While dozens of members of the Texas Legislature are fighting for re-election across the state, a slew of open seats means there will be at least 18 freshman lawmakers come January – two in the Senate and 16 in the House.
With prominent legislators from both sides of the aisle opting not to return to their posts, some voters are having to choose between relatively unfamiliar candidates on the March 1 primary ballot.
Most of the more than 70 candidates in these races have their work cut out for them. In presidential election years in particular, voters showing up to the polls are less likely to know about the races lower on the ballot, said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones.
"They’re turning out to vote for either Ted Cruz or Donald Trump or Marco Rubio," Jones said, referring to the leading Republican candidates for president. "Maybe some ads have reached them on a U.S. House race or a state Senate race, but by the time they get to the statehouse races, you have a significant proportion of voters who simply never heard of these candidates running for an open seat."
Two-thirds of the open seats are currently held by a Republican. A race without an incumbent may seem like a prime chance for the seat to flip from Republican to Democrat or vice versa, but such swing seat opportunities have become increasingly rare in Texas.
"There are very few purple districts," Jones said. "So even though the Republican candidate or the Democratic candidate, depending on the district, won't get the advantage of incumbency, they still enjoy the advantage of the district being solid red or solid blue."
Rather than creating an opportunity for a party swap, races without incumbents open the door for smaller ideological shifts, according to Henry Flores, St. Mary's University political science professor. Often, candidates in the races are focusing on turning out certain segments of their party's base.
"In Texas, if it's an open House seat in North Texas or West Texas, one of the areas that's traditionally Republican, it will mean something to the factions within that particular party," said Flores. "What it will do is give one faction or the other within the Republican party the opportunity to win the seat."
In most of the open seats, the races are so crowded that no one is likely to draw the needed majority support to avoid a runoff. This year's primary runoff elections are scheduled for May 24.
The sparring among the candidates to land a slot in an expected runoff is particularly intense in the two open Senate seats.
The crowded race in Senate District 24 replace state Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, who decided not to seek re-election, has drawn six candidates from across a sprawling district that stretches from rom Abilene to the northwest suburbs of Austin: state Rep. Susan King, eye surgeon Dawn Buckingham, retired radiologist Brent Mayes, construction business owner Jon Cobb, Little River Health Care owner Ryan Downton and businessman Reed Williams.
"In SD 24, it’s a little bit more complex because it’s such a spread out district and there are so many candidates that it’s difficult to pin down whose in the best position," Jones said. "Baring something very unexpected, we’re looking at a runoff in that race."
The Senate District 1 race in Northeast Texas to replace outgoing Republican state Sen. Kevin Eltife's seat drew in state Reps. Bryan Hughes and David Simpson in addition to Army General James "Red" Brown and Mike Lee, a retired Navy hovercraft pilot.
The entrance of King, Hughes and Simpson into the two Senate races left three seats open in the House – Districts 5 and 7 in Northeast Texas and District 71, which includes Abilene and Sweetwater.
Districts 5 and 7 only drew Republican candidates — five in HD 5 and two in HD 7. Randy Davis, a Texas State Guard officer; businessman Jay Misenheimer; Philip Hayes, a former Senate staffer; real estate agent Holly Coggins Hayes; and Cole Hefner, an insurance salesman and former Upshur county commissioner, are competing for Hughes' seat, while Longview Mayor Jay Dean and businessman David Watts are running for Simpson's in HD 7.
King's HD 71 seat drew five Republicans and one Democrat. Attorney Chris Carnohan, former Hamilton Mayor Isaac Castro, Abilene ISD School Board trustee Stan Lambert, retired paramedic Stacey Scaief and retired firefighter Brian Scalf are all vying to win the Republican nomination and face Democrat Pierce LoPachin in November.
Both San Antonio and Houston stand to see a significant shakeup in their representation in the state Capitol due to a wave of retirements.
In San Antonio, three South Texas incumbents are not seeking re-election:
- State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, a San Antonio Democrat, decided not to run for re-election in the House and is challenging Democrat José Menéndez for his seat in the Senate. Three Democrats are running in District 116 – Diana Arévalo, Martin Golando and Ruby Resendez.
