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The battle for the Lege is gonna be lit

Fasten your seat belts.

While the Texas Senate appears safe for Republicans, Clinton’s comments underscored the emphasis that some Democrats — both in Texas and outside it — are already putting on the fight for the majority in the state House, where their party is nine seats away from control of the chamber. Views vary on just how within reach the majority is for Democrats, but few disagree that 2020 will be a frenzied cycle for House races as Democrats work to protect — and potentially build on — their recent gains. Republicans, meanwhile, are pushing to take back seats and head off the worst-case scenario: a Democratic-led House heading into the 2021 redistricting process.

The early contours of the fight are taking shape in the wake of a legislative session that saw Republicans largely eschew divisive social issues for a bread-and-butter agenda following a humbling election cycle in which they lost a dozen seats in the lower chamber. There is also a new speaker, Angleton Republican Dennis Bonnen, who appears intent on keeping the GOP in power by minimizing the kind of internecine conflict that has previously bedeviled the party.

“Everything is focused on redistricting,” state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, said at a recent tea party meeting as he fielded questions about the demise of some controversial legislation this session. “There is nothing more important — not only to Texas, but literally the nation — than to make sure that we maintain the Texas House … going into redistricting because if you look at the nation — we lose Texas, we lose the nation. And there’s no other place to go.”

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As Republicans have sought to get their own in order for 2020, state and national Democrats have been drawing up preliminary battle plans to take the House. Their path runs through a group of 18 districts — 17 where Republicans won by single digits last year as well as House District 32. That’s where Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, ran unopposed while U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, won by just 5 points.

Of course, Democrats have to simultaneously defend the 12 seats they picked up last year, some of which have already drawn serious GOP opposition.

The path is “tough but possible to flip the chamber,” said Patrick Rodenbush, a spokesman for the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, the group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. “We feel like there are enough potential targets out there that nine is doable, but it is gonna take a lot of work and resources.”

The NDRC spent $560,000 in Texas last cycle, and Rodenbush called Texas “one of our top priorities for 2020.” It recently hired an Austin-based Democratic consultant, Genevieve Van Cleve, to oversee its advocacy and political efforts here as Texas state director.

Other national groups are zeroing in on Texas this cycle as a state House battleground. They include the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and Forward Majority, a super PAC that injected $2.2 million into Texas House races in the closing days of the 2018 election.

The state Democratic Party is expanding its campaign and candidate services as part of what will ultimately be a seven-figure effort in House races. Over the past weekend in Austin, the party held a training for 55 people to become campaign managers in state House races.

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Abbott’s political operation plans to go after Democratic freshmen, as do well-funded organizations such as the Associated Republicans of Texas.

“ART is focused on candidate recruitment earlier than ever this cycle,” ART’s president, Jamie McWright, said in a statement. “We are identifying qualified, knowledgeable candidates who are willing to tackle the state’s biggest issues in order to win back the seats Republicans lost in 2018.”

Republicans are particularly focused on the seven seats they lost last cycle that Abbott carried.

You can see the potential targets here. There’s really only one competitive seat in the Senate this cycle, and that’s SD19, which Dems ought to be able to win back. On the House side, the top GOP targets based on the given criteria are going to be HDs 45, 47, 52, 65, 114, 132, and 135. I’ll be surprised if they don’t expand their list beyond that, but those are the seats I’d go after first if I were them. On the Dem side, there are the nine seats Beto carried but that Republicans won, plus however many others where he came close. It’s very likely that a seat no one is worried too much about becomes more competitive than expected, thanks to changing conditions and candidate quality and other unforeseen factors. So far, no one other than Mayor-elect Eric Johnson has announced a departure, which is unusual; normally at this point in time we’ve had a couple of people say they’re not running again. Open seats are more likely to be a problem for Republicans than they will be for Democrats, but Dems don’t want to have to play defense when there are gains to be made.

At this point, the name of the game is one part candidate recruitment and one part raising money, which will be the job of the various PACs until the candidates get settled. In Harris County, we have two good candidates each for the main targets: Akilah Bacy and Josh Wallenstein (who ran for HCDE in 2018 and was the runnerup in the primary to Richard Cantu) in HD138, and Ann Johnson and Ruby Powers in HD134. In Fort Bend, Sarah DeMerchant appears to be running again in HD26, while Eliz Markowitz (candidate for SBOE7 in 2018) is aiming for HD28. We still need (or I need to do a better job searching for) candidates in HDs 29, 85, and 126, for starters. If you’re in one of those competitive Republican-held State Rep districts, find out who is or may be running for the Dems. If you’re in one of those targeted-by-the-GOP districts, be sure to help out your incumbent. Kelly Hancock is absolutely right: This is super-duper important.

