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Potential Hutchison Vacancy Is a Tantalizing Trophy

First of three parts

Long the underdogs in solidly Republican Texas, Lone Star Democrats are claiming a resurgence of late, predicting the possibility of gains in this year’s Congressional races to go with the six state legislative seats they picked up in 2006.

[IMGCAP(1)]The Democrats picked up two previously Republican-held House seats in 2006 — the 22nd and 23rd districts — and are threatening this year in the GOP-held 7th and 10th districts.

Texas Democrats insist that Sen. John Cornyn (R) is vulnerable to state Rep. Rick Noriega (D), contending that their likely White House nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), could put the Lone Star State in play in the presidential contest.

“Since 2004, Texas Democrats have been making significant gains throughout the state,” Texas Democratic Party spokesman Hector Nieto said Monday. “These gains are not a fluke, but a trend that continues to grow.”

Texas Republicans disagree — and there is data to support their claim that the Lone Star State is poised to remain the GOP stronghold it is now for many years to come.

There are 5,700 elected offices in Texas, including all local, state and federal positions, and the Republicans are just 191 shy of holding a true majority of those. Additionally, the GOP picked up 206 seats at the local level in the 2006 elections and is set to maintain its numbers this year as well as wage strong challenges — including at the federal level.

Cornyn is heavily favored to win a second term over Noriega, and the state

GOP is working hard to get back many of the seats it lost last cycle.

Meanwhile, Lone Star State Republicans are optimistic that Rep. John Culberson (R) will hold off wealthy businessman Michael Skelly (D) in the 7th district. They feel just as assured that Rep. Mike McCaul (R) will win another term over lawyer and former television personality Larry Joe Doherty (D) in the 10th.

Democrats believe Skelly has the moderate credentials (and deep pockets) to pull off an upset, and are high on Doherty’s personal wealth and positive name identification. But Republicans say the GOP bent of both districts, and each Congressman’s strong relationship with his constituents, ultimately will make these seats unwinnable for the Democrats.

Republicans also expect to wage strong challenges in the GOP-leaning 22nd district, where former Senate aide Pete Olson (R) is facing Rep. Nick Lampson (D), and the competitive 23rd district, where Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson (R) is taking on Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D).

“The Texas GOP has made huge gains from the courthouse to the statehouse to the White House in the last eight years in Texas,” state GOP spokesman Hans Klingler said. “Texas Republicans look forward to a vigorous debate comparing our positive record, experience and vision in Texas with Democrats who have become increasingly shrill in tone and light on answers to important issues facing this state.”

With Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R) set to run for governor in 2010, several Republicans are being talked about as potential candidates for Senate. Whether Hutchison resigns her seat to campaign full time or holds on to it through the 2010 gubernatorial contest could affect which Republicans run to succeed her.

If Hutchison resigns — her term does not expire until 2012 — Gov. Rick Perry (R) could look to state Railroad Commissioner Michael Williams, a black statewide elected official, as a potential appointee.

Roger Williams, a wealthy automobile dealer from near Fort Worth who is close to the Bush family, is also thought to have political ambitions and might get a phone call from Perry. Williams, no relation to Michael Williams, is chairman of the state GOP’s Texas Victory 2008 campaign push.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) is also on the list of potential Hutchison replacement. Dewhurst is a potential self-funder with a solid statewide political organization. The lieutenant governor controls the flow of legislation in the Texas Senate, and is considered the state’s most powerful elected official — even above the governor.

All three of these individuals also are considered as potential candidates in a special election to replace Hutchison — or in the event that she were to serve out her term and retire in 2012.

Additional potential GOP Senate candidates include state Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has garnered positive statewide press for his work promoting laws that punish sex offenders who target children; and Reps. Kay Granger, Jeb Hensarling and Joe Barton, who ran for Senate nearly two decades ago and might decide to give it another shot.

On the Democratic side, many of the names mentioned last year as possible opponents to Cornyn are still considered possible future Senate candidates, either in a 2010 special election or in 2012, when the seat could be open or held by an incumbent.

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who is black and has taken a prominent role in Obama’s effort to make inroads in Texas, remains a much sought-after candidate for statewide office by the Democrats. Kirk ran for Senate in 2002, losing to Cornyn by 12 points despite spending just $340,000 less than him.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, who is based in Dallas County and has previously run for statewide office, is also on the Democrats’ short list of potential Senate candidates, as is former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, who is now a home builder based in San Antonio.

Texas Democrats believe a strong showing by their party’s presidential nominee in 2008 could set the table for statewide success in future elections — if not Noriega’s race against Cornyn.

“With over 2.8 million Democrats voting in the 2008 Texas primary, Democrats in Texas have proven we have the numbers to win statewide elections and can be competitive in every corner of the Lone Star State,” Nieto said.

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