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Beyond Election Day

Yes, yes, the governor’s race: It’s tended to suck all the air out of the room this election cycle, hasn’t it? But there’s an undercard as well, and even if it’s received scant attention by comparison, don’t think it doesn’t matter. To the contrary, the outcome of races other than the one at the top of the ballot has serious implications for a great many matters of politics and policy that will affect and should interest every single Texan in the near term.

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Yes, yes, the governor’s race: It’s tended to suck all the air out of the room this election cycle, hasn’t it? In fairness, the nasty, costly contest between Rick Perry and Bill White was always going to be the heavyweight fight, and it’s not as if all of us sitting at ringside haven’t been sufficiently entertained. But there’s an undercard as well — there typically is — and even if it’s received scant attention by comparison, don’t think it doesn’t matter. To the contrary, the outcome of races other than the one at the top of the ballot has serious implications for a great many matters of politics and policy that will affect and should interest every single Texan in the near term. Here are six we’ll be thinking about on and beyond this Tuesday.

Straus House

 The Texas House of Representatives has 150 members, and at the moment the Republicans have a 77-73 advantage. They're expected to pick up seats — six? eight? — and the size of the gains could determine whether freshman Speaker Joe Straus is in danger of being ousted from his leadership post. The San Antonio Republican was elected in January 2009 by a coalition of opponents to then-Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, that included more Democrats than members of his own party.

Nearly two years later, Craddick supporters and conservatives wary of a Republican who was elevated by Democrats are maneuvering to oust Straus. State Rep. Warren Chisum, a Pampa Republican who lost his Appropriations Committee chairmanship when Craddick lost the speakership, has filed papers with the Texas Ethics Commission indicating he'll run against Straus come January.

Chisum’s chances, like those of any challenger, improve if the Republicans have an especially big day at the polls, for two reasons: New members don't have allegiances and favors owed to the sitting speaker; and they might be open to the argument that they, not the Democrats, should have the most say over which of their own gets the speaker's job. Texas government isn't a winner-take-all system, where the party in power gets all of the committee assignments (Straus doled out nearly half to Democrats) and makes all of the rules. But it is partisan, and some Republicans — Chisum himself, at times — have said a GOP speaker should be chosen by the GOP caucus. Had that been the situation two years ago, Craddick would still be speaker today.

Beyond the race for speaker, a bigger contingent of Republicans could change the alignment of the House, making it easier for conservatives to win attention and votes for pet issues like immigration reform, voter ID and cuts in state spending. Even with the same management, the House could be a more conservative place next session if the GOP comes out a big winner on Tuesday.

Mapmaker, mapmaker

It’s an election to which voters aren’t invited and in which they can’t participate. It happens every decade, after the census is complete. Yes, 2011 is a redistricting year: State lawmakers will draw maps that effectively decide many seats in Congress, in the Legislature and in the State Board of Education before a single ballot is cast. If voters make a large change in the number of Republicans in the House, they would provide a rationale for new maps with a roughly proportionate number of seats drawn for each party.

Texas primaries can be somewhat competitive, when seats are open or when incumbents are weakened by bad behavior or bad votes, but general elections at the legislative level are not. They’re decided, in large measure, by how the lines are drawn. The reason is simple. The goal is to protect one party or the other — whichever is in power — and that party's candidates tend to prevail in the majority of districts in the ensuing elections.

Consider that Texas has all 32 of its congressional seats up for grabs on Tuesday, but only two of them are competitive: Congressional District 17, where U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, is trying to hold off a strong challenge from Republican Bill Flores of Bryan in the most Republican district in the country held by a Democrat; and CD-23, where U.S. Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, D-San Antonio, is fighting off San Antonio Republican Francisco "Quico" Canseco. Half of the state's 31 senators are up for re-election this year, but none are in a race considered competitive. And in the Texas House, fewer than 30 of the 150 seats are considered at risk by even the most ardent party loyalists.

Texas is expected to gain three and possibly four seats in Congress in the next reapportionment, and some members of the delegation have been trying to cut a deal that would give two to the Democrats and two to the Republicans. The fight then would be over geography and which Republicans would get seats and which Democrats would get seats. If the Legislature can’t put differences aside and draw a map, the courts would do so.

