Vol 29, Issue 39 Print Issue

Guest Column: A More Conservative Texas Senate

Mark P. Jones
Mark P. Jones

Senator Dan Patrick, R-Houston, has declared that the 2013 Texas Senate will be “the most conservative in the history of the state,” a sentiment shared by many Capitol insiders. While we do not yet have the data to fully evaluate Patrick’s historical claim, we can say this: A review of comparable House and Senate roll call vote data confirms that the 2013 Senate will be more conservative than its immediate predecessor.

Election Day is still almost four weeks away, but due to the partisan design of the 31 Texas Senate districts, we have known for some time who 30 of the 31 senators in the next session are likely to be, with only one district, Tarrant County’s SD-10, truly in play this fall. Depending on the outcome in SD-10, where the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Wendy Davis, is being challenged by Republican Rep. Mark Shelton, there will either be 19 or 20 Republicans and 11 or 12 Democrats in the Senate in 2013.

All of the 11 Democrats virtually certain to be elected in November are incumbents, as are 14 of the 19 Republicans. Since we can assume that the ideological profile of these 25 senators has not varied noticeably over the past two years, their presence will not result in any change in the Senate’s overall ideological profile.

Any ideological shift in the Senate therefore depends on whether the five new Republicans are on average more or less conservative than their five respective Republican predecessors and on whether Shelton defeats Davis. While it is not possible today to accurately predict a winner in the Davis-Shelton race, it is possible to compare the ideological orientation of the five departing GOP senators with that of four of the five Republicans replacing them.

Four Republican senators chose not to seek re-election this year and are being replaced by four fellow Republicans who served as representatives in the 2011 Texas House: Steve Ogden of Bryan by Charles Schwertner of Georgetown in SD-5, Florence Shapiro of Plano by Paxton in SD-8, Chris Harris of Arlington by Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills in SD-9, and Mike Jackson of La Porte by Larry Taylor of Friendswood in SD-11. In the fifth replacement case, Sen. Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio was defeated in the SD-25 GOP primary by Donna Campbell of New Braunfels.

During the 2011 legislative sessions there were 38 instances where the Senate and House each held a non-lopsided roll call vote on an identical piece of legislation. These 38 “bridge-votes” create a rough measure of the 2011 ideological location of every senator and representative (except the Speaker of the House, who by custom generally refrains from casting roll call votes). Given the relatively small number of votes upon which this measure is based, it is not as accurate as those which include all non-lopsided votes in the Senate and House respectively, but it does allow for a comparison of legislators using a common metric.

The Bridge Scores of potential senators who will assume office in 2013 range from a liberal extreme of -1.62 (Rodney Ellis, D-Houston) to a conservative extreme of 1.23 (Ken Paxton, R-McKinney). Among the four pairs of arriving and departing senators who all served in the 2011 Legislature, each incoming senator has a more conservative score than the senator he is replacing.

In two cases (SD-11 and SD-9) the differences are relatively modest, with Taylor’s Bridge Score of 0.33 only slightly more conservative than Jackson’s 0.30, and with Hancock’s 0.68 not all that much greater than Harris’s 0.57.

In the other two districts (SD-5 and SD-8) the differences are more pronounced. Schwertner’s Bridge Score (0.73) is noticeably greater than that of Ogden (0.52) while Paxton’s score (1.23) is substantially more conservative than Shapiro’s (0.90). It is worth noting that Shapiro was one of the Senate’s more conservative members in 2011, underscoring the reality that in Paxton, the two most conservative senators in 2011, Patrick (1.07) and Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury (1.19), will encounter a serious rival for the title of most conservative senator in 2013.

In the other case of Republican replacement, SD-25, Campbell will be taking the place of Wentworth. Unlike her four near-certain future freshman colleagues, Campbell lacks a legislative voting record. It is nonetheless safe to say that her ideological profile is notably more conservative than that of Wentworth, the least conservative Republican senator based on these 38 votes, with a Bridge Score (-0.09) much closer to that of the two most conservative Democrats, Sen. Carlos Uresti of San Antonio (-0.28) and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa of McAllen (-0.35), than to a majority of his Republican colleagues.

The most dramatic ideological shift between the senators representing the same district in 2013 and 2011 would be occasioned by a Shelton victory over Davis in SD-10. Shelton’s Bridge Score (0.39) would place him in the center of the Republican Senate delegation, quite a move to the right from Davis’s position near the liberal end of the ideological spectrum (-1.11).

This analysis supports the thesis that the 2013 Senate will be more conservative in its composition than the 2011 Senate. When combined with the lessons learned earlier this year by Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the Senate’s presiding officer, about the risks of being viewed as insufficiently conservative when competing in a Republican primary election, it appears more than reasonable to expect a notably more conservative Texas Senate in tenor and policy content in 2013.

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Fellow in Political Science and the chairman of the Department of Political Science at Rice University.