Analysis: Endorsements, Loyalties — and Getting Things Done

The three senators who sent the fewest bills to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk this session: Bob Hall, R-Edgwood (left), Konni Burton, R-Colleyville (middle) and Don Huffines, R-Dallas (right).
The three senators who sent the fewest bills to Gov. Greg Abbott's desk this session: Bob Hall, R-Edgwood (left), Konni Burton, R-Colleyville (middle) and Don Huffines, R-Dallas (right).

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* Correction appended.

Endorsements seem harmless enough, but several state senators will have to eat some crow to get their legislation passed next year.

They committed the insiders’ sin of endorsing challengers to sitting members of the Legislature. Worse, their candidates lost, and now they will have to deal with the people they opposed when it comes time to govern.

From outside, where most sane people live, it makes perfect sense to throw your political weight and reputation against candidates with whom you disagree and in favor of the ones you like.

 

Republicans oppose Democrats, Democrats oppose Republicans. What’s new?

The same tensions exist in party primaries: Endorsers go with the people they think would do the best job, or who they think will be most helpful to them. In the divided Republican Party in particular, the leaders of one faction oppose the candidates from another.

But there are some invisible lines, and Republican state Sens. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, Konni Burton of Colleyville, Bob Hall of Edgewood and Don Huffines of Dallas danced across them this year. Each plunged — or at least dipped their toes — into efforts to unseat Republican House incumbents.

One of those lines is, or was, Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” That’s more of a historical marker than a real rule— it has more or less gone by the wayside as internal fights in the GOP have intensified.

Legislative tradition is another line: Legislators are in some ways more loyal to their chambers than to their parties. Senators stay out of House business. House members stay out of Senate business.

It’s not just a House vs. Senate thing. Legislating is a group activity. You can’t get things done if you can’t get along, whether you agree or disagree on the issue at hand. Getting involved in a political race against another legislator carries some risk: If you lose, the person you opposed will soon be across the table with something you want. And even if you win, the person across the table will have you marked as a scorpion who might sting them in the next election.

Dabbling in election politics is often contrary to working at the Capitol, where it is often hard to hurt your enemies without hurting yourself — and your constituents. Lawmakers regularly and vigorously help colleagues who face election challenges. They can always defend that as loyalty. But for the most part, they avoid leaving their fingerprints on challenges to their colleagues. Disloyalty is a harder sell.

It’s semi-fashionable at the moment to quote Omar Little, a character in The Wire, a TV crime drama: “You come at the king, you best not miss.”

 

The senators missed. House Speaker Joe Straus is coming back to the Legislature, and his bid for a fifth term as speaker 10 months from now looks like a layup. He’ll remember Bettencourt’s Senate property tax hearing held in San Antonio just before the election — the one that featured testimony from Jeff Judson, who was also Straus’ best-financed challenger in that election.

Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, is coming back. The list of people to whom he no longer has to pay attention might include Burton, who endorsed Cook’s challenger, Thomas McNutt. Cook was one of three incumbent House members Burton opposed, only one of whom, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, lives in or near her Senate district. Like Cook, Geren won, as did John Raney of College Station.

Cook was chairman of the House State Affairs Committee. