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A Tale of Two House Races

With the rough reality of the Texas Republican-led redistricting looming over them, some Democrats have privately begun painting the race for control of the House as two separate and distinct contests: one inside the Lone Star State and the other encompassing the rest of the country.

The split-minded approach has developed as Texas remains a thorn in the Democrats’ side, even as developments in the rest of the country — most recently the retirement of Rep. Jack Quinn (R-N.Y.) — improve the overall House picture for Democrats.

“If you take Texas out of the equation and we pick up seats that would be a good victory for Democrats, although it obviously pales in comparison to taking the House back,” said a well-connected Democratic consultant.

Another Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that “most of the D.C. community will judge the performance [of House Democrats] based on what happens outside of Texas.”

These Democrats argue that given the six-seat loss in the 2002 election coupled with the decade they have spent in the House minority, netting any seats in the 49 states other than Texas would be a good building block for the 2006 election, when control could be up for grabs.

Republicans leapt to dispute that line of reasoning, arguing that Texas cannot be removed from the overall fight for the majority.

“Texas is a big piece of this puzzle,” said National Republican Congressional Committee Communications Director Carl Forti.

Kori Bernards, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was quick to note that despite what some Democratic consultants say, her organization “views our strategy as protecting all of our incumbents, including those in Texas.”

She added that there is no two-track strategy being employed in the battle for the House.

It is clear, however, that both parties view the Texas situation as somewhat unique from the rest of the country.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) called the Republican-led remapping in Texas “an energizing and disappointing event all in one.”

“The bad news is we have already lost seats there,” said Hoyer. “The good news is the five Democrats we have running are all tough, good campaigners.”

Democrats are throwing more than just rhetoric behind their Texas incumbents.

They have created the Texas Fund, a separate fundraising committee designed to gather donations for endangered Reps. Martin Frost, Charlie Stenholm, Nick Lampson, Max Sandlin and Chet Edwards.

A similar fund, known as the Team Texas, has been formed by Republicans to help their candidates.

The joint fundraising agreement includes Reps. Pete Sessions and Randy Neugebauer, who are embroiled in Member-versus-Member contests with Frost and Stenholm, respectively, as well as former judges Louie Gohmert and Ted Poe, the GOP nominees in the 1st and 2nd districts.

State Rep. Arlene Wohlgemuth, who will take on Edwards in the fall, and former Public Utility Commissioner Rebecca Klein, the 25th district Republican nominee, are also included in the new fundraising committee.

Already the Texas remap, which was pushed by DeLay and approved last fall by the GOP Legislature in a special session, has yielded four seats for Republicans.

Rep. Ralph Hall (R) switched parties just prior to the state’s filing deadline earlier this year; Republicans won open seats in the 10th, 11th and 24th districts that heavily favor their party. In the 10th district, Democrats failed to even find a challenger.

And, Democratic Reps. Chris Bell and Ciro Rodriguez fell in Democratic primaries on March 9 although their seats have no chance of a partisan turnover — and Rodriguez is contesting the primary results.

“We come out of Texas plus four [seats] at a minimum,” said Forti. “For Democrats to say they can overcome a 16-seat majority is next to impossible based on their poor track record in competitive races in the last couple of cycles.”

Bernards said that the only goal for the Democratic committee is taking back the House, adding that she believes it is within reach.

“We are playing to win in this election,” she said. “We are not playing to break even.”

Republicans currently hold 228 seats to 205 seats for Democrats — Independent Rep. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) caucuses with Democrats.

The only vacancy is in South Dakota, where a June 1 special election will be held to replace former Rep. Bill Janklow (R), who resigned the seat Jan. 20 following a felony conviction for his involvement in a car accident that left a motorcyclist dead.

Democrats hold a clear edge at this point in the special where 2002 House nominee Stephanie Herseth (D) is running against state Sen. Larry Diedrich (R).

Earlier this year, former Kentucky Attorney General Ben Chandler (D) defeated state Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R) in a special election to fill the seat of former Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R), who was elected governor of the Bluegrass State in 2003.

Democrats have not scored two special election victories in Republican-held seats in more than 30 years.

Among competitive open seats, Democrats again have an advantage.

With the retirement of Quinn, Republicans now must defend 17 open seats, of which seven are considered competitive between the parties.

Eleven Democrats are leaving the House, although only two seats — Kentucky Rep. Ken Lucas’ 4th district and Louisiana Rep. Chris John’s 7th district — are likely to be heavily targeted by Republicans.

Outside of Texas, both parties have only a handful of endangered incumbents at this point.

Reps. Dennis Moore (Kan.) and Jim Matheson (Utah) are once again major Republican targets.

Reps. Rick Renzi (Ariz.) and Max Burns (Ga.) are Republicans’ most endangered incumbents.

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