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Now that the first round of this election cycle is out of the way, we can talk about November.
The election moves now — runoffs notwithstanding — to battles between the major parties instead of battles within them.
What’s in play? There’s one congressional seat, and maybe a couple more, that could change flags when the major parties clash. There’s a seat in the Texas Senate, and a couple of wildcard races that will put new people in that body. And there are a dozen or so spots in the Texas House that could go to either the Democrats or the Republicans. Those races will lock down the list of voters in the first significant election of 2019 — the one for speaker of the Texas House.
The top of the ticket is stronger on the Republican side, hardly a surprising development in a state where that party has dominated politics and government for decades.
The most interesting race — which is not to say it will be the most competitive when the votes are tallied — is the one where Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz is being challenged by Democratic U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke. The governor’s race isn’t set, with Democrats Lupe Valdez and Andrew White on their way to a May runoff. And Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick will face Democrat Mike Collier in his re-election bid.
The other non-judicial statewide races — for attorney general, comptroller, and land, agriculture and railroad commissioners — all feature incumbent Republicans and largely untested Democrats. They’re like the bands trying to get attention at the South By Southwest gathering in Austin, unheralded and hoping for a break.
Texas will have eight new people in its congressional delegation, replacing the people who didn’t seek new terms this year. Recent political results favor incumbent parties in those six Republican and two Democratic districts. Three districts where incumbent Republicans are running are generally considered the most likely candidates for political changes. U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes represents the state’s only true swing district — one that can be won by a candidate of either party. Two more members of Congress — John Culberson of Houston and Pete Sessions of Dallas — are on Democratic target lists because, while they both won in 2016, they won in districts where Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump.
The closest thing to a swing seat in the Texas Senate is Konni Burton’s in Tarrant County. The Colleyville Republican will face Beverly Powell in a general election that could be a test of President Donald Trump’s popularity in the sort of midterm election that often goes against a sitting president.
Two other seats could be in play soon. Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat; at least two Democrats have already jumped into her replacement race. Garcia doesn’t have to leave the Senate unless she wins the congressional seat in November, but she could leave early.
Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, was convicted on federal charges including fraud and money laundering and could face millions in fines and years in prison. Like Garcia, he isn’t on the ballot this year — but like Garcia, he’s not expected to be in the Senate when the 86th Legislature convenes next January. Candidates are lining up in that one, too.
The Texas House, which will start 2019’s business by electing a new speaker to replace Joe Straus, who isn’t seeking another term, has a dozen seats where both Democrats and Republicans have a reasonable shot at victory, depending on the political mood and the quality of the candidates on each side.
That’s not enough to flip the House majority. With 95 Republicans and 55 Democrats now, that would require a 21-vote swing. What’s more, the swings are divided between Democrats and Republicans. The state’s Democrats are hoping to pick up five to 10 seats; Republicans are hoping to hang onto their strong majority. Both are hoping to have a strong influence on the selection of the next speaker in a race where three candidates have already surfaced and more are in waiting.
One definition of a swing seat is one in which neither statewide Democrats nor statewide Republicans have been able to run away in elections. The House has a dozen where the average margin of victory in statewide races has been smaller than 10 percentage points.
Five are held by Democrats: Philip Cortez of San Antonio, Abel Herrero of Robstown, Joe Moody of El Paso, Victoria Neave of Dallas and Mary Ann Perez of Houston. Each will have a Republican opponent and, perhaps, third-party opponents in November.
Seven are held by Republicans: Rodney Anderson of Grand Prairie, Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale, Tony Dale of Cedar Park, Sarah Davis of West University Place, Larry Gonzales of Round Rock, Linda Koop of Dallas and J.M. Lozano of Kingsville. Burkett gave up her seat for an unsuccessful Senate bid, and Gonzales didn’t seek another term. Both major parties have candidates in those two open seats, and the Democrats have a candidate in each of the others.
Those aren’t the only seats in play — just the obvious ones. More than 30 primary races won’t be settled until the May runoffs. A mess of seats are virtually decided since only one major party has a candidate, a list that includes four seats in the state’s congressional delegation, two in the state Senate and 53 in the House.
Everything else is theoretically up for grabs. But some are easier to reach than others.