House Calls

The dozen races that will determine who controls the Texas House.

District Map

The Republican advantage in the 150-member Texas House of Representatives has shrunk to eight seats. That qualifies as a thin majority, especially considering that the GOP held a 26-seat edge just five years ago. Texas Democrats have made retaking the House and ending the speakership of Midland’s Tom Craddick a top priority this year. Many political analysts think it’s a long shot, though not impossible. Democrats picked up six seats two years ago, and this year they have Barack Obama at the top of the ticket.

In May, the Observer profiled the 15 most competitive races that will likely determine which party controls the Legislature’s lower chamber (see “Reignmakers,” May 30, 2008). What follows are updates on where the most fiercely contested House races stand a month before the November 4 election. You can find our past coverage of these races and other key political campaigns at our Web site, www.texasobserver.org.

-compiled by Dave Mann, Melissa del Bosque, and Forrest Wilder

Map Key

District 17

Donnie Dippel (D) vs. Tim Kleinschmidt (R)

In this rural district, yard signs don’t cut it-they’re just too small. The candidates have plastered their names and faces on highway billboards and on large signs strung along ranch fences. Much of this rural district between Austin and Houston is trending Republican. But the booming Austin bedroom communities in Bastrop County will likely keep Democrats competitive.

This race, to replace the retiring Democrat Robby Cook, is a true toss-up. Both Democrat Donnie Dippel and Republican Tim Kleinschmidt are stressing their agricultural ties. Kleinschmidt has raised and spent slightly more money this year than Dippel, though the Democrat has more cash on hand for the final weeks ($79,253 to Kleinschmidt’s $28,988). A month before Election Day, the candidates had yet to debate. In an odd twist, a scheduled debate in late September was abruptly canceled when Dippel refused to take the stage because Kleinschmidt’s campaign had brought a video camera.

District 32

Juan Garcia (D) vs. Todd Hunter (R)

In May, a resident at a Corpus Christi candidate forum demanded that Todd Hunter and Juan Garcia release their tax returns. Garcia, a first-term Democrat, promptly produced his returns, but Hunter-a Democrat-turned-lobbyist-turned-Republican-called for a two-fer. “I’ll do mine if he turns over his military records,” Hunter said at the forum. Garcia, an officer in the Naval Reserves, counters that he’ll be happy to-once Hunter, who didn’t serve in the military, produces his Vietnam-era Selective Service records. Ouch.

The document donnybrook is a small part of the two very different candidates’ efforts to define each other. They’re running perhaps the most expensive and most competitive House race in the state, a campaign that, a month before the election, is close as can be. Garcia is playing up his military service while describing his opponent as a bought-and-paid-for product of the insurance industry in a district that’s strongly Republican and proud of its military roots.

Borrowing an approach from his friend and Harvard Law School classmate Barack Obama, Garcia is calling for “change” and deriding “the same old politics of the past.”

Hunter is selling himself as an old hand who can get things done for the Coastal Bend while portraying Garcia as an inexperienced, and liberal, young buck.

The race, mostly civil so far, is just starting to sizzle. “I ain’t afraid of any lobbyist, and in 36 days I’m getting ready to kick one’s butt,” Garcia said at an October political forum, with Hunter standing nearby.

In their spare time, the two candidates have been busy dialing for dollars. Between July and October, Garcia pulled in more than $350,000; he has a little less than $290,000 in the bank. Hunter trails with about $187,000 raised in the past three months and $189,000 in the bank.

District 47

Valinda Bolton (D) vs. Donna Keel (R)

Valinda Bolton may be the most vulnerable Democratic incumbent in the Austin area. She won this southern Travis County seat in 2006. The district spans Austin suburbs that were once solidly Republican but are quickly turning Democratic. This may be the GOP’s last, best shot to win District 47, which is now a 50-50 split between Democratic and Republican voters but won’t stay that way for long.

Bolton has built a huge fundraising advantage. She’s raised more than $238,000 this year compared with $103,000 for Republican challenger Donna Keel. Bolton also has nearly four times as much money in the bank for the final month. That’s a big plus in an expensive media market.

