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Some local Democrats may be on endangered list in November

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 by Kimberly Reeves

Local political consultants do expect the current anti-incumbent and anti-Obama backlash to take down more than a few Democrats across the state this November.


The question is whether that dissatisfaction could extend to races in Central Texas. Could some of the more precarious, or competitive, races end up a toss-up when voters head to the polls in November? Who might be in danger?


Peck Young is the director for Austin Community College’s Center for Public Policy and Political Studies. He also has managed some of the toughest races in the region on behalf Central Texas Democrats, including the bare-knuckle primary battle between Karen Sonleitner and Sarah Eckhardt for Travis County Commissioners Court four years ago.


Looking at the most recent polling data, Young has no doubt that Democrats will face losses in November. How many seats, given the numbers that are actually in place as neither safe Democrat nor safe Republican, is the only question mark.


“Statewide, Democrats are in trouble,” Young admitted. “We were met with two election cycles where people were willing to vote for a change. The Democrats had a moment, where they could have won control of the House, and they didn’t.”


Republican consultant, lawyer and former State Representative Terral Smith, who recently served as Speaker of the House Joe Straus’ chief of staff, said Republicans should be picking up seats this cycle. However, the number of true swing districts in the state – the ones that have a real chance of changing hands – remains small. An estimate of even two-dozen seats might seem high, Smith said.


This election will swing toward the Republicans, Smith agreed. How much that will hurt Democrats is hard to say. Smith quoted statistics he saw two years ago that pointed to Democrats having picked up every district they might gain.


“There is no Republican in the Texas House sitting in what one could consider a Democratic seat,” Smith said. “So that every district in which one could say they voted for Obama, every one of those seats failed to go to a Republican. That’s why so many Democratic seats are falling into the hands of Republicans.”

And this election cycle, like the mid-term elections in 2006, are all about a referendum on incumbents. It will be a vote on Pres. Barack Obama’s job performance, more than an affirmation of the Texas House, said both Young and Smith. And that could spell trouble in the general election for Central Texas Democrats who won by single-digit margins in pro-Obama 2008.


Look at the tallies of 2008: Incumbent Democrat Rep. Valinda Bolton won over Donna Keel by a margin of 51-49. Up in Williamson County, Diana Maldonado barely squeaked by Bryan Daniel, 49-47, with a Libertarian spoiler.


Incumbent Donna Howard, now running against former UT Longhorn and NFL lineman Dan Neil, had a wider 54-42 split over Pamela Waggoner. And incumbent Democrat Mark Strama won his seat handily, with a 63-33 margin over Republican Jerry Mikus.


Of course, Texas is a red state. And John McCain won Texas. And Travis County is rather blue. So the shift might be small. But is it enough?


Looking over Travis County, Young sees a real threat to Bolton. And he sees the tide possibly turning against Maldonado in Williamson County.


“I hope we don’t, but I think that might the case,” Young said. “I think we have some seats that are vulnerable.”


Smith agreed that the Bolton and Maldonado seats are the most at risk from the anti-Obama sentiment. He’s just not certain how big that impact will be. He considers a strong well-financed opponent such as Maldonado opponent Larry Gonzales to be a possible game changer when the November elections arrive.


Maldonado won her district because of Obama, Smith said. She could easily lose because of Republicans who decided to come back to the polls. Conservatives who weren’t happy with former President George W Bush’s performance didn’t turn out for Republican candidates; they simply didn’t turn out to vote.


“I’m not even sure that Larry Gonzales has to be favored at the polls to win,” Smith said, noting that uncommitted voters could view the Tea Party’s impact in recent elections as a reason finally to get to the polls to vote. “Larry is going to have plenty of money to be competitive.”


Smith, who represented half of Bolton’s district at one time as a representative, said Bolton’s incumbency is a benefit but not a great benefit. He also sees some softness in Howard’s district, which was drawn even more competitively than Bolton’s. And Howard’s opponent Dan Neil is running an active race.


Smith predicts Howard will run better, and get higher percentages, than Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White in her district. But if anti-incumbent anti-Obama sentiment is strong, her appeal may have to overcome what may be only, say, 45 percent of voters in her district pushing the lever for White.


Howard’s own appeal will have to make up the difference, and incumbency may not be as big a boost as she might hope, Smith said. In some races, the advantage of incumbency is only going to provide a 2 to 3 percent margin.


“It just depends on how big the wave is,” Smith said. “I don’t know.”


Neither consultant saw Strama facing a real threat, given the district’s voting margins.


Young predicts the Democrats could lose as few as four or as many as six or seven seats in the House of Representatives. It depends on how well local races were run, Young said. Still, that would hand Republicans a clear majority – a majority that is so clear to Republicans right now that even former Speaker of the House Rep. Tom Craddick has considered a repeat run for Speaker, Young said.

Where there might be dissonance in the November elections is at the top of the ticket, Young said. Polling data shows swing voters aren’t enchanted with Gov. Rick Perry’s performance, even as he pairs himself with the Tea Party. They aren’t inclined to vote for him for another term. How that will impact down ballot races, for those who don’t vote a straight party ticket, is anyone’s guess.


Young, asked to predict outcomes, does suspect straight ticket voting is going to be helpful in Travis County. Almost 40 percent of the voting in Travis County is straight ticket; of that number, 60 percent belongs to Democrats. Young predicts such trends promise margins for countywide races and wins for state races, under good circumstances. Experience will count for more in these races, Young said.


That means that the longer you serve, the easier it is to get re-elected with name ID, Young said. All things being equal – and the party machinery is in play – Bolton should be able to win her race against Republican Paul Workman, Young said. It’s harder in Williamson County, where Maldonado has not established her name and her district is trending Republican.

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