An Inside Game, Already Afoot

State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, speaks to an aide on the Senate floor on May 16, 2011.
State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, speaks to an aide on the Senate floor on May 16, 2011.

The political armies in Texas are assembling for a battle more than a year away.

The possibility of five or more new Republican senators in 2013 opens a tactical door for conservatives who'd like to gain control of the Legislature.

The House and Senate are already overwhelmingly Republican, but Texas is effectively a one-party state. This isn't about Republicans and Democrats — it's about Republicans and Republicans.

The State Republican Executive Committee, egged on by Houston Sen. Dan Patrick and others, passed a resolution last weekend saying the GOP Caucus in the Senate ought to pick the next lieutenant governor. That's an if-if deal. If Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wins the U.S. Senate seat he's after or if Gov. Rick Perry moves on and Dewhurst moves up, or both, the Senate picks their successors.

The question is, which Senate? The one that's in office right now, including departing members like Chris Harris, Mike Jackson, Steve Ogden, and Florence Shapiro? Or the one that takes office in January 2013, with their replacements and possibly others? If the lines aren't redrawn, Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, has a difficult reelection bid in front of her. And there could be other senators wearing parachutes, opting against reelection.

The timing question could determine the outcome. Federal lawmakers are sworn in before state lawmakers. Dewhurst, becoming a U.S. Senator, would probably resign his state office before the new senators here have taken the oath. The current Senate would assemble — just as they did when George W. Bush moved up — to hold an election.

That winner would become lieutenant governor, and if Perry moved on, governor. A second Senate vote would select the new lieutenant governor.

It would make for a weirdest holiday season since 2000.

Patrick is counting noses among the Republicans, talking about electing a Dewhurst replacement without input from the Democrats. Now he's got the SREC on his side, and third-party groups — the folks who made the race for House speaker so interesting last December and January — are prodding their email lists in the same direction.

It's like a South American deal, without the bullets. If you want to take over the Texas government, elect a handful of Republicans — just a handful, but they've got to be Republicans — who come closest to sharing your views. If you're on the conservative side, get people who'll elect a conservative from within the GOP caucus and then will enforce that caucus choice when the vote goes to the full Senate.

Or go the other way: Vote for Republicans who can, with some of the Democrats, form a bipartisan coalition. It takes 16 votes to win in the full Senate, and just 11 to win in the Caucus.

And maybe they'll get lucky: If Perry and Dewhurst both win tickets to Washington, the schemers in the Senate could elect both of their replacements.

The opposition couldn't beat House Speaker Joe Straus at the beginning of the legislative session early this year, and he has fortified his position. But they learned something about how it's done. One chore is to elect the voters they want. That's just ahead, in the party primaries in March. Another is to rig the rules to make sure they've got a winning majority if and when the opportunity appears.

That's more than a year away, but they're already working on the foundation.