Keel, however, is a disciplined candidate who has been hammering Bolton as too liberal for the district. She also has better name identification than most challengers. Her brother-in-law, Terry Keel, represented the district for five terms before stepping down in 2006. (He’s now parliamentarian for House Speaker Tom Craddick.) A month before Election Day, this seems to be anyone’s race.

District 52

Bryan Daniel (R) vs. Diana Maldonado (D)

If Democrats are to reclaim the Texas House, Diana Maldonado has to win this historically Republican district in the booming suburbs north of Austin. The seat is being vacated by toll-road king Rep. Mike Krusee (R-Round Rock), leaving Maldonado to face off with Bryan Daniel, a conservative Republican and insurance executive from Georgetown. This is a toss-up race. Both candidates are running aggressive campaigns and can point to fundamentals in their favor.

The suburbs have been slipping away from the GOP little by little, but Daniel believes the district is still conservative enough for him to campaign on the Republican standbys of lower taxes, less government, and a dash of anti-immigrant sentiment. In one campaign mailer, the man-with-two-first-names broadcasts his support for “requiring voters to show a valid ID.” Voter ID legislation is popular with Republicans.

Genevieve Van Cleve, Maldonado’s campaign manager, says too much focus on social issues and sideshows like voter ID is a losing strategy. Instead, Maldonado, a former president of the Round Rock ISD school board, is pounding pocketbook issues, presumably a rich vein given the nation’s wrenching economic crisis.

“People are talking about the price of their mortgage,” Van Cleve says. “People are talking about whether they can send their kids to college … and whether they’re getting a fair shake from their government.”

Both campaigns say the race will be won by knocking on doors and making phone calls to voters. The Maldonado campaign is aggressively targeting Republican women and independents, a slice of the district’s population they believe is key to victory.

Thirty days before Election Day, Maldonado is trouncing Daniel in the money game. She has raked in almost $230,000 to his $85,000. More important, Maldonado has a significant edge in cash on hand: $278,000 to his $19,000.

District 78

Joe Moody (D) vs. Dee Margo (R)

Democrats call El Paso’s District 78 the most Democratic Republican district in Texas. The race to turn this red district blue won’t come cheap, however. Republican Dee Margo has already raised more than $700,000 for his campaign since last January, one of the biggest war chests in the state. Margo’s haul vastly overshadows Democrat Joe Moody’s $211,000 in campaign funds.

Both men enjoy significant name recognition in the district. Margo, 56, ran an expensive but unsuccessful campaign in 2006 against state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh. Moody is the 27-year-old son of longtime El Paso District Judge Bill Moody.

Joe Moody, an assistant district attorney, is highlighting Margo’s close ties to George W. Bush and the Republican status quo. Margo has spent the campaign distancing himself from the president’s beleaguered administration.

But Margo hasn’t separated himself from Bush entirely. In August he drove his friend Karl Rove to an El Paso fundraiser for Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn. They were met by groups of protestors chanting, “Hey ho, Karl Rove must go!” and “Karl Rove is a war pig!” A video clip quickly made the rounds on YouTube.

Margo, CEO of an insurance company, has tried to paint his opponent as too young and inexperienced for the Legislature. Recently Margo dredged up entries from Joe Moody’s now-defunct blog and e-mailed them to District 78 voters. The entries detail the young Moody’s deliberations over staying in El Paso to run for office or leaving for Ohio to start a music career.

Whether YouTube videos and blog entries will sway voters is still unknown. What is certain is that winning District 78 will depend on the power of each candidate to turn out voters. In a district that is just 50.8 percent Republican, Moody hopes an energized Democratic turnout will deliver him the margin to win in November.