Getting underway in Dallas

Candidate recruitment season is on.

Dorotha Ocker

For Texas Democrats, the road out of the political wilderness winds through Dallas County.

It’s here, in the Republican strongholds of the north, west and east, that Democrats hope to unseat up to seven GOP lawmakers.

Their operatives were in Dallas this week to interview potential House candidates, raise money and plot strategy to flip the turf made fertile by Hillary Clinton, who walloped Donald Trump in Dallas County. Clinton won seven Texas House districts in Dallas County that are represented by Republicans.

“The 2016 elections showed us that voters reject the tone and rhetoric of Donald Trump and the Texas Republicans who support him,” said Cesar Blanco, co-chairman of the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee. “Dallas County is ground zero in our fight to win seats now held by Republicans.”

Along with Blanco’s visit, Texas Democrats on Wednesday held a fundraiser at a private home in Dallas, hoping to convince donors that 2018 could be a successful election cycle.

Along with Dallas County, Democrats are targeting Republicans in House Districts 134 and 138 in Harris County and House District 136 in Williamson County.

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Republicans hold a 95-55 advantage in the Texas House, and Democrats concede that they can’t retake control of the chamber in one election cycle.

In 2008, when Democrats gained four seats in Dallas County, they came within two seats from retaking the House for the first time since 2001.

But they were clobbered in the 2010 midterms. And the subsequent redistricting process resulted in Republicans solidifying what were once swing districts, including several seats in Dallas County.

As with the previous decade, population trends in urban areas have created opportunities for Democrats to break through.

In 2016, Democrat Victoria Neave beat incumbent Republican Kenneth Sheets in District 107, which includes eastern Dallas County.

More encouraging for Democrats, Clinton, their presidential nominee, won in seven Republican House Districts, including the GOP-dominated turf that includes Preston Hollow and the Park Cities.

Blanco said the House Democratic Campaign Committee is hoping to build on Clinton’s success.

On Wednesday, he met with several potential Democratic candidates for House, including Dorotha Ocker, who last year came within one percentage point of beating incumbent Republican Matt Rinaldi in House District 115 in far northwest Dallas County.

The rematch between Ocker and Rinaldi will now be one of the most watched races in Texas.

I’ve discussed Dallas County before, and it is indeed a target-rich environment for 2018. Some of those targets, like Matt Rinaldi in HD115 and Cindy Burkett (author of this session’s unconstitutional anti-abortion bill) in HD113, are more vulnerable than others. I presume the list in the story is a partial one, as there are several other districts that deserve strong challenges – right here in Harris County, that includes HDs 135 and 132, along with HD26 in Fort Bend. For now, the important thing is identifying potential candidates and getting them off to a good start. No time like the present for that.

The redistricting battle is fought one State House seat at a time

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) is the State House version of the DCCC. With 2011 being a redistricting year, the DLCC takes a more prominent role in the November elections than it would in other years, and with the Texas Lege being fairly balanced, they’ll be paying some attention to our state and its legislative races.

The national committee, which provides financial support to Democratic candidates in state legislative races, will spend $20 million in an effort to take control of 21 legislative chambers in 17 states, a spokesman said.

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The $20 million in committee money in the current cycle far outpaces what the organization has spent in the past. The committee spent $12 million on state races in 2008 and $10 million in 2006, spokesman Matt Compton said.

The committee hasn’t decided how to allocate the money for the November elections, he said.

One potential recipient could be the Texas House Democratic Campaign Committee, which operates to elect Democrats to the state House.

Coleman said Democrats have many opportunities to pick up House seats.

“There are several targets, and most of them are open seats,” said Coleman, a board member of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

But “our primary objective is to protect incumbents.”

Obviously, we’re still very early in the game, and that $20 million represents a goal, not a bank balance. Assuming the money gets raised, the candidates themselves still have to demonstrate they’re worth the investment, which in this case means competing with hopefuls around the country. In other words, don’t go ordering any ad packages based on DLCC money just yet. When and if that money does come this way, you can get an idea of which races it may get spent in by taking a peek at this Lone Star Project report, which covers most of the likely takeover targets. The Dems have a number of seats to defend as well, and like the takeover list that may grow or shrink depending on things like how everyone involved does with their own fundraising.