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Analysis: Reasserting Power, by Working to Concentrate It

An open-seat endorsement from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick could strengthen a conservative core in the Texas Senate, and with it Patrick's position in the Legislature and the Legislature's position in state government.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick announces the filing of SB1 with a series of property and business tax cuts for Texans on Feb. 24, 2015.

Dan Patrick’s endorsement of state Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola — and of six Republican incumbents seeking re-election to the Texas Senate — could strengthen a core of movement conservatives in the Legislature’s upper chamber.

That, in turn, would bolster the lieutenant governor’s own strength in a state government not dominated by any single personality.

Sixteen Senate seats will be on the ballot in 2016. So far, only two senators —Republicans Kevin Eltife of Tyler and Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay — have said they won’t seek re-election. That leaves six incumbent Republicans on the ballot, each sufficiently conservative to get Patrick’s benediction.

Eleven of the 15 senators who won’t be on the ballot are Republicans, too — most of them from Patrick’s wing of the Texas GOP. The prospect of replacing Eltife — a conservative centrist who does not always stick to the party line — with someone like Hughes (or his announced opponent, fellow state Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview), gives Patrick an opportunity to make the Senate a notch more conservative without replacing a single Democrat.

Flipping Senate seats from one party to the other is almost impossible, given the way the political districts are drawn. The last swing seat was held by Democrat Wendy Davis until she decided to give it up for a run at the governor’s office. She was replaced by Republican Konni Burton of Colleyville, now the Senate's second-most conservative member.

That rating comes from Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University who ranked the 31 senators from left to right based on their votes during this year’s legislative session. All Republicans ranked significantly to the right of all Democrats, to nobody’s surprise. But here’s the way things work in politics: The most conservative Democrat — Eddie Lucio Jr. of Brownsville, is regularly chided within his party for siding with the Republicans. Eltife gets the same treatment from Republicans.

When the legislative session ended, Eltife had not decided whether to seek re-election. Patrick had decided to stay out of the endorsement business, too, telling the Tribune’s Evan Smith that he thought it could make his job more difficult.

“I won’t do it. I have to work with senators. It’s the people’s Senate, and I respect the decision of the voters,” he said then.

“It’s not appropriate for the lieutenant governor to get into the middle of those races,” Patrick added.

He changed his mind in the weeks that followed, he said last week, saying the incumbent senators did a good job: “I need them back.” Conveniently, his list of endorsees didn’t include any of the Senate Republicans who have attracted scorn from various splinter groups within the party.

Patrick has not registered an opinion in the race to succeed Fraser. The list of candidates in the 24th Senate District is not fully formed, and the politics of the candidates considering it are not completely clear.

The contest in Senate District 1 might attract more names, but Hughes and Simpson — both of whom challenged Republican House Speaker Joe Straus as too moderate — are formidable candidates. Either would fit the current mold of a Texas Senate Republican. And Patrick endorsed one without knocking the other: “Bryan is a friend,” he said. “He is a rock-solid conservative. He’s the guy I want. That’s no disrespect there.”

Patrick’s endorsements in all of those races could help him in two ways. Some of the noisier factions inside the party might be less likely to challenge the incumbents he likes — or at least be less successful at it. And the candidates who win with his backing might enter the 2017 legislative session in a grateful state of mind.

That could give Patrick, who came into office in January, a unified Senate and a stronger bargaining position in the ongoing push-me-pull-you conversations between the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House and the governor. Straus, who has been in his job for four sessions now, has the best understanding of the legislative machinery of the three.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who came into office at the same time as Patrick, is still establishing himself in the wake of Rick Perry, who held the office for 14 years and accumulated more power than any governor in modern Texas history.

Historically, the Legislature is stronger than the governor. Perry changed that, at least temporarily.

Moves like Patrick’s could help it reassert itself.

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