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Analysis: In Texas, the Center Did Not Hold

Middle ground is arguably the most dangerous turf for a Texas lawmaker to occupy these days, and new research shows that none are doing it. The gap between moderate Republican and Democratic lawmakers is growing.

Early voting at the Acres Home Multiservice Center in Houston on Oct. 26, 2014.

Mark P. Jones, a political scientist at Rice University, periodically engages in an exercise that graphically demonstrates the state of Texas politics.

Weighing every recorded vote they cast, he charts state and federal legislators from the most liberal to the most conservative. A glance at his latest rankings makes one thing strikingly clear — there is virtually no middle left in Texas politics.

Cleverly drawn political districts, closely fought party primaries and polarization among candidates, voters and political financiers have combined to drive moderates out of the state’s Legislature and its congressional delegation. 

Being on the extreme of an ideological spectrum is the least dangerous place for most Texas politicians. Republicans brag if they’re on one end of that seesaw; Democrats do the same on the other end.

The middle, however, is perilous. And on the latest charts from the good professor, it is empty.

Jones’ newest U.S. House rating covers votes taken in the 113th Congress, during 2013-14. He was interested in where Texas Republicans stand among all congressional Republicans — generally to the right, as it turns out. But his work exposed a big gap between the most liberal Republican (John Culberson of Houston, so “liberal” is a relative thing here) and the most conservative Democrat (Henry Cuellar of Laredo).

The ideological gap between Culberson and Cuellar — the men closest to the middle — is greater than the differences within either party. And the Democrat closest to Cuellar in that delegation was Pete Gallego of Alpine, who lost his 2014 re-election bid to a Republican, Will Hurd of San Antonio. They’ll meet again, apparently, in the 2016 election.

The middle is a dangerous place.

The ideological doughnut hole shows up in the Texas Senate, too. The most conservative Democrat during the most recent legislative session, Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, is some distance to the left of Kevin Eltife of Tyler, the most liberal of the Senate Republicans.

Both men are regularly sniffed at by partisans in their own camps for taking occasional middle positions in partisan fights. Lucio, for instance, was with the Republicans on public school vouchers and school choice. Eltife was with the Democrats against banning sanctuary cities and against repealing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants.

That said, the gap between them is obvious, and so is the trouble that comes with it. Eltife is not seeking another term, and the strongest potential replacement candidates are significantly more conservative than he is.

The gap in the Texas House is smaller, but it’s still there. And the old game of looking for a Democrat more conservative than some Republicans or the Republican more liberal than some Democrats is gone. Red Texas is on one side of the line and Blue Texas is on the other.

That’s where redistricting comes in. The political districts from which all of these people are elected were drawn in a way that minimizes competition in November general elections. With a few exceptions — that 23rd Congressional District where Hurd and Gallego are set for a rematch is one — the parties have a very small chance of flipping seats in November.

The most dangerous challengers come from within the parties, during the primary elections. The voters in those elections, not surprisingly, are more likely to be either liberal or conservative and less likely to be either party’s version of a moderate.

A conservative Republican is better positioned in a Republican primary than a more moderate one. And that candidate in a Republican district ordinarily doesn’t have to worry about appealing to moderates in the general election — the district has more Republicans than Democrats in it by design.

Maps drawn to create November races where Republicans and Democrats are more evenly balanced would tend to favor moderate candidates over time — Republicans who could appeal to conservative Democrats and vice-versa.

These maps were drawn to protect Republican majorities in the Legislature and the congressional delegation, just as the maps drawn by Democrats 10 years earlier were intended to protect those majorities.

Instead of appealing to the middle in November, they appeal to liberals in the Democratic races in March and conservatives in the Republican primaries.

And the distances between the people who get elected grow.

Disclosure: Rice University was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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