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Redistricting Keeps Most House Incumbents Secure

Second of three parts

Everything’s bigger in Texas, as the saying goes — except the competition for House seats.

[IMGCAP(1)]A majority of the Lone Star State’s 32 House seats are safely drawn, with Republicans holding a majority reflective of the GOP’s position as the state’s political party of choice dating back in earnest to the early 1990s.

Consequently, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have potential challengers at the ready in seats held by the opposing party, save for the Democrats challenging the Republicans this year in the 7th and 10th districts and the Republicans challenging the Democrats in the 22nd and 23rd districts.

Texas Republicans are optimistic that they will emerge from the 2008 elections with an even larger majority of House seats. Currently, the GOP controls 19 House districts, compared with 13 for the Democrats.

“Our diverse and experienced statewide ticket, led by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, will work right up until the polls close on November 4, 2008,” state GOP spokesman Hans Klingler said. “Texas Republicans will leave no stone unturned.”

The Democrats actually held a 17-15 majority of the state’s House seats as late as just after the 2002 midterm elections.

But that ended in 2003, when then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) worked with GOP leaders in the Legislature to push through a mid-decade redistricting plan that created a 21-11 House-seat lead in favor of the Republicans after the 2004 elections. That lead was cut to 19-13 after the Democrats won the 22nd and 23rd districts in 2006.

In drawing the 2003 map, DeLay took territory from each of the old Republican districts to create the new seats. As a result, several of the Lone Star State’s House seats are relatively new, meaning many of the incumbents have been in office a short time and don’t look to be retiring or advancing to higher office any time soon.

The newness of these districts also means that in many cases, an heir apparent to succeed the incumbent is not yet identifiable.

Matt Angle, a Democratic operative who follows Texas politics, said the 2003 redistricting chopped the number of competitive House seats from six to two, while helping to solidify the GOP’s grip on the Lone Star State’s Congressional delegation. But, Angle said, it’s possible that Democrats could find themselves in a much stronger position after the Nov. 4 elections. Angle founded the Lone Star Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that advocates on behalf of Texas Democrats.

“The political atmosphere has shifted because the Republican leadership has done such a bad job,” Angle said. “The Republican [state] Speaker, the governor and the lieutenant governor aren’t particularly popular.”

In House districts 1 through 6 , 8, and 11 through 14 — which are solidly Republican — the Democrats don’t appear to have any viable challengers on the horizon.

Democratic operatives believe businessman Michael Skelly, who is running in the 7th district, and attorney and TV personality Larry Joe Doherty, who is running in the 10th district, could take another crack at the Republican incumbents in those districts if they fail to win this cycle but make a solid showing. In the Democratic-leaning 9th district held by Rep. Al Green (D), state Sen. Rodney Ellis (D), and state Reps. Garnet Coleman (D) and Alma Allen (D) are seen as the Congressman’s possible successors, should he ever decide to retire.

In the Democratic-leaning 15th district, where Rep. Rubén Hinojosa (D) is serving his sixth term, three state legislators are seen as potential successors. Among the possible Democratic replacements are state Rep. Veronica Gonzales and state Sens. Eddie Lucio Jr. and Chuy Hinojosa, who is not related to the Congressman.

In the Republican-leaning 1st and 2nd districts, Reps. Louie Gohmert (R) and Ted Poe (R) are children of the 2003 redistricting (they were elected in 2004) and don’t figure to be moving on in the near future, absent getting ousted by a Democrat.

But in the solidly GOP 3rd and 4th districts, Reps. Sam Johnson (R) and Ralph Hall (R) are among the House’s more senior Members, with Johnson set to turn 78 in October and Hall celebrating his 85th birthday two Saturdays ago. Should either choose to retire in the next couple of campaign cycles, a bevy of Republican state legislators are waiting in the wings to succeed them.

In the 3rd, state Rep. Brian McCall and state Sen. Florence Shapiro are well- positioned to to run. In the 4th, state Sen. Bob Deuell is highly thought of and is close to Hall.

Deuell is a family physician turned politician who in 1999 filed an exploratory committee for the 4th district with Johnson’s blessing when it looked like the incumbent might not run for re-election. Before Deuell became a doctor, he was a professional musician, including a stint as the drummer in Ike and Tina Turner’s band.

In Rep. Jeb Hensarling’s (R) 5th district, state Rep. Dan Branch (R) is considered the favorite to run for the House if the incumbent vacates the seat.

Potential successors to Rep. Joe Barton (R) in the 6th district and John Culberson (R) in the 7th district were not immediately identifiable. But the 6th district, once held by former Sen. Phil Gramm (R), and the 7th district, once held by former President George H.W. Bush, would probably generate crowded GOP primaries if the incumbents retired or were ousted.

Should Rep. Kevin Brady (R) ever vacate the 8th district, a longtime state legislator with ties to the Congressman, state Sen. Tommy Williams (R), could be tapped to run.

Should Rep. Mike McCaul (R) get ousted or choose to move on from the 10th district, the Republicans could call on state Sen. Dan Patrick (R). Patrick, who owns a radio station in Houston, has solid name recognition and is described as having a “big personality.”

Like the 6th and 7th districts, pinpointing a potential successor to Rep. Mike Conaway (R) in the 11th district remains a work in progress.

In Rep. Kay Granger’s (R) 12th district, GOP state Sens. Kim Brimer and Jane Nelson are seen as possible successors. In Rep. Mac Thornberry’s (R) 13th district, state Sen. Kel Seliger (R), who is based in Amarillo, is thought to be well-positioned to replace the Congressman.

Rep. Ron Paul (R) recently survived a primary challenge in the 14th district and is probably safe from an intraparty threat for awhile. But should the presidential candidate decide to eschew Congress for the national speaking circuit, state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R) is considered a potential top-tier replacement.

Morrison leads a coalition of conservative lawmakers in the Legislature and is based in Victoria, which lies in the center of the sprawling 14th district.

Klingler said that he expects the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), to help lift his party’s downballot candidates and that McCain could be beneficial both to Republicans being challenged and those doing the challenging.

“We think McCain will carry Texas big,” Klingler said.

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