Five Republicans who served as members of the Texas House in the 81st Legislature in 2009 are presently competing in statewide runoffs. Within the context of a GOP primary electorate that is very conservative and looking for cues regarding each candidate’s conservative bona fides, the floor voting records of three of these candidates represent an invaluable asset. In contrast, for the other two candidates it is quite possible that their legislative records are a political liability.
It is, of course, conceivable that a majority of GOP primary voters will conclude that a candidate’s voting record is excessively conservative and punish him at the polls on May 27. Nonetheless, during the 2014 electoral cycle, there have been few, if any, instances of a candidate losing a race because Texas Republican primary voters considered their legislative record to be too far to the right.
Five from the Class of 2009
The 2009 legislative class included both Republican attorney general candidates (Dan Branch of Dallas and Ken Paxton of McKinney), both agriculture commissioner candidates (Tommy Merritt of Longview and Sid Miller of Stephenville) and one of the two Railroad Commissioner candidates (Wayne Christian of Center). These five former colleagues followed rather different career pathways since 2009 to reach their current positions in a statewide runoff.
Branch was the only one of the five who continued to serve in the House in both 2011 and 2013. Paxton stayed for one more term in the House in 2011 before moving to the Texas Senate in 2013.
Christian, Merritt and Miller were defeated in their respective House primaries. Merritt was the first to fall, succumbing in 2010 to a challenge from far to his right by David Simpson of Longview. He lost again to Simpson in a rematch in 2012. Miller was ejected from office in 2012 by an opponent, J.D. Sheffield of Gatesville, located closer to the center of the ideological spectrum. Christian was ousted in 2012 by Chris Paddie of Marshall, in a race where Christian’s incumbency advantage was diminished substantially by a redistricting process that left approximately three-fourths of his former primary constituents outside of his new district’s boundaries. Christian’s runoff rival, Ryan Sitton of Friendswood, has not served in the Texas House, having lost a 2012 GOP primary bid for an open seat to Greg Bonnen of Friendswood.
Employing the same methodology utilized for the 2011 and 2013 Texas House Liberal-Conservative Score rankings, here I provide a similar ranking for 2009 using the 500 nonlopsided votes taken in the Texas House that year. In the figure, Republicans are indicated by red dots and Democrats by blue ones, with the exception of the five Republicans running in statewide runoffs who are highlighted by green dots. The figure is based on the roll call vote analysis and for each legislator provides a mean ideal point, referred to below as the Lib-Con Score, along with the 95 percent credible interval (CI) for this point estimate. If two legislators’ CIs overlap, their positions on the ideological spectrum might be statistically equivalent, even if their Lib-Con Scores are different. No information is provided for Speaker of the House Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, because the speaker rarely casts roll call votes.
Paxton won a plurality of the vote (45.5 percent) in the March 4 GOP primary, a dozen points ahead of Branch (33.5 percent). In 2009, Paxton was the 10th-most conservative Republican representative. His Lib-Con Score was significantly more conservative than that of 28 of his 74 fellow Republicans, one of whom was Branch, and not significantly to the left of any Republican. Branch was the 14th-least conservative Republican in 2009. He was not significantly more conservative than any of his GOP colleagues, but was significantly less conservative than 20 of them, including Paxton. In 2011, Paxton registered the most conservative Lib-Con Score in the House, a score that was significantly more conservative than Branch’s, whose 2011 Lib-Con Score placed him as the 67th-most conservative of the GOP delegation’s 100 voting members.
Miller finished first (34.6 percent) in the Republican primary, while Merritt placed a distant second (20.9 percent). In 2009, Miller was the 15th-most conservative Republican in the House, with a Lib-Con Score that was significantly more conservative than that of 21 members of the GOP delegation, and not significantly to the left of any Republican. In 2011, he was the seventh-most conservative House Republican. Merritt was located at the opposite end of the GOP ideological spectrum in 2009 as the delegation’s least conservative member. He had a Lib-Con Score significantly less conservative than that of more than two-thirds (57) of the House Republicans. Merritt’s Lib-Con Score was however significantly more conservative than that of the most conservative Democrat, Allan Ritter of Nederland, who following his re-election as a Democrat in 2010 switched to the Republican Party.
Christian bested his three primary opponents with 42.7 percent of the vote, finishing more than 12 percentage points ahead of Sitton (30.5 percent). In 2009, Christian was the third-most conservative House Republican. His Lib-Con Score was significantly more conservative than that of half (37) of his fellow Republicans, and not significantly less conservative than that of any GOP representative. In 2011, Christian was the 22nd-most conservative of the 100 House Republicans.
Not only did Paxton, Miller and Christian win pluralities of the vote on March 4 by substantial margins over their opponents, but all three possess the additional advantage of very conservative legislative track records. Among other things, their first-round electoral success and “strong conservative” credentials earned on the legislative floor make Paxton, Miller and Christian the favorites to win on May 27, and Branch, Merritt, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Sitton, the underdogs in their respective races.
Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s Fellow in Political Science, the Joseph D. Jamail Chair in Latin American Studies, and the Chairman of the Department of Political Science at Rice University.