- Longtime Democratic state Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon announced in September she would not run again for her seat in House District 120. Former City Councilman Art Hall, Bexar County Justice of the Peace Byron Miller, insurance agent Lou Miller, former City Councilman Mario Salas and Barbara Gervin-Hawkins are all running in the Democratic primary.
- Although it is not technically an open seat, state Rep. John Lujan, a Republican, will have only held his District 118 seat for slightly more than one month come the March 1 primary. Lujan surprised many when he was elected in a January special election runoff after state Rep. Joe Farias resigned his seat, turning a seat long held by Democrats red. Lujan will face Robert Casias in the Republican primary, while Gabe Farias and Tomas Uresti are on the Democratic ballot.
The Greater Houston area will also receive new representation in the House, as incumbents in Houston, Spring and Cypress are not running again.
- Newly elected Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, left his seat in House District 139 to run for his current position, opening the door for four Democrats to run to replace him: Randy Bates, Jerry Ford Jr., Jarvis Johnson and Kimberly Willis.
- State Rep. Allen Fletcher, R-Cypress, decided not to seek re-election to House District 130, and announced his intentions to run for Harris County sheriff. Fletcher later decided not to enter the local race. Republicans Tom Oliverson, an anesthesiologist, and Kay Smith, the former president of the Texas Tea Party Republican Women, are running to replace him.
- In the city of Spring, Republican state Rep. Patricia Harless announced she would not run again for her District 126 seat. Two Democrats will face off in the primary – Cris Hernandez and Joy Dawson-Thomas. One Republican, businessman Kevin Roberts, is running for the seat.
The remaining open seats are scattered across the state:
- The Texas House's lead budget writer, state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, announced in July he would not be seeking re-election for his House District 18 seat. Former Huntsville Mayor J. Turner, businessman Ernest Bailes, business attorney Keith Strahan, Liberty County Attorney Wesley Hinch and former San Jacinto County Republican Party chairman Van Brookshire are all running for his seat.
- State Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, announced he would not run for re-election in District 33. His seat has drawn strong interest from both parties, with three Republicans and two Democrats in the running. Heath Mayor Lorne Liechty, businessman Justin Holland and Army veteran John Keating are seeking to keep the seat Republican while Cristin Padgett and Karen Jacobs are seeking the Democratic nomination.
- After some back and forth, Democratic state Rep. Elliott Naishtat decided not to run again for his District 49 seat in Austin. Seven Democrats have emerged to fill his seat: Austin ISD Board President Gina Hinojosa, legislative staffer Huey Fischer, defense attorney Matthew Shrum, personal injury attorney Aspen Dunaway, attorney Blake Rocap and University of Texas law professor Heather Way.
- In June, Republican state Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock of District 54 announced he would not seek re-election to the Killeen-based seat he has held for nearly a decade. This opening drew three Republican candidates — Killeen Mayor Scott Cosper, optometrist Austin Ruiz and Army veteran Larry Smith — along with two Democrats, Lan Carter and Sandra Blankenship.
- Republican state Rep. Jim Keffer, a longtime lawmaker and loyal lieutenant to House Speaker Joe Straus, announced in June he would not run again for his District 60 seat based in Eastland. Republicans Kevin Downing and Mike Lang are vying to replace him.
- After state Rep. Myra Crownover of Denton-based District 64 announced she would not be seeking re-election, three Republicans and two Democrat entered the race. Rick Hagen, a criminal attorney, Lynn Stucky, a veterinarian, and Read King, a commercial real estate agent, are vying for the GOP nomination, while Connor Flanagan and Paul Greco are battling it out for the Democratic nomination.
- After serving four years, state Rep. Marisa Márquez, D-El Paso decided not to run for another term in House District 77. Democrats Adolfo Lopez and Evelina "Lina" Ortega are running for the seat.
Early voting ends Friday. The primary election is on March 1. A full list of candidates in the Texas primaries is available here.
Disclosure: St. Mary's University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Rice University was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2013. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.