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If Dewhurst Isn't Lt. Governor, Who's Next?

If Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst moves into another job — and he’s got two ways to do that — the 31 senators will elect one of their own to serve the rest of his four-year term.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst speaks to reporters on June 3rd, 2011

The next lieutenant governor of Texas, a state with 25 million residents, could be chosen by just 16 people.

If Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst moves into another job — and he’s got two ways to do that — the 31 senators will elect one of their own to serve the rest of his four-year term.

They did it before, when George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, and then-Lt. Gov. Rick Perry moved into the Governor’s Mansion. Bill Ratliff, a Republican state senator from Mount Pleasant, was elected by his colleagues to preside over the Senate.

Dewhurst is supposed to be lieutenant governor until January 2015, but he’s expressed interest in running for the U.S. Senate and will announce his intentions this month. He’s widely expected to run. He sent supporters an email in June hyping the pending announcement, and while he didn’t come right out and say he’s running for Senate, any other announcement would leave a reader saying that was a mighty misleading email.

If he doesn’t run, or if he does run and doesn’t win, there’s still a chance to move up. If the governor decides to run for national office, and if he wins, the lieutenant governor will succeed him in the state’s top office.

Want to really stretch out the speculation? What if both run, and both win? Senators would elect a lieutenant governor, who would be acting governor, and would have to elect another lieutenant governor to preside over the Senate.

Are they thinking about it? Sure. They’re politicians, and they’re ambitious, and they see great historical figures in their mirrors when they put on makeup or shave every morning.

Succession was part of the undercurrent in the last days of the special session that ended last week. The sanctuary cities bill urged by the governor stalled in the House, and lawmakers made a late attempt to tack it onto a must-pass school finance and budget bill. Republican senators blocked it, saying the bill was controversial and risky enough without the added weight of sanctuary cities. In the aftermath (and partly to save face for House leaders who couldn’t advance the original bill), Perry singled out Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, as the assassin.

“Because of this action, the special session will not provide our peace officers with the discretion they need to adequately keep Texans safe from those that would do them harm,” Mr. Perry said in a press release, after pointing the finger at Duncan. Others, including Dewhurst, jumped to Duncan’s defense. That was the public play.

To some in the Senate, it was a signal from Perry to fellow conservatives that Duncan isn’t his choice if the Senate has to pick a successor for Dewhurst. Outside groups were deeply involved in the race for speaker of the Texas House at the beginning of the legislative session, and there’s no reason to believe they’d stay out of a race for lieutenant governor. The swipe at Duncan, in that interpretation, was a signal for those groups.

Another reading was that Duncan killed the bill to build support among Democrats in the event that he does run for the job.

Whatever really happened, the conspiracy theories are evidence that the political class is thinking about what’s next, and who’s next, in the lineup of Texas politics.

State senators, often at odds with the lieutenant governor and, in some cases, given to sniping at him behind his back, gave him a valedictory ovation at the end of the special legislative session. They know he might not be back in the chair again, and wanted to give him a warm salute.

They were covering their bets. Politics is a risky enterprise, after all, and the safest prediction is that the state’s top officeholders in January 2013 will be the two people the voters chose, and not former state senators elevated by 16 of their colleagues.

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State government 2012 elections David Dewhurst Griffin Perry Rick Perry Texas Legislature Texas Senate