Legislative redistricting works differently. The number of seats is set, and the people who occupy those seats in January are also the people voting on the changes. A partisan breakdown over the last redistricting maps resulted in a very deliberate work stoppage, with House Democrats ditching the state for Ardmore, Okla., at one point and the Senate Democrats bailing out to Albuquerque at another. On state maps, a five-member body known as the Legislative Redistricting Board steps in if the Legislature itself fails to adopt maps. As with congressional plans, that almost invariably ends up in court. Barring some upsets in Tuesday's election, the five people on the board are all Republicans: House Speaker Joe Straus, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, Attorney General Greg Abbott, Comptroller Susan Combs and Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

One potential hole card for the Democrats is the U.S. Justice Department, which is in Democratic hands for the first time during a decennial redistricting in the history of the Voting Rights Act. Texas plans are governed by that act and have to win Justice Department approval before taking effect. With Republican majorities in the House, the Senate and on the redistricting board, that and the courts might be the best chances Texas Democrats have to move ahead into the next years without getting steamrolled.

The hole and how to fill it

How big is it? That central question of the state's budget debate isn't answered yet, at least officially. Estimates of the shortfall's size range from $11 billion on the low side to $25 billion on the high end. At issue is the actual difference between Comptroller Susan Combs' assessment of how much money the state will bring in during the next two years and the budget-writers' guess at how much money it will take to run the state during that same two-year period.

Combs' number isn’t out yet — she’ll reveal it in a document due just after the first of the year called the Biennial Revenue Estimate — and with an election upon us, she's not even hinting at her forecast, despite plaintive requests for lawmakers like state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, that she come clean earlier than normal. The budget-writers’ number is a lot looser, since what you think the budget should be depends on what you think Texas should be doing. One idea is to figure the costs of the programs running now, assuming they'll run pretty much the same way and that the only new variables are things like population growth and the price tags of various services the state provides, like paying for medical care and so on. The so-called "base" budget that's presented after the elections and before the legislative session is gaveled in Jan. 11 could also include some cuts lawmakers are planning to make, which would mean a smaller starting number on the spending side.

The actual shortfall number doesn't really matter except for rhetorical purposes. The important thing is that the size of the shortfall is somewhere between one in four and one in five of the state's total discretionary dollars. "Any way you do the math, it's a big chunk of money," Speaker Joe Straus recently told a business taxpayer group. Without a super-majority vote, the Legislature can't approve an unbalanced budget, and none of the people running for governor are likely to sign such a thing, anyway. Texas expects to have about $9 billion socked away in its Rainy Day Fund, and it's possible to hide $3 billion or so with tricks, like delaying big payments from the end of one budget to the beginning of the next. Gambling proponents hoping for everything from legalized slot machines at existing racetracks to full casino gaming say their proposals could raise money to help balance the budget; add the potential for another $1 billion to $2 billion there.

After that, the fiscal landscape is rocky, with lawmakers forced to choose between cutting programs their constituents want or raising taxes they promised were off-limits. If they didn't make those promises themselves, their leaders did it for them. Straus is telling members they have to stay within available revenue (Combs' number), that they can't use all of the Rainy Day money to balance the budget, that the next budget "must limit government" and that they won't be allowed to raise taxes. Putting more Republicans in the House won't change that formula, though it might make it easier for Straus to get the votes he needs. To get a real change in direction, voters would have to replace either the governor or the lieutenant governor, who appear to be in accord with the speaker.

Border Blues

Redistricting is always stressful, and budget problems are no picnic, but immigration can really lock up the Legislature. Two years ago, warring over a related issue — whether to require voters to show photo identification at the polls — roiled the Senate and brought the House to a near standstill. Republicans, generally, were for it. Democrats, generally, were against it. Polls show voters want something done about immigration and border security, and with most of that under federal control, there are only a few options open to state lawmakers.

Voter ID is one. Another is legislation similar to Arizona's infamous immigration law, chiefly the controversial provision that police should be allowed to check the citizenship of people they stop for other reasons, like traffic tickets or suspicious behavior. A third topic of conversation is birthright citizenship — the constitutional grant, via the 14th Amendment, of citizenship to babies born on U.S. soil. Texas can't amend the U.S. Constitution, but it can make noise, pass resolutions imploring Congress to do something and (important to our subject here) eat up time in the 20-week legislative session debating an issue of relatively high public interest.

Like redistricting, immigration issues offer opportunities for opponents to "chub" in the House, a process of dragging out debate that has the same practical effect as filibustering in the Senate. The Senate's rules enable a one-third minority (under most circumstances) to block consideration of legislation. Political battles over that parliamentary setup led to the redistricting walkouts and to a temporary freeze-up in the Senate two years ago. Members on both sides fear that will happen again, without negotiated deals on maps and/or immigration and border security.

Tuesday’s elections aren't likely to change the partisan makeup of the Senate, but the size of the Republican majority in the House could be important here, too. The Texas GOP has struggled to win over Latino voters — incumbent Railroad Commissioner Victor Carrillo blamed his unexpected loss in the March primaries on his surname and publicly urged his fellow Republicans not to alienate Hispanics. More of the party faithful in the House could brighten prospects for voter ID and similar measures but could also set back efforts to attract the fastest-growing part of the state's population.

