September 12, 2008
Assessing the Dems' chances in the Lege

Recently, the Statesman analyzed the state of the Legislative races and suggested a reason why the Republicans may retain control in the House:

As Democrats pin their hopes on changing demographics, Republicans are betting that the Democrats will trip over the same hurdle that the GOP did in the 1990s: redistricting.

During the 1990s, the Republicans became the state's dominant party, winning statewide elections and a Senate majority, but they struggled to crack the Texas House.

Over that decade the GOP slowly increased its share of House seats from 57 to 72 by four or five seats each election cycle. In 1998, it stalled at 72 seats -- four short of a majority -- for four years because the Democrats had drawn the districts to favor their party.

The closer the GOP got to a majority, the harder it was to find the marginal Democratic districts they could win.

Only in 2002, after Republicans created legislative districts that favored them, did the GOP win control of the House with a net gain of 16 seats. That dramatic increase was rooted in a gamble: A lot of those districts were drawn with thin GOP margins susceptible to changes in population or voters' moods.

"The goal was to maximize the number of seats for Republicans, not to make them safe for Republicans," said Royal Masset, the state GOP political director during the late 1990s.

That, as much as anything, helps explain the fading GOP majority in the House even as Republicans continue to win statewide elections.

"I get the impression that the low-hanging fruit has been taken," Masset said. "There probably aren't many more winnable seats out there" for Democrats.

Martin said he disagrees, saying the right mix of candidates with the right message can make a difference.

"People who are not Democrats necessarily are willing to give us another look or listen," he said.

Two points:

1. It's not clear to me that if the legislative districts were kept the same from 2000 to 2002 that the Republicans would not have gained a majority, which they may have still retained to this day. Looking at the Secretary of State results page for 1998, I see two cases where an incumbent Democrat was knocked off by a Republican challenger, in HDs 46 (Rick Green def. Alec Rhodes) and 68 (Rick Hardcastle def. Charles Finnell), 15 competitive open seat races in which Dems must have won two seats back, and a whole lot of uncontested seats. In other words, perhaps just a bad recruiting year for the GOP, which may have been more focused on running up the score for George W. Bush's re-election than on the downballot campaigns. As for 2000, why run in for a seat drawn to elect a D when in two years' time it'll be re-drawn to elect an R? It's for that reason that I think if the Dems don't win the House this year, the next realistic chance they'll have will be 2012. That assumes they have a seat at the Legislative Redistricting Board's table, of course; without the Speakership, the Dems had better win something statewide or else.

Point being, just because the curve flattened out at the end of the decade, that doesn't mean it would have remained flat. The trend was clear, and the wind was strongly at the Republicans' back in 2002. If there were a way to replay 2002 with the same legislative boundaries as in 2000, I'd still bet money on them winning a majority. Maybe not 88 seats, but definitely more than 76.

2. The definition of "low-hanging fruit" depends to a large degree on the results of the last election. HD52, the focus of that Statesman article, is a top target thanks to it being an open seat won by Mike Krusee with an uninspiring 51% in 2006. But in 2004, Krusee had only a write-in opponent, and that same person, running as the Democratic nominee in 2006, wasn't given a chance by any mainstream pundit. Bill Zedler, who is in deep trouble against Chris Turner, cruised to a 60%+ re-election in 2006, and was on no one's short list of endangered incumbents in 2006. Robert Talton was unopposed in 2004 and lightly challenged in 2006, but his open seat is a top pickup opportunity this year. You get the idea. What makes fruit hang low is its ripeness. Some seats just weren't ripe before, and now they are.

I'm certainly not saying that the Democrats will cash in on any or all of these chances, and I'm not saying they don't have some vulnerable seats of their own, because they surely do. I'm just saying they haven't run out of places to look. Link via South Texas Chisme.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on September 12, 2008 to Election 2008
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