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Texas' 7th District has historically been forbidden territory for Democrats, dating back to the 1960s when the suburban Houston district was first so numbered. It is the old district of former President George H.W. Bush, and was represented by conservative Republican Bill Archer for 30 years prior to the election of its current Republican representative, John Culberson. In other words, this has been a Republican district since the days when Democrats ruled Texas.

The district voted for President Bush by a margin of 64% to 36% in 2004, and sports a PVI of R+15.6. It is actually currently quite a bit more Democratic than it was in the '90s, when it was the third-most Republican district in the nation (this was due to clever gerrymandering by the then-Democratic majority in Texas).

Redistricting and a slight Democratic trend have made the district a bit friendlier to Democrats. Culberson received 59% of the vote in 2006 against an underfunded Democrat, not an especially impressive performance given TX-07's crimson hue. Still, this would be one of the last places where you'd expect an exceptionally strong Democratic challenge.

This year, you would be mistaken, as businessman Michael Skelly has managed to raise unprecedented amounts of money in preparation for the first serious run at this district in decades. From the Politico:

Businessman Michael Skelly is positioned to be at the top of the Democratic fundraising list for the year’s first quarter, according to a Democratic operative, raising about $750,000 from individual donors without even tapping into his substantial personal wealth. Another Democratic operative said it could be the "best first quarter ever" for any House Democrat in his first filing period.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the first-time candidate is obliterating his opponent in the fundraising race, and adds a particularly interesting tidbit:

Democratic congressional candidate and wind power executive Michael Skelly collected more than $400,000 in campaign contributions since the beginning of the year, dwarfing the treasury of opponent U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, according to records filed Monday.

Culberson, who represents the Republican-friendly 7th Congressional District in west Harris County, raised about $35,000 in the first six weeks of the year

...

His contributions included $2,300 from Houston investment banker Matt Simmons and $4,600 from Houston investor Fayez Sarofim. Both have helped fund the Republican National Committee and President Bush's campaigns while seldom contributing to Democratic candidates.

Skelly was born in Ireland, and immigrated to the U.S. at the age of two. He graduated from Notre Dame and Harvard Business School, served in the Peace Corps, and subsequently worked in ecotourism in Costa Rica. He made his money in the energy industry, like a lot of Texas millionaires...although Skelly did so as a top executive for a wind energy developer, now the third largest in the United States.

Does he have a shot? TX-07 is still an incredibly difficult district for Democrats to win. Only three redder districts in the country are represented by Democrats (the districts of Gene Taylor in MS-04, Chet Edwards in TX-17, and Jim Matheson in UT-02).

Still, there is some hope. Republican redistricting brought several Houston suburbs into the district which are generally wealthy and fiscally conservative, but not necessarily doctrinaire Republican. This includes Skelly's hometown of West University Place, where Democrat Ellen Cohen defeated Republican incumbent Martha Wong in her 2006 State House race. As previously mentioned, Culberson's margin of victory in 2006 was large, but not overwhelming, and he has shown signs of weakness:

The Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, in a poll conducted last December, found that Culberson enters his reelection campaign with some vulnerabilities.

His net approval rating was surprisingly low for a solidly Republican district, with only 32 percent of respondents holding a favorable opinion and 23 percent viewing Culberson unfavorably. And in a head-to-head matchup against the little-known Skelly, Culberson held a 52 percent to 33 percent lead.

Even more striking, the Republican brand has taken a hit in the district, even though former President George H.W. Bush represented it for two terms. A 54 percent majority of districtwide voters disapprove of the current Bush’s performance in office.

Given Skelly's fundraising performance since that December poll, it's likely that that 52-33 advantage for Culberson will be shrinking considerably.

Even in a tremendous wave year for Democrats, this would be an extremely difficult district to take. Still, it's hard not to get excited about a candidate raising that kind of money in such strongly red territory.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Wed Apr 02, 2008 at 01:28 PM PDT.

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