President Rick Perry

So will he or won't he? The governor says he's not looking past Tuesday’s election to the one two years from now — and, anyway, he has no interest in running for the White House. But the great mentioners are on alert: If, as former George W. Bush and Arnold Schwarzenegger strategist Matthew Dowd says, Rick Perry cruises to an easy, early victory Tuesday night, listen for the presidential drumbeat to begin.

Perry is an optimistic, handsome, young-seeming, indisputably conservative governor whose electoral-vote-rich state weathered the economic downturn better than any other, creating more jobs during his tenure than the other 49 states combined. The anti-tax folks love him. The social conservatives love him. Big business loves him. He's been at the head of anti-Washington parade going back to Tax Day 2009, when he publicly entertained the idea of Texas seceding from the union, and he’s gleefully egged on the attorney general to sue the federal government during the last year over health care reform, air-quality permitting, education funding and the offshore oil-drilling moratorium. Why shouldn't he run?

Because, his critics say, he's on the outer edge of the mainstream, ideologically speaking. Because he's not all that popular, actually, in Texas, winning only 39 percent of the vote to get re-elected in a crowded gubernatorial field 2006 and barely crossing the 50 percent threshold in most polls this time around. And because, with you-know-who still visible in the rear view mirror, it's just too soon for another Republican president from here.

Dowd and others acknowledge these hurdles but say that the GOP may not have many options for who can go boot-to-loafer with Barack Obama in the charisma and retail politics departments. And as a practical matter, the road to the nomination runs through the Tea Party, which is where all the energy and momentum resides these days. The movement will need to approve of the Republican standard-bearer in '12, and other than Sarah Palin, who generates as much enthusiasm in the land of Tea as Perry does? Plus, many people in both parties view her as unqualified for the office and too controversial to be elected. He scores much higher on both counts, making him — potentially — the only stopper in the Palin bottle.

Life of the parties

 The next governor’s race begins the day after this one wraps — so on Nov. 3, expect to start hearing about the coming battle between Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Attorney General Greg Abbott, the logical and immediate front-runners for the GOP nomination in 2014.

These two experienced politicians have been to the statewide candidate rodeo before; should they prevail on Tuesday, they will have been elected to statewide office a combined nine times over the last 20 years. They’re both extremely well-funded. Dewhurst is personally wealthy enough to bankroll his own campaign, while Abbott has been the most prolific fundraiser at any level, of any party, of the last few cycles — despite never having a competitive race for re-election to speak of. And they’re surely among the most conservative Republicans to serve in such prominent positions in recent memory. Of course, there’s a slim possibility that, despite the whole Godzilla-versus-Mothra dynamic, a third gubernatorial aspirant, promoted by the Tea Party, could jump in alongside them — perhaps state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the popular and quite conservative radio talk show host.

More likely, the real competition would come in a general election against … well, that’s a good question. If Bill White loses on Tuesday, he’s unlikely to make another run for the statehouse — the U.S. Senate in 2012 is more plausible — and there’s currently not a single statewide elected Democrat, so there’s no obvious and visible prospective candidate waiting in the wings. As the party seeks to regain some footing, any footing, the best it can do is hope to persuade one of its rising stars, attractive and energetic if inexperienced and largely unknown, to take an Obama-like leap of faith and hope magic happens. There are a few House members who fit the bill — Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas; Mark Strama, D-Austin; Patrick Rose, D-Dripping Springs — and state Sens. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, have previously toyed with running.

But the party’s best hope, if he can coaxed into an uphill battle of a race, is San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro, who’s on most people’s lists of the nation’s Hispanic politicians most likely to rule the world. Castro, in fact, has already been called the Latino Obama (which may not be as much of a compliment in Texas as it is elsewhere). In 2014 he’ll turn 40 years old; his potential appeal to young voters and the coming majority Hispanic population are two items on the plus side of the ledger. On the minus side: He may be a cycle or two away from making a big run. Also, the last three big-city mayors to run statewide — White, Watson and current U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk — have found it’s no cakewalk.


Editor's Note: House Speaker Joe Straus is on the Legislative Redistricting Board; an earlier version of this story had Gov. Rick Perry in his place. The board includes the speaker, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, and the land commissioner.

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Demographics Immigration State government Budget David Dewhurst Greg Abbott Griffin Perry Joe Straus Julián Castro Rafael Anchia Redistricting Rick Perry State agencies Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Tom Craddick