Tuesday, July 19, 2011

TX-14: A Potentially Crowded And Somewhat Competitive Race

 Originally published in Red Racing Horses.

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With Rep. Ron Paul opting to focus on his presidential bid instead of running for re-election, a crowd of federal office-seekers is set to descend upon the newest incarnation of Texas' 14th congressional district. What are they getting themselves into?

The District 

With a PVI of R+18, TX-14 was once one of the safest Republican seats in the nation. 538 forecasted Paul to win re-election by about 65 points during the 2010 midterm elections. The margin was not quite this large in the end, but Paul's victory against Democrat Robert Pruett was never in question.
However, redistricting dealt Republicans in the Fourteenth a weak hand. A late change to the package shifted the district eastward into Beaumont and blue collar Jefferson County, a definite shift from the district's formerly significant rural influence. All told, the Fourteenth gained about 300,000 new voters, including many African American and Hispanic voters.

The changes prompted Greg Wythe to run some numbers on the new district, which you can find here. His conclusion?
Put together a candidate that can carry Jefferson, get 45% or more in Galveston, and carry the Dem parts of Brazoria … and you might have a shot.
The district still has a PVI of R+9 and should be considered a pretty safe Republican district. As Charles Kuffner notes, the strong growth in mainland Galveston County compared to the stagnant Jefferson County has this district trending red. However, given that an opening (however small) for a Democratic victory exists in a rare Texas open seat, expect a strong Democratic challenger to emerge.

Democrats
 
Who could this challenger be? A few names stick out.

Nick Lampson: A former Representative, he represented Jefferson County from 1997 until 2005, when he lost to Rep. Ted Poe. He came back in the wake of the mess with Rep. Tom DeLay and the lack of a Republican candidate on the ballot to win the neighboring TX-22 in 2006 for one term. His time in the 22rd is notable for the seat's geographic proximity to Galveston County. During the 2000s the line between this district and 14th was blurry in the Clear Lake area, as I discovered from numerous confused constituent calls during an internship in Paul's office. In fact, it was not uncommon to find yard signs for the race in households clearly within Paul's district. All of this makes Lampson the strongest Democrat on paper for this race. The former Congressman is definitely considering the race. He recently told the Houston Chronicle, "I certainly have an interest in taking a look at being back in Congress". 

Mark Kelly: You may be surprised to learn that astronaut and husband of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords actually lives in this district. He owns a house in League City, a rapidly growing (with a population of over 83000, it is larger than Galveston proper) and reddening city in Galveston County, due to its proximity to the space center. Don't be surprised to see Kelly pass on this race- he already declared he would not run for office before Paul announced his plans. Still, Kelly would have a compelling story to tell if he did run.

Joe Jaworski: The Mayor of Galveston, Jaworski has an advantage over the many state representatives and state senators looking at a run for the seat: he can retain his office while running for Congress. Jaworski has only been Mayor for a year, and already he is facing a recall effort. He has not had the easiest term, dealing with Galveston's continued recovery from Hurricane Ike, inflated fears of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and hunting for a new city manager. Jaworski has not yet commented on his plans.

Craig Eiland: State Rep. Eiland's name has not really turned up much in discussion of this seat. However, the dwindling population of Galveston Island necessitated the inclusion of rapidly reddening territory on the mainland into HD-23, his seat. McCain won here in 2008, and Charles Kuffner sees this as the only seat Republicans in the state house can seriously go offense on in 2012. Even if Eiland survives the next couple of cycles, the area will continue to trend Republican throughout the decade. He may be wise to take a leap of faith on a congressional run instead of waiting for the impending demise of his state house seat.

Joe Deshotel: A Democratic state representative from Beaumont, Deshotel recently tweeted about the race. Deshotel claims he considered challenging Paul after the new district lines were announced, but declined because he did not want to fall to a 'more traditional Republican' after his first term. He goes on to claim Democrats in Galveston County are undercounted. He may still be considering the race, as he specifically mentioned he made his decision not to run before Paul retired.

Republicans

The seat is still lean or likely Republican all things considered, so it is no surprise that a lot of the action is on the red side of the aisle. Here are a few of the contenders lining up for the fight.

Chris Peden: A former Friendswood city councilor and Mayor pro tem, Peden challenged Paul for the Republican nomination in 2008. For that, he has earned substantial enmity from the Paul faction of the party (this despite Peden holding his own positions which stray from the party line; at one county GOP convention I saw Peden speak out against a particularly aggressive platform plank towards accused terrorists, despite the support of most of the activists in attendance). While Peden confirmed to the Galveston Daily News he is considering running, I don't see him as likely to pull the trigger- State Rep. Larry Taylor also had his start as a Friendswood city councilor and Mayor pro tem.

Larry Taylor: If I had to say one person will be the Republican nominee, it would be State Rep. Larry Taylor. Taylor is a longtime ally of former House Speaker Tom Craddick. However, unlike other Craddick allies Taylor has managed to re-establish himself under the helm of Straus. He is now the Chairman of the Republican Caucus in the State House and was named a member of the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission during the last legislative session. Taylor would likely consolidate a hefty amount of establishment support in this race. It helps that he is an excellent speaker on the stump. Taylor is extremely likely to jump into the race- he released a statement confirming his interest only hours after Paul's announcement, and went out of his way in a recent interview to note that his youngest child will be in college by the time he would need to take office.

Mike Jackson: State Senator Mike Jackson has openly declared interest in a congressional run- in the newly created 36th district. However, he represents a large chunk of the newly open 14th, prompting speculation he will switch races. With Jackson's time in office, he could be a major contender if he makes the jump to this race.

Dennis Bonnen: A state representative from Brazoria County, unnamed Republicans tell Roll Call that Bonnen is a potential candidate for the race. He is notable for receiving a couple of plum committee assignments from Straus during the last legislative session. However, much of Brazoria County was stripped from the district during redistricting, taking away some of Bonnen's base.

Steve Stockman: Former Rep. Steve Stockman is also considering a run, recently emailing supporters about the support he has in the district. Stockman represented a significant number of potential constituents during his time in Congress, although only for one term until his defeat at the hands of Lampson. He won his seat in 1994 during a red wave and after the 2003 Delaymander; it is uncertain  Interestingly, Stockman might maintain Paul's independence from the party- in 2006 he ran as an Independent for Delay's seat (although he failed to qualify for the ballot), and at some point he was courted to join the Constitution Party. Stockman's unorthodoxy and solid conservative credentials could allow him to make a play for Paul's mantle.

Debra Medina: While Stockman is uncertain to gather Paulista support, Debra Medina is a shoe-in. The Chairwoman of the Wharton County GOP, Medina ran a surprisingly strong gubernatorial campaign for the Republican nomination in 2010. She has a longtime association with Paul, working on his campaigns for years and once heavily involved with his 501(c)4 Campaign For Liberty. However, she recently told the Texas Tribune she is unlikely to run; redistricting knocked her and much of Wharton out of the 14th. Besides, she is still haunted by a certain 9/11 gaffe... 
Others: These aren't the only candidates politicos are waiting on. Beaumont Attorney and State Republican Executive Committee member Michael Truncale is forming an exploratory committee for the seat. A handful of Republican state lawmakers who represent chunks of the district (handily compiled by Burnt Orange Report) may also consider a run, although they have not announced any plans yet. These include Rep. Allan Ritter, Rep. Randy Weber, Senator Joan Huffman, and Senator Tommy Williams.

Libertarians

Despite the 300,000 new voters, much of this district was once represented by libertarian standard-bearer Ron Paul. It is no surprise that his retirement has attracted a handful of potential Libertarian candidates. The three currently in the running are Amy Jacobellis, Chair of the Jefferson County LP; Eugene Flynn, a Dallas Attorney and member of the State Libertarian Executive Committee; and Bob Smithers, the 2006 nominee in the special election for TX-22 that year. Smithers is probably the strongest candidate of the three; he pulled over 10% of the vote in 2006 during his congressional bid. If the eventual Republican nominee is not palatable to the Paul faction of the party, a strong Libertarian could prove a headache in the general election.

Summary

Redistricting gave Democrats a narrow opening in TX-14. Victory for team blue will require many factors coming together: a strong candidate and fundraising, a polarizing Republican nominee, a decent environment and an amazing Libertarian candidate. However, the solid Republican composition of this district will allow the GOP to retain this seat in all likelihood.

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