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Analysis: For Many Candidates in Texas, Election is No Contest

Now that the political candidates have filed, some of the races in the 2016 election cycle have come to an end. It's not that the elections are over, but 75 federal and state lawmakers don't have any major-party opponents.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Flawn Academic Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus on Nov. 6…

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The first electoral races of 2016 ended before 2015 did.

The candidate filing deadline has passed, and there is a list of candidates — Republicans and Democrats alike — who have all but been elected. It includes 61 members of the Texas House, nine state senators and five of the  state’s 36-member congressional delegation.

Those folks didn’t draw an opponent from  their own or the other major party. Others have bumpier roads ahead.

Ten members of Congress, two state senators and 15 members of the state House will face opponents in the March primaries and, if they survive, will face opponents again in the November general election.

Some have primary opponents but no general election opponents; the winners of those primaries, whether they are incumbents or challengers, will effectively be ready to take their oaths of office. This group includes four members of Congress, two state senators and 28 members of the Texas House.

Others — 10 U.S. representatives from Texas, two state senators and 30 members of the Texas House — face no primary opponents but will face a candidate from the other major party in the general election 11 months from now.

Given the state of the political maps in Texas, it’s usually more dangerous to face an opponent in the primary than in the general election. The state has only a few districts where either a Democrat or a Republican can win; in most cases, districts were drawn for the benefit of one party or the other. And because the Republicans were in charge the last time those maps were drawn, many more of the districts favor their candidates than favor Democrats.

Candidates were required to file for the primary elections and for independent runs for office this week. The parties and the secretary of state are still cleaning up the lists, so the numbers could change slightly between now and the time the ballots are completed. A full list of the races as they stand now is available here.

You can’t say any of these races is completely and finally decided. The Green and Libertarian parties have not named their candidates, and some of the Republicans and Democrats who appear to be on the unopposed list will surely draw minor-party opposition.

That said, Texas voters have yet to elect a state official running under one of those banners. “Unaffiliated” state legislators were not uncommon a century ago; one of the last was a Boerne man with the unlikely name of Bodo Holekamp, who left the House in 1935, according to the state’s Legislative Reference Library.

Other parties have sent officeholders to Austin, including the American Party of the U.S., the Greenback Party, the Independent Democrat Party, the Populist Party, and three dozen lawmakers whose party is listed as “unknown” in state records. But never a Libertarian or a Green.

Without some upsets and surprises, the 2016 elections in Texas are unlikely to result in big changes to either the congressional delegation, the state Legislature or the high courts.

A relatively few current officeholders have said they will not return, including two in Congress, two in the 31-member state Senate and 16 in the 150-member state House. Two statewide officials — Railroad Commissioner David Porter and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Cheryl Johnson — are on that list, too.

The races will matter to the individuals involved and their allies, families and friends, but are unlikely to change the political complexions of either the Texas Senate or the Texas House. Not enough people are running, either inside or outside the parties, to change the overall numbers.

Only 16 senators are on the ballot in 2016, and nine of them are unopposed. That means 24 of the current 31 senators will be back for more in 2017. In the House, Democrats would have to net 22 seats now held by Republicans. Only 34 Republicans have general election opponents, and Democrats are running in only six of the open seats now held by Republicans. The Democrats would have to win more than half of those — and most were drawn to be prohibitively favorable to Republican candidates.

House members who want to wrest the House from Republican Speaker Joe Straus have two routes, both of them long-shots. One is to beat him in the primaries, and two candidates filed to try to do just that. The other is to win enough House seats from his supporters to ruin his majority.

Straus’s noisest detractors are in his own party. But only 33 incumbent Republicans have primary opponents, and only 10 of the open seats were held by Republicans. Only 19 Republicans voted against Straus’ re-election to a fourth term as speaker last January. It takes 76 votes to win, and not enough seats are in play in the election to change the math in the next election for speaker if Straus survives his primary and tries for another term.

It’s possible, of course. But it would be a bad bet.

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