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Intrigue Swirls Around Eltife's Senate Seat

State Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, has not yet said whether he is running for re-election in 2016, but that has not stopped a number of potential candidates from eying his seat, awaiting his final decision.

Sen. Kevin Eltife R-Tyler is sworn in as President pro tempore of the Texas Senate on June 1, 2015

The 84th legislative session ended just one day ago, but speculation is already heating up about who will hold at least one Senate seat the next time lawmakers gather under the pink dome.

The talk centers on Sen. Kevin Eltife, the Tyler Republican who has a history of challenging his party — at times vocally — on fiscal policy. He has not yet said whether he is running for re-election in 2016, but that has not stopped a number of potential candidates from eying the seat, waiting for his word.

Speculation about Eltife's political future mounted Tuesday morning when state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, launched a new website featuring a countdown to his "next campaign," which the Tea Party-backed legislator said he will reveal in about three weeks. 

"On June 22, I will announce the details of the next chapter in this campaign for Texas and liberty, and I look forward to working alongside each of you as we limit government to its proper role and promote individual liberty in Texas," Simpson wrote to supporters. 

Reached by phone Tuesday evening, Simpson would only say he has "received encouragement for years" to take on Eltife, who has represented Senate District 1 since 2004. The district includes 16 counties in East Texas.

The senator said Tuesday he has not made a final decision about whether he is running again, but hopes to announce his intentions sooner rather than latter, possibly within a couple of weeks. 

"I'm not going to waste a lot of time," he said. "I think people need to know."

Among those people is Rep. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican who is "seriously considering a run for Senate based on whether or not Sen. Eltife steps out," according to Hughes' spokesman, Jordan Berry.

Thomas Ratliff, the outgoing vice chairman of the State Board of Education, could also be waiting to see what Eltife decides before throwing his hat in the ring. Ratliff, the son of former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, said Tuesday he "certainly wouldn't rule" out running for the seat if Eltife passes on re-election.

"I hope he runs for re-election," said Ratliff, whose dad held the seat before Eltife did. "I would never, ever run against him. There'd be no reason to do it."

Two other people who have been mentioned as potential candidates — former Tyler Mayor Barbara Bass and Tea Party activist JoAnn Fleming — emphatically denied Tuesday they were interested in the seat, regardless of whether Eltife seeks re-election. 

Eltife was somewhat the odd man out in his party this past session, when he broke with GOP leaders intent on delivering a major property tax cut. Instead, Eltife advocated for first using the state's flush coffers to pay off debt and handle deferred maintenance. 

It was not an unfamiliar position for Eltife, who pushed his party to accept tax hikes during the 2013 session. He also ended that session facing questions about whether he could win re-election, which he ended up doing easily.

In April, Eltife brushed off questions about his 2016 plans, memorably suggesting "people who talk about re-election during the session should be shot." He nonetheless expressed little worry about a primary challenge. 

"I don't fear losing," he said during a Texas Tribune event. "I was fine before I got here; I'll be fine if I go back. I'm fine with the job and the votes I've taken. I'm happy ... lone wolf or not."

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