The new year is already shaping up to be one of the most active in Texas politics — and not just because the presidential race will center on the state come March 1, the day of the primary.
On top of a race for the White House with plenty of connections to Texas, the state will elect — or re-elect — a new wave of lawmakers at both the state and federal level. Meanwhile, current lawmakers will hash out major issues that are bound to shape the next legislative session. And the fate of state's top law enforcement official, indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton, will continue to hang in the balance.
Here are four stories to watch for as 2016 gets underway:
1. How big a role does Texas play in the presidential race?
With an earlier-than-usual primary, Texas is set to have expanded influence in the 2016 presidential race on March 1. That is especially true on the Republican side, where candidates are paying special attention to the group of mostly Southern states expected to vote March 1 in what is being called the "SEC primary." That group includes the Lone Star State, whose 155 delegates make it the biggest prize that day for the GOP contenders.
From the outset of Republican race for the White House, it looked like Texas could play host to a showdown among several hopefuls with strong ties to the state, including at least U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, former Gov. Rick Perry, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. But with Perry now out of the race and Bush and Paul struggling in the polls, expectations are higher than ever for Cruz to notch a home-state victory — as long as he can fend off national frontrunner Donald Trump.
2. How much redder does Texas become?
Despite high-profile efforts to turn Texas blue, there have been few signs that state is headed in that direction; in fact, recent elections suggest the state is becoming even redder. That could be borne out in the March 1 primaries, when a number of Texas House and Texas Senate districts could turn even redder than they already are.
The number of Republicans in the Legislature is unlikely to change dramatically, but the type of Republican could — which matters in a state where the most competitive races are often between Republicans and Republicans, not Democrats and Republicans. That's evident in places like Senate District 1, where retiring Sen. Kevin Eltife of Tyler, a moderate Republican, is all but guaranteed to be replaced by a more conservative lawmaker.
3. What issues foreshadow the next legislative session?
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Joe Straus have given committees in both chambers a series of issues to study that range from the largely noncontroversial to the politically touchy. Falling in the latter category are all types of issues that could expose divides between Democrats and Republicans — not to mention Republicans and Republicans — such as ethics reform and religious liberty.
What will also be telling is which issues the state's top three leaders — Gov. Greg Abbott, Patrick and Straus — take charge of ahead of the 2017 session. Political considerations may be heightened for Straus, who faces two challengers for his seat and a likely one for the gavel if he wins re-election.
4. Can Ken Paxton hang on?
Several months since he was indicted on securities fraud charges, there has been little public political pressure for Paxton to step down. But that could change in 2016, especially after a judge's denial in December of all his lawyers' motions to quash the charges — a decision that moved him closer to a trial.
Under state law, Paxton does not have to give up his job unless he is convicted. However, if the prospect of a trial looks more and more likely as the new year unfolds, discussions about Paxton's potential replacement could intensify, making it harder for the former state senator to hold on to his post as the state's top law enforcement official.