Looking for Lone Star Opportunities

Posted January 16, 2009 at 6:00pm

The stars at night may be big and bright, but an early look at Texas’ House battlefield for the 2010 cycle paints a smaller, somewhat duller picture.

Right now, the Lone Star State appears to be on track for a second consecutive relatively quiet cycle. Of 32 districts in Texas, just one seat changed hands during the 2008 cycle — and former Rep. Nick Lampson’s (D) loss in a heavily Republican district came as little surprise to anyone. Looking ahead, it’s hard to see the Texas battleground expanding beyond the districts that both parties have tried and failed to flip in previous cycles.

But the new head of the National Republican Congressional Committee hails from the Lone Star State, so it seems likely that he’ll be watching back home closely for new opportunities.

NRCC Chairman Pete Sessions is a savvy political operator who has won several competitive re-election challenges since coming to Congress in 1996. He can also claim the scalp of a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee among his victories.

“Texas still has, by and large, a conservative voting bloc in many Congressional seats,” Sessions said in a recent interview. “Obviously, there is an interest in this NRCC in picking up seats, and if one of those presents itself as an opportunity, you’ll bet we’ll be there.”

Sessions made it clear that as he begins to chart the course of the NRCC after two tough cycles for Republicans, he has no preset agenda for Texas. He said he intends to concentrate party resources wherever opportunities are present.

“We’re going to look and see how people make their votes in Texas and all across the country versus the Pelosi/Obama legislation,” Sessions said. “If any Member of Congress who is a Democrat does not do what they said they’d do or does not match their expectations back home, we’ll go after them.”

One district that Republicans are certain to keep an eye on is that of Rep. Chet Edwards (D).

Edwards has been a frequent target in the very conservative 17th district, which is home to President George W. Bush’s Crawford ranch — a fact that continues to be a sore spot among Texas GOPers. He’s proved tough to beat, but with the 10-term Democrat continuing to rise in seniority, Sessions said Republicans will be watching his voting record closely.

“I think it’s important to note that Mr. Edwards positioned himself as someone who would vote the way that he did and positioned himself accordingly vis-à-vis President Bush,” Sessions said. “When he has to vote either for or against the Obama/Pelosi bills, we’ll see how that plays.”

Meanwhile, Democrats have been watching GOP Rep. Michael 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. McCaul is eyeing a run for state attorney general in 2010, and Democrats could try to make an open-seat race competitive.

“The DCCC will stay aggressive this cycle, and we are certainly keeping an eye on this potential open seat,” DCCC spokesman Ryan Rudominer said.

Democratic recruiting efforts are likely to focus on Travis County, where the majority of Democratic votes are based. Last cycle, the eventual Democratic nominee in the 10th hailed from Harris County rather than Travis.

Some possible Democratic candidates from Travis County include former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd, 2008 Democratic primary candidate Dan Grant and a slew of state legislators. But 2008 Democratic nominee Larry Joe Doherty could return for another shot or Democrats could look to the rural counties of the district and try to woo someone like state Rep. Robert Cook into the race.

But outside the 10th and 17th districts, few other opportunities are readily apparent at this point in the 2010 cycle. Even possible retirements are unlikely to affect the makeup of the state’s delegation much.

The most often talked about possible retires are Republican Reps. Sam Johnson, 78, and Ralph Hall, 85. Both men hail from heavily GOP seats and should either choose to retire, a bevy of Republican state legislators are waiting in the wings to succeed them.

Republicans might take another shot at Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D) in the 23rd district.

In 2008, Republicans were keen on knocking off Rodriguez, who won a 2006 special election in the San Antonio-based seat. But Rodriguez went on to win by a comfortable 14 points in a district that is more favorable to Democrats now than it was before a mid-decade redistricting. In 2010, Republican opportunity in the 23rd will come down to recruiting.

“Republicans would have to recruit someone who has strong support in the Republican-leaning northern and western Bexar County suburbs, who can appeal to Hispanic voters in San Antonio’s south side and those in counties along the Texas-Mexico border, and have the ability to raise significant funds. That’s a daunting task,” admitted a D.C.-based operative from Texas who has ties to the state’s Congressional Republicans.

Matt Angle, director of the Lone Star Project, an advocacy group that seeks to boost Texas Democrats, said going after the 23rd again would be a waste of time for the GOP.

“If Pete Sessions is trying to do the most responsible job for his party, he won’t be taking long shots in Texas against almost certain winners, like Chet Edwards and Ciro Rodriguez,” Angle said. “He’ll be working in other states, and he’ll probably be using Texas money to do it.”

Angle is a former top aide to Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who was defeated by Sessions in 2004 after the mid-decade redistricting.

But if 2010 is destined to be a quieter cycle in the Lone Star State, it could well be the calm before the storm.

Operatives in each party are already looking ahead to 2012 and a post-redistricting map that will be full of new possibilities. Texas is expected to gain three to four new seats in that process, and the ramifications of those changes are already being eagerly anticipated. Indeed, they may even be contributing to what is expected to be a quieter 2010 cycle.

“It is realistic to believe that a strong Republican candidate may sit this cycle out and wait until after the new lines are in place, because you will see the districts in this area look very different and potentially more friendly to Republicans,” the GOP operative said of the 23rd district.