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Analysis: Texas candidates have one week left to sign up or shut up

The Texas Capitol.

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In one week, we’ll know who’s going to have a primary. Who is going to have a fight in November. Who’s quitting. Who isn’t quitting.

The table will be set for a big 2020 election — and for a very interesting political science experiment in a state that has been unshakably reliable for Republicans since the mid-1990s.

The 2018 elections didn’t follow historical patterns. Turnout was huge: 8.4 million Texans voted in a year when 5.5 million to 6 million — based on past results — would have been considered normal.

That kind of a participation bump — 2 million or 3 million people, give or take — can change an election. And people have been talking about the results ever since: closer Republican wins, including some nail-biters, in statewide races; a Democratic gain of one in the state Senate; a Democratic gain of 12 in the state House.

The big dogs, starting with President Donald Trump, are clearly not taking Texas for granted. And judging by the candidate filings so far, neither are the incumbents and their challengers.

The Democrats and Republicans both want to find out whether the 2018 results marked a change in the political winds in Texas or were just a one-time glitch in a familiar and comfortable Republican pattern.

Republicans raising money for next year’s defense have suggested more than 30 seats in the Texas House could be in play; that is, that either party could win, depending on how things go.

The Texas maps for statehouse and congressional seats were drawn by Republican majorities to favor Republican candidates. But that baked-in bias has faded over the course of the decade. It produced as many as 98 Republican seats at one point; only 83 seats now belong to the GOP.

And because it’s time for a fresh round of redistricting, state and national political people are fighting for a Texas House majority after the 2020 elections.

But are there really that many competitive seats?

Only if you use a broad definition. In 2018, fewer than 10 percentage points separated winners from losers in statewide races — like those for governor and other top offices — in 31 Texas House districts. Of those districts, 18 are held by Republicans and 13 by Democrats.

Those districts are competitive, based on those statewide results. But not all of those House races were competitive in 2018: Those results depended more heavily on the candidates who chose to run.

And candidates are making their decisions now, looking at past results and gauging their chances. Some will look for even better climates: Only 13 districts had a partisan difference of 5 percentage points or fewer. Republicans hold seven of those and Democrats hold six.

That’s a tighter target list. It doesn’t take particularly good and particularly bad candidates into account, or money or fame, any one of which can and does change the results. It’s just a starting place.

The Senate has only one district — held by Republican Pete Flores — that is truly competitive, and that’s not enough to flip the GOP’s control in the upper chamber.

The House is the place where both parties are looking for improvement. Democrats, with 67 seats, need to flip nine to get a majority (and eight to bring the House into perfect 75-75 balance). Republicans, who didn’t expect to lose 12 seats a year ago — and who suspect some of those results were one-time flukes — will be trying to reverse their losses.

And when candidate filing is complete Dec. 9, that competition will finally be underway.

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