DCCC Eyes Texas Two-Step in GOP Districts

Posted July 31, 2008 at 5:53pm

The 7th and 10th districts of Texas are unlikely to go Democratic on Election Day.

But the fact that Republican Reps. John Culberson and Michael McCaul have races worth discussing at all is symbolic of the peril the GOP finds itself in as the fall looms.

Culberson’s 7th district encompasses much of Houston’s western suburbs and is among the most conservative in a state that remains a Republican stronghold. But Culberson’s opponent, businessman Michael Skelly, has attempted to position himself as a conservative Democrat and has vowed to spend $1 million of his own money on the race. As of June 30, he had nearly doubled the incumbent in cash on hand.

McCaul’s 10th district, stretching from greater Houston’s solidly conservative Harris County in the east to the Austin region’s Democratic-leaning Travis County in the west, has the potential to be politically problematic for Republicans. But in attorney Larry Joe Doherty (D), McCaul is facing a challenger whose positions on key issues are unlikely to appeal to the GOP and conservative independent voters he’ll need to win in a district that still leans Republican.

“I think the actual threat level is low,” Ted Delisi, McCaul’s chief campaign strategist, said Thursday. “But the environment requires us to work harder and earlier than we normally would because there’s a lot of uncertainty in the air.”

Republican operatives who follow Texas Congressional races concede that neither the 7th district nor the 10th will be the easy ride they’ve been for the Republicans since being redrawn in 2003 as part of the redistricting of Lone Star State House seats engineered by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

But these same GOP insiders say that both Culberson and McCaul are taking nothing for granted, working harder to win re-election than they did in 2004 and 2006. Even the Doherty and Skelly campaigns predict that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will beat Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in their districts in the presidential contest, acknowledging that their candidates can’t win without attracting a significant bloc of crossover votes.

Meanwhile, neither race has been added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s ever-expanding “Red to Blue” fundraising and infrastructure program, which Republicans say signals that even Democrats recognize that picking up these seats on Nov. 4 is a long shot at best.

“In a presidential year with John McCain at the top of the ticket, [the 7th and 10th districts] are even further out of reach for the Democrats,” said Julie Shutley, spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The DCCC argues otherwise.

“Even in Texas, one of the reddest states in the country, people are fed up,” DCCC spokeswoman Kyra Jennings said. “Combine this desire for change with the strong campaigns both Michael Skelly and Larry Joe Doherty are running, and it offers Democrats unique opportunities in Texas this year.”

Culberson has represented suburban Houston in Congress since 2000. The 7th district in its current form is a mixture of social conservatives and practical, business-minded Republicans, and Culberson has never scored less than 59 percent of the vote, which he earned last cycle while spending just under $735,000.

Skelly’s strategy is to parlay his background as an energy executive — and the personal fortune he earned launching and running a wind-energy company — into a November victory over an incumbent who hasn’t committed a fireable offense and is a better political fit for the district.

As of June 30, Skelly reported $1.1 million in cash on hand, $200,000 of which were personal funds that he loaned to his campaign. He raised $412,000 during the second quarter. Culberson raised less during the same period, $394,000, to finish with $550,000 on hand. In a telephone interview on Thursday, Culberson said he now has more than $700,000 in the bank.

Culberson said he takes every race seriously, and is treating this contest no differently. The Congressman said he has an “extraordinary network of grass-roots volunteers,” emphasizing that his campaign is already hard at work on the ground to ensure the voter turnout he’ll need to overcome Skelly’s financial advantage and prevail on Election Day.

“I always expect to be outspent when facing a multimillionaire like this,” Culberson said. “But, they don’t count dollar bills on Election night.”

But Skelly’s team believes a district whose economy relies heavily on the energy industry will respond favorably to a candidate with his background, and they predict that fiscal conservatives disappointed with Congress’ record on spending and the deficit could help him win an unexpected victory. Skelly, on cable television with his second ad, is already courting voters; Culberson intends to wait until after Labor Day to launch his air war.

“This is the perfect year and the perfect district for a successful wind-energy businessman who has spent his career working on the issues that people care about most,” Skelly campaign spokesman Dylan Loewe said. “I like our chances.”

The 10th district is a classic gerrymander — drawn up as a majority Republican seat by cobbling together a collection of conservative-leaning rural counties and anchoring them on either side by portions of growing counties.

McCaul, who has access to personal money via his wife’s family, leads Doherty in fundraising, having reported $489,000 on hand and $229,000 in debt as of June 30, compared with $260,000 in the bank and $100,000 in debt for his Democratic challenger. Doherty — who seeded his campaign with $100,000 but does not plan on spending additional personal cash — outraised McCaul by about $1,000 during the second quarter.

Contributing to Doherty’s optimism is the increasing number of Democratic voters in Travis County, which is a liberal enclave in an otherwise sea of red, and the fact that McCaul’s Democratic opponent in 2006 garnered 40 percent of the vote while being outspent by the incumbent $1.1 million to $65,000.

Doherty’s strategy is to court moderate voters who are most interested in a change in Washington, D.C., while maximizing turnout in Travis County and working for a split in the rural counties. His campaign believes McCaul has not developed a close relationship with his constituents, and it plans to exploit that. McCaul’s campaign vehemently denies that contention.

“When you step back and look at the polling, fundraising and election ratings, this district is clearly ready for Larry Joe Doherty’s leadership,” Doherty campaign spokesman Jon Niven said.

However, it is not clear that Doherty, a former television judge, can sufficiently appeal to right-of-center voters. The Democrat’s team refers to him as a “Texas Democrat,” which is sometimes code for “conservative Democrat.” But when pressed, it’s clear that most of Doherty’s positions on key issues lean left. That could be one of the reasons Skelly is on the list of the DCCC’s “emerging” races and Doherty is not.

Additionally, the McCaul campaign is keenly aware that it has to compensate for the potential of an upswing in Democratic voters in Travis County, and to that end, has hired Texas GOP political consultant Chris Homan to boost its grass-roots efforts, particularly in Harris County, where Homan is based.

Homan, who is running former Senate aide Pete Olson’s (R) campaign for the suburban Houston 22nd district, guided Olson from zero name identification to Republican primary runoff victory over a better-known opponent with stronger ties to the district in just eight months.

Earlier this cycle, some Republicans worried about the re-election prospects of both McCaul and Culberson. But the early moves on the part of both incumbents to prepare for the fall campaign have eased nerves.

“Both Rep. McCaul and Rep. Culberson are entrenched in the district and have records that will get them re-elected in November,” the NRCC’s Shutley said.