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Never Can Say Goodbye

Texas voters won't be offered a real chance at change in the Legislature and Congress next year. Four out of five state and federal lawmakers face no real competition in their primary or general elections.

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Sometimes your vote counts, sometimes it doesn't.

It's not your fault. It's because voters won't be offered a real chance to change most of the people in the Legislature and the Texas seats in Congress next year. Four out of five state and federal legislators won't suffer any real competition next year in their primary or general elections.

Their districts are secure because their maps are secure. Only one state senator got knocked off in last year's elections. Four fresh faces were among the 31 senators in 2007. In 2005, it was zero. More than two-thirds of the senators now in office were in office at the start of the decade. Congressional seats might be even safer; only three newbies from Texas have joined that body in the last two elections. Not three each year — three, total.

Most of the state's legislative districts are in safe hands, at least in the electoral sense. The political maps are redrawn every ten years, after the federal census. They're dangerous at first, with members paired against each other, members running on unfamiliar ground, seeking the support of voters who used to be represented by others. But by the end of a decade, most of the districts are no longer really contested, and we're at the end of a decade.

Voters in a few scattered districts — 12 or fewer — can expect to see real contests in House races. Only one senator — Eliot Shapleigh of El Paso — is leaving, and the race to replace him is becoming almost sedate. No other senators up for election next year face serious challenges at this point (candidates have until January 4 to file for the 2010 elections, so there's time for this to change). Three spots in the congressional delegation are competitive, at least on paper. (What's competitive? Look here.)

It'll be hard not to pay attention to the governor's race next year — don't be surprised if the four top candidates in the two major parties spend a total of $1 million a day, on average, from the first of the year until the March 2 primary elections.

And there could be some noise in other statewide races, now that the Democrats are unpacking the herd that was running for governor, entering Kinky Friedman and Hank Gilbert in the race for agriculture commissioner and fielding candidates, so far, in every statewide race except lieutenant governor and comptroller.

But you won't see much excitement, or much change, as you move down the ballot to the legislative races in your part of the state. And whether you like it or not, it's normal.

With notable exceptions, Texans don't change legislators all that frequently. Over the last 40 years, they've changed an average of 4.5 senators every election cycle (out of 31 total) and even fewer in the last decade.

In the House, Texans like to see some turnover; on average, about 20 percent of the 150 seats in the House are occupied by new members at the beginning of each legislative session. That's around 30 fresh faces.

Congressional numbers are a little squirrelly: 40 years ago, the state had 23 members. Now it has 32, and will probably get three or four more after next year's census shows which states lost people and which states gained.

Texas is expected to be a gainer in those calculations, picking up seats from places like Ohio and New York. Pity the pols in places like those, who'll have to knock off incumbents unless people retire. It's like musical chairs, with the stopped music and the scramble and the loser left standing, but with higher stakes.

And the new federal representatives who grab those new seats will, on average, hold them for a while. Only four freshmen make the typical Texas delegation.

Turnover at the statehouse has slowed considerably over the last 15 years. Instead of flipping one seat in five every election cycle, voters are flipping fewer than one in six.

The numbers still peak every ten years, though, after the Census numbers are out and most of the state's political maps are redrawn. Throw out the numbers from 1973 — the 1972 elections in Texas were colored by the Sharpstown scandal and major redistricting changes and voters replaced more than half of the Senate and more than half of the House.

Redistricting changes more seats than scandals or money or hot causes. More than a quarter of the House usually changes. The Senate number leaps to seven. The Texas congressional delegation returns to Washington after a redistricting with a half dozen freshmen in its midst.

That's something to look forward to, in the 2012 elections. But the election year we're entering, at least at the legislative level, will be a bore for most Texans.

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