District 85

Joe Heflin (D) vs. Isaac Castro (R)

In a vast swath of West Texas and the Panhandle stretching from Abilene to Dalhart, freshman Joe Heflin is the sole Democratic legislator. Lonely as it is, Heflin, a lawyer from Crosbyton, is working hard to keep his job. Even though his expansive 15-county district is among the reddest held by a Democrat in the state, Heflin’s prospects against Republican challenger Isaac Castro appear good.

For one, he has the blessing of former speaker of the House Pete Laney, a Democrat who represented District 85 for two and a half decades. Two years ago, Laney’s support helped catapult Heflin past a much better-financed opponent.

Heflin also has the advantage of incumbency and some significant legislative bragging rights for a freshman, including a measure that stripped private school vouchers from the state budget.

Castro, a Hamlin lawyer who was born in Mexico, is dogged by two related lawsuits in which he is named as a defendant. The suits accuse him of fraud, among other allegations, in a series of financial and real estate transactions he was involved in as an attorney.

Castro has vigorously denied the charges and calls the suits frivolous. In any case, the litigation has likely dented his reputation. “There’s a tremendous amount of courthouse chatter all throughout the district which can be very damaging in a rural race,” says Jeff Crosby, a consultant to the Heflin campaign.

Though some Democrats believe Castro’s campaign has collapsed, the Republican challenger is promising a vigorous effort. He has pledged to be a “conservative voice” and is taking a hard-line stance against illegal immigration.

The Democrat leads in fundraising. Heflin raised more than $66,000 between July and October while Castro managed a little less than $34,000. Almost 60 percent of Castro’s funding-$19,950-comes from Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a corporate-funded group that seeks to limit lawsuits.

District 96

Bill Zedler (R) vs. Chris Turner (D)

This race in suburban Tarrant County is one of the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities. Incumbent Republican Bill Zedler has been a back-bencher since he joined the Legislature in 2003. He’s known as a loyal backer of Speaker Craddick and as a strict social conservative. He once authored a bill to allow “religious viewpoints in public schools,” according to his Web site.

Zedler’s Christian-right views may have played well in his district at one time, but the area is quickly shifting toward the Democrats. The Arlington district is still 57 percent Republican, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan TexasCandidates.com, though that’s down from 62 percent Republican in 2002.

Democratic challenger Chris Turner is a former political operative for U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, a Waco Democrat. Turner knows how to win in conservative districts: He ran Edwards’ last two successful campaigns in a district that’s more than 60 percent Republican. Turner has plenty of money. He’s raised nearly $340,000 this year (compared with $208,000 for Zedler). Turner also has more left in the bank-a $50,000 edge over Zedler-for the final weeks.

Turner’s campaign is trying to portray Zedler as too conservative and too partisan. Turner mailers sport the slogan “We need more partnership and less partisanship in Austin.” Zedler shouldn’t be counted out, but this race is titling toward the Democrats.

District 102

Tony Goolsby (R) vs. Carol Kent (D)

Democrats in Dallas have long wanted to defeat Republican Tony Goolsby. He’s been involved in a series of controversies and scandals, including accusations by Democrats that he worked to suppress minority voting in 2006. Goolsby has denied wrongdoing. He’s managed to earn reelection, though two years ago he sneaked through with just 52 percent.

District 102 is another conservative suburban area that’s slipping away from Republicans. Goolsby has employed a John McCain campaign strategy, pitching himself as the maverick voice of experience with a bipartisan record (his mailers boast of his “history of service, legacy of results”).

Democrat Carol Kent’s campaign slogan is “It’s time for a change in Austin.” With such a disgruntled electorate, you would think the “change” candidate would win out over “experience.”

But Goolsby has several key advantages. First, he has a ton of money. He began the campaign cycle with $400,000 and has continued his brisk fundraising.

For a challenger, Kent has collected a respectable amount of money. She’s raised more than $341,000 in 2008, but Goolsby still has a $100,000 edge in cash on hand. Moreover, Goolsby will benefit from the absence of a Libertarian candidate in the race. Two years ago, a Libertarian drew 2.2 percent of the vote. Those extra percentage points may help Goolsby hang on.

