulation known informally as ballots that were red at the top and blue at the bottom. After 2010, most of those were just red.

Political swings are only clear in retrospect, but the blue tinges showing up in some races mirror the early signs of the virus that took the Democrats out of power in Texas. Again, it’s not a prediction — just an observation of where the fish might be biting in 2018.

More columns from Ross Ramsey:

  • The big bills and arguments and personalities in the Texas Legislature catch most of the attention and headlines, but little things deserve their time in the spotlight, too.
  • Lawmakers rarely get blamed for votes that never take place, and that's the basis for one of the oldest protection rackets in the legislative toolkit: Killing a controversial bill before it comes to the full House or Senate.
  • As policy, the proposed regulations for transgender Texan's restroom choices have some gaping holes in it. The politics, however, are easy to understand.

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Politics State government 2016 elections Republican Party Of Texas Texas Democratic Party Texas Legislature