Tea Party, Others Put Texas Senate in Sights

Lt. Governor David Dewhurst (l), talks with Sen. Dan Patrick on the floor of the Texas Senate on April 18, 2011.
Lt. Governor David Dewhurst (l), talks with Sen. Dan Patrick on the floor of the Texas Senate on April 18, 2011.

The restricted club that is the Texas Senate will be invaded by noisy conservative voters and activists next year if senators have to choose a new leader from their own ranks.

If Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wins a United States Senate seat or moves into the governor's office after the 2012 elections, state senators will elect one of their own to take his place. If Gov. Rick Perry wins the presidency, his job would go to either Dewhurst or to the state senator who has taken Dewhurst's place.

Either way, it sets up another round of the Republican vs. Republican battle that marked this year's race for Speaker of the Texas House. Will the 19 Republicans in the 31-member Senate elect one of their own for lieutenant governor, or will that fall to some coalition of Republicans and the 12 Democrats in the Senate, which is what happened when state Rep. Joe Straus of San Antonio unseated Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland in 2009.

Straus then kept the position in 2011 over the noisy objections of some of the Republican Party's loudest conservatives. Conservatives inside the House, many of them elected and then protected by Craddick, were peeved, but they had nothing on conservatives outside the House, who adopted the line that any Republican speaker elected with significant Democratic support was no Republican at all. They labeled Straus a RINO — Republican In Name Only — and swore revenge.

After the 2010 elections, what had been a narrow 76-74 Republican majority in the House was suddenly a 101-49 supermajority. The coalition that elected Straus over Craddick was gone. The war drums started immediately. Rival Republicans declared their interest in Straus' job. Conservative groups, including various Tea Party factions, began email and automated phone campaigns to urge activists to call new and incumbent House members to urge them to vote for someone more conservative to replace Straus as speaker.

Among other things, the insurgents pushed for a Republican-only vote for speaker. Instead of electing a speaker with support from a majority of the entire House — a majority that could include, possibly, some Democrats — they pushed for a binding vote from the Republican Caucus. They wanted the Republican members to elect a speaker and then to vote as a bloc when the matter came up, as it had to, before the full House. Their idea was that a House with 101 Republicans ought to be able to elect a leader whether the Democrats liked it or not.

Straus was relatively new to all of this — he's been a legislator only since 2005 — but he turned out to be more adept at House politics than expected. He won re-election in spite of the opposition. In spite of the political threats made against anyone who voted for him. Several interest groups had promised to make the speaker vote a strongly weighted measure of conservatism in their legislative rankings. The idea: Vote for Straus and face the consequences. That ardor faded a bit as Straus presided over one of the most conservative sessions of the Texas House in recent memory, but it was a big deal at the time.

Fast forward to today.

Those groups haven't given up on the House, but the prospect of a new lieutenant governor elected by senators has their attention. If redistricting maps hold up in court, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, could be replaced by a Republican. Nearby, an incumbent Republican, Chris Harris of Arlington, is being challenged by a freshman state representative, Rodney Anderson, who's more in tune with the outside activists. More Republicans, especially conservatives, would give the activists a better shot at getting their kind of lieutenant governor.

They've even got something to fight over — the two-thirds rule, a Senate convention that requires at least two thirds of senators to approve anything before it can come up for a vote. Partisans hate it, because it allows a minority of 11 senators to block votes on any issue. It's a burden, for example, when Republicans want to pass something sought by their own voters but opposed by Democrats. (It also often works in a nonpartisan way when a bipartisan group of 11 senators forms in opposition to something.)

Conservatives outside the Legislature — some of the same people and groups who wanted Straus' scalp earlier this year — don't think it's fair that 12 Democrats can block 19 Republicans in a place where the Republicans clearly have the upper hand. With the rules as they are, they can't put together the votes to kill the rule.

Unless, that is, they can elect a lieutenant governor and, as part of the deal, get the Republican Caucus in the Senate to agree that a simple majority is enough to rule the Senate.

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