District 107

Allen Vaught (D) vs. Bill Keffer (R)

Everyone loves a rematch.Two years ago, Democrat Allen Vaught, a lawyer and Iraq war veteran, scored a huge upset over Republican Bill Keffer. This year, Keffer is trying to reclaim his old seat.

Keffer is a stalwart conservative and was once viewed as a rising Republican star. In his campaign, he’s advocating cuts in state spending. He wants to ditch the business tax lawmakers passed two years ago to help public schools. He also wants reductions in the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Keffer will have a tough time regaining his old seat. The suburban district in Dallas County is increasingly Democratic. The district is 54 percent Republican, according to TexasCandidates.com, down from 57 percent when Vaught won two years ago.

Both candidates have raised healthy sums for the race this year, more than $248,000 for Vaught and $232,000 for Keffer. Vaught, however, has slightly more money left in the bank for the final 30 days. Keffer is certainly well known in the district. But his notoriety may not be the advantage it once was. With the area tilting Democratic, a hard-liner like Keffer may be too conservative for what is now a swing district. In this rematch, Keffer is the underdog.

District 133

Jim Murphy (R) vs. Kristi Thibaut (D)

Nobody can call 44-year-old Democratic candidate Kristi Thibaut a quitter. This will be her second race against Republican Jim Murphy, who won easily in 2006.

Last election Thibaut started campaigning late and had difficulty energizing disaffected voters
In the end, only 21,000 voters went to the polls. This year it’s a completely different story.

An energized Democratic voting base and declining Republican numbers in this west Houston district make Th
baut’s chances of winning significantly stronger. The district still leans Republican, but an influx of African Americans, Latinos, Vietnamese and others has made this seat winnable for Democrats. Thibaut says minority voters in the district now make up more than 60 percent of the population.

If any candidate in Houston will benefit from the “Obama effect,” it will be this down-ballot Democrat. As an added challenge, Thibaut is running for office after giving birth to her first child in June. What a difference two years can make.

District 144

Joel Redmond (D) vs. Ken Legler (R)

Democrats have been hungrily eyeing this open seat since Republican incumbent Robert Talton gave it up for a failed bid for Congress in 2007. Many believe Democrat Joel Redmond, the son of a popular Baptist pastor in the Pasadena district, has the conservative credentials and charisma to turn out voters in District 144.

Although the district is 58.3 percent Republican, twice as many Democrats as Republicans turned out for the March primary. In the past few months Redmond has also outpaced his Republican opponent, Ken Legler, in fundraising. According to his most recent filing, Redmond raised $137,000 to Legler’s $45,000 in campaign funds.

The big question now is, will Democratic voters turn out in November for Redmond? In the primary, Hillary Clinton doubled up Obama in District 144. Will those Clinton supporters return to the polls again? Redmond’s chances may hinge on that question.

District 149

Hubert Vo (D) vs. Greg Meyers (R)

In 2004, Democrat Hubert Vo beat powerful Republican incumbent Talmadge Heflin by just 32 votes. At the time, it was a startling defeat for Houston Republicans, who viewed Vo’s win as an anomaly. Then Vo beat Heflin again in 2006 by a healthy margin of 1,989 votes.

Vo looked set for a third win this year until a string of bad press in his hometown paper handicapped him. In April, the Houston Chronicle ran a stinging series of stories that characterized the 52-year-old businessman as a slumlord. Vo’s opponent, Greg Meyers, a Houston Independent School Board trustee, wasted no time trying to reinforce a view of his Democratic opponent as a heartless landlord.

Since May, Vo has worked hard to repair his damaged image. The good news for Vo is that the voting numbers in District 149 are in his favor. In recent years, the Houston suburb has changed dramatically, from an older Anglo population to a more diverse area with larger Asian, Hispanic and African-American populations who traditionally vote Democratic.

Many pol watchers say Vo still has a good shot this November. And if he does win, he will owe it to the national push to turn out more Democratic voters in Texas’ most populous county. As one political pundit put it, “This election season he has the right letter behind his name.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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