Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
If Democrats are looking for a cherry on their election night sundae, they may find it in Texas. The Republicans are clinging to a 79-71 majority in the state House of Representatives and Democrats are mounting an aggressive push for control in President Bush's home state.
Rep. Jim Dunnam, the Democratic Caucus Chair, says Democrats have their eyes on eight Republican-held seats -- perhaps more, if an Obama wave builds. Top Democrats targets include open seats in District 52 in Round Rock, District 74 in El Paso and District 144 in Harris County. The party is also focusing on Republican incumbent Bill Zedler in Tarrant County.
The story here isn't a broad-based Democratic resurgence in Texas. Nationwide, 2006 was a great year for Democrats. But, of all the Democrats running statewide in Texas in 2006 -- for senator, governor, agriculture commissioner, state Supreme Court justice, etc. -- none took more than 45% of the vote. In the midst of that futility, House Democrats were whittling away at the Republican edge, which stood at 88-62 earlier in the decade.
Why have House Democrats been the exception to Texas' Republican rule? Dunnam cites House Speaker Tom Craddick. Craddick is controversial -- some House Republicans even tried to depose him in 2007. "In some races we're running against the speaker," Dunnam says. "He's become the same type of figure as Tom Delay was nationally." Democratic candidates are also emphasizing pocketbook issues such as utility rates and the cost of college.
Republicans, though, aren't giving up without a fight. One advantage they have, says Hans Klingler, director of communications and political operations for the Texas Republican Party, is that the Texas economy has held up better than the economy in other states. Republican candidates are trying to link their party's message to the state's economic successes. "We have passed sweeping tort reform and property tax reform," Klingler says.
And, the Republicans aren't only playing defense. One interesting race pits Democratic Rep. Mark Homer against Republican Kirby Hollingsworth for the third consecutive election cycle in District 3 in Northeast Texas. Homer beat Hollingsworth by only 218 votes in 2004, but won more comfortably in 2006.
Whether the Democrats net the five seats they need to get a majority isn't the only big question. It's also whether Craddick holds on to power. The speaker has adversaries within his party, but also a few Democrats who have supported him in the past.
Klingler says he's confident that Craddick, a 40-year veteran of the House, will keep his post. Dunnam disagrees. "Unless the Republicans gain net seats," he says, "Tom Craddick is gone, whatever the numbers are."
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