Hurricanes may help steer Texas politics

HOUSTON -- Ron Booth voted Republican in the presidential election four years ago.

In the staunchly Republican state of Texas, home to President Bush, that's not much of a surprise. Booth says, however, that in November, he'll cast his vote for the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama.

"You can't do the things of the past to solve the problems of the future," says Booth, 45, a finance manager, as he lunched recently at an outdoor cafe in downtown Houston. "We need change. That's Obama, clearly."

The majority of voters in Texas may be more like Laura Lansberry, 48, a hair salon owner in the Bellaire suburb of Houston, who says she considered voting for Obama, based mostly on his personality. However, Obama's tax policies and spending plans worry her, she says.

"We're going to get a big part of the tax burden," she says. "And I feel I'm paying a big part already."

She'll most likely vote for the Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, as will her husband and most of her friends.

Texans have long had good reason to visit the polls on presidential Election Day. Stretching back to Ronald Reagan's first run for office, there has been a favorite son on every presidential ticket for three decades.

The fact that there isn't one this year might be symbolic of a subtle shift in Texas' political landscape. Republicans are likely to carry the state easily in the presidential election, but some pockets long considered Republican territory may be inching toward the Democrats' camp, political analysts say

The last Democratic president to carry Texas was Jimmy Carter in 1976. In 2000, Texas Gov. George W. Bush took Texas over Vice President Al Gore, 59% to 38%, according to secretary of State records. Four years later, Bush again won Texas, 61% to 38%, over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. In a Research 2000 poll released last week, McCain holds a comfortable 12-point lead over Obama.

Some areas long considered Republican strongholds, such as Dallas County, though, are rapidly turning purple and may be all-out blue by Nov. 5.

In 2004, Bush beat Kerry in Dallas County by 9,600 votes. Two years later, Democrats won every statewide election in the county, long a financial center for Republican campaigning, and voted in a Democratic, lesbian, Hispanic sheriff. Obama is likely to carry the county in November.

Texas' 34 electoral votes most likely will go to McCain, says Jim Henson, who directs the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas-Austin. But a national fervor for change, especially opposing the Bush administration, is seeping into Texas, he says.

"Republicans have had the keys to the cars the last 10 years," Henson says, "but over the last two to four years, there's been … disaffection with the way Washington has governed and the way Texas has governed. There's a sense that Republicans have failed to deliver on issues."

Few places will be more closely watched than Harris County, which includes Houston, the USA's fourth-largest city, and has been a stalwart GOP county.

The outcome in this area, recently battered by Hurricane Ike, could reveal what post-Bush Texas politics will look like.

"Dallas was a wake-up call for our folks here," says Allen Blakemore, a Houston-based Republican political consultant. "Now, (Republican strategists) are better organized, better funded and better prepared to meet the challenge. They've taken the threat seriously."

Urban flight, a growing minority population and an influx of Katrina Democrats from Louisiana have contributed to the shifting mood in urban centers such as Dallas, Republican strategist Chris Turner says.

Those demographic shifts don't readily apply to Harris County, he says. Ike's destruction in the coastal areas may have hurt the Democrats because it was hard for candidates to reach those areas, he says.

The selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate electrified Republican voters here, Turner says.

"What you're seeing is localized spikes of Democratic support," he says. "But there's been a re-energizing of the Republican base almost solely on Sarah Palin. I don't see any trend of Texas becoming blue."

Corruption scandals among the Republican leadership, including Texas congressman Tom DeLay's resignation amid charges of campaign-finance violation and a perceived lack of leadership in Texas have battered voter confidence among Republicans, who have led the state for more than a decade, Democratic strategist Ed Martin says.

"It's definitely a trend, no question," Martin says. "If Republicans continue to pursue the more extreme agenda, they're going to continue to lose ground here."

A tight primary race between Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in March galvanized Democratic voters in Texas, Martin says.

Nearly 3 million Democratic voters turned out for the primary — narrowly won by Clinton — shattering previous records, he says. More than twice the number of Democrats than Republicans turned out for the primaries, according to state figures.

Whether those voters revisit the polls in November remains to be seen. In Houston and surrounding Harris County, strategists on both sides will be keeping close watch.

"As goes Harris County, so goes the state," says Blakemore, the Republican strategist. "We're standing in the breach here."