A Senate Race That's About Crunching the Numbers

Sen. Wendy Davis D-Ft. Worth attends TribLive on April 19th, 2012
Sen. Wendy Davis D-Ft. Worth attends TribLive on April 19th, 2012

The most important race in the state Senate this year is not really about Wendy Davis.

It’s about the number 12.

The Fort Worth Democrat tops this year’s list of imperiled candidates. She is running on Republican turf. This is her sophomore effort. And then there’s this: She is a key member of a Democratic dozen with the power to block Republican initiatives in the Senate.

The Senate has 31 members. The regular practice — sometimes ignored when management’s political bacon is in the frying pan — is to consider only those issues that at least two-thirds of the senators are willing to consider.

It’s not set in stone, exactly, but it is often referred to as if it is: the two-thirds rule. It empowers a minority — partisan or not — to block consideration of legislation.

Two-thirds of 31 is 21, for vote-counting purposes, and there are a dozen Democrats in the Senate. That provides an insurance vote for the party and a troublesome obstacle for the opposition. It’s impossible to assemble a two-thirds vote from the full Senate without at least two Democrats.

The same numbers come into play in another circumstance: It takes two-thirds of the members to constitute a quorum. When 11 Democrats decamped to Albuquerque in 2003, the Senate was unable to convene for 46 days to consider new redistricting maps. That’s a sort of parliamentary violence that isn’t often used, but it’s part of the toolkit available to the minority.

The Democrats would have enough votes to block without Davis, as long as everyone sticks together. But there are issues where most but not all of the Democrats agree. Abortion rights. Tort reform. Redistricting. Lots of issues don’t break along party lines, but preventing the other side from assembling a supermajority is the best lever available to a minority. Under the current political maps, the Democrats stand little chance of winning a majority in the Senate. Instead, their best shot is to keep 11 or more seats. If the Republicans can’t run over them, the Democrats keep their seats at the negotiating table.

Votes that require a simple majority belong to the party in power. And they have talked about changing the supermajority rule to 60 percent instead of two-thirds, an alteration that would render the Democrats meaningless on any partisan issue.

Changing a long-standing tradition in the Senate is harder than winning an election. And Republicans and Democrats alike have their eye on Tarrant County’s Senate District 10, where the chamber’s most vulnerable Democrat is defending her position.

Davis beat Republican incumbent Kim Brimer four years ago, leaving political observers to wonder how she did it. Did she win the race, or did Brimer lose it? How important was the turnout in that year’s presidential election? After this year’s redistricting, she returns to run in a district that hasn’t been changed, this time without Brimer as a foil, with a different version of hope and change at the top of her party’s ledger, and with a phalanx of Republicans and Republican-dominated business groups gunning for her.

Rather than come to Austin and adapt, as many other Democrats have done, voting with Republicans and conservatives when feasible and hoping that will offer some cover in future elections, Davis has been unmistakably liberal in office. She punctuated it with a filibuster at the end of last year’s legislative session, torpedoing a budget that she said would devastate public schools. Lawmakers came back in special session and passed it anyway, but she’d made her point, and her reputation.

Republicans were livid. But for a Democratic Party that has become the institutional equivalent of the twerp who gets a wedgie every day at recess, the filibuster made her a superstar. In some measure, she’s relying on the memory of it to help rally her troops.

She’s got some time. Her real test comes not in this month’s primary election, but in November’s general election. Her likely opponent, Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, is a pediatrician, a sophomore legislator, and a pleasant and competent campaigner. He’s not a firebrand, as Davis is, but both will surely have the backing of strong and moneyed political forces when they clash. It’s not about their personalities.

It’s about control of the Senate.

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