365 days of fighting

In less than a year, voters will be going to the polls to elect 150 state representatives, 32 Congressmen and women, a handful of state senators, a United States senator, and a smattering of judicial and administrative statewide offices in Texas.

Unlike days gone by, however, where elections really got nasty only after Labor Day — the Labor Day right before the election, that is — the race for the finish line in Texas got underway many months ago, and in some cases, will be a knock-down-drag-out slugfest until the last vote is counted (or recounted, as the case may be).

Without a Bush on the ballot for the first time since Governor Rick Perry’s hair last moved in the wind (Aqua Net works, ya’ll), Republicans will likely have a tough road to hoe in 2008. After all, their party and sitting president are more unpopular than ever and they’ve been losing state legislative seats in Texas for two election cycles straight.

That doesn’t mean it will be a walk in the park for Democrats, though. Primaries between
“Craddick Democrats” and “anti-Craddick Democrats” in some key districts may leave victors weakened against their eventual general-election opponents. That Craddick versus anti-Craddick theme will be playing itself out in Republican primaries across the state, too.

With this in mind, here are some key races to keep your eye on heading into 2008. Some may already be on your radar; others may not.

Texas Supreme Court, Place 8: Linda Yañez versus Susan Criss; Democratic Primary Race. With several seats on the state’s highest civil-
appeals court open this election cycle, a lot of Democrats are baffled as to why these two women would decide to duke it out in a primary rather than spend their energies (and money) fighting Republicans next fall.

Rumors range from Yañez feeling slighted that Criss announced her candidacy first — they were supposed to work together to tackle separate races on the court — to Yañez having been drafted into the race by now non-candidate Mikal Watts, who reportedly wanted a down-ballot Latino on the fall 2008 ticket. Either way, unless one candidate blinks first (and that candidate won’t be Criss), expect this to be the most high-profile statewide judicial primary Texas has seen in more than a decade.

Yañez: Appellate judge on the 13th Court of Appeals who ran for statewide office and lost in 2002; she picked cotton as a child and was a teacher before becoming a lawyer. Criss: State district judge in Galveston County who has handled a number of high-profile trials including lawsuits against British Petroleum and the criminal trial of millionaire Robert Durst; she’s descended from a politically-active family including her father, former State Representative Lloyd Criss.

Prediction: Both candidates have quality campaign consultants, with Criss working with Ferro Hewitt Global (Kelly Ferro) and Yañez working with Message, Audience, & Presentation (MapWins) and James Aldrete, so expect two well-run, high-quality campaigns. Right now, however, Criss has the edge thanks to her higher profile in Democratic Party circles — in spite of not having run statewide before — and family ties that make her fundraising a bit easier.

Texas House of Representatives, District 96: Bill Zedler versus Lee E. Jackson; Republican Primary Race. This Arlington-centered district in North Texas will be the vortex of a white-hot primary this fall where you can expect a significant amount of GOP resources and money to be spent.

Incumbent State Represenative Bill Zedler (R-Arlington) is being challenged by Lee E. Jackson, a Fort Worth cop and president of the Fort Worth Police Officer’s Association. You can also expect Parent PAC, the pro-public-schools political action committee founded last year, to play a role in this race.

Zedler is the pro-school-voucher, right-wing ally of Texas House Speaker Tom Craddick who introduced and defended the doomed “covenant marriage” bill during the last session of the Texas Legislature. He’s fought tough primaries before and was, in fact, sued for not residing in his district in an earlier race.

Prediction: Zedler. While this district is prone to flip from right-wing to moderate representation like Kent Grusendorf’s did last year, Zedler has the advantage of having many more far-right Republicans likely to come out next year to vote in the presidential primaries, meaning he can likely hold his seat against a moderate Republican. That’s good news for Democrats, though, as the more wing-nutty the GOP candidate in the fall, the easier he could be to defeat.

Texas House of Representatives, District 40: Aaron Peña versus Eddie Saenz; Democratic Primary Race: In most instances, a candidate caught allegedly driving while intoxicated and potentially inflating the number of supporters who attended a fund-raiser would be dead in the water in a primary race. Welcome to politics of the Rio Grande Valley. Eddie Saenz, a wealthy engineer who ran against incumbent Peña in 2004, was charged earlier this year with Driving While Intoxicated, a Class B Misdemeanor, and was caught just this week on a YouTube video allegedly inflating the number of people who turned out for a campaign event. Yet he shows no signs of dropping out or slowing down.

Key to this race is that Peña is a “Craddick Democrat,” which helped him earn the chairmanship of the House’s Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and hundreds of millions in projects for his district. Key also is that Peña, though he aligned with Craddick to bring home the bacon for his district, isn’t a machine candidate. Saenz, by all accounts, is heavily supported by the local political machine.

Don’t expect Peña’s Craddick loyalty to be an issue at the ballot boxes in Edinburg and Edcouch and elsewhere in the district. While — with the assistance of top-notch consultants — Saenz is doing a good job of chipping away at Peña’s record, it’s personal service and accomplishments for the district that matter to voters in the still-conservative Rio Grande Valley.

Prediction: Edge to Peña. While he will take a beating among his liberal constituency for his support of Craddick, most of his very conservative — very Catholic — constituency cares more about what their representatives do for the district. As long as Peña can prevent the Hidalgo County machine from stealing the election, he should be OK.

Texas House of Representatives, District 138: Virginia Stogner McDavid versus Dwayne Bohac; General Election: Picking up where her husband left off in the attempt to turn House District 138 blue, Virginia McDavid is viewed as actually having a better chance than her hubby to win this key Harris County district. She’s already racked up endorsements from the likes of Congressman Gene Green and a passel of local officials — not to mention former Texas Governor Mark White.

Last year, Bill Moody, who ran for Texas Supreme Court with zero statewide name identity, managed to pull 45 percent in the district, which could bode well for McDavid.

Prediction: Very slight edge to McDavid. As Harris County Democrats work overtime to duplicate what happened in Dallas County last year, anything is possible — especially in a year when GOP disenchantment runs as high as it will in 2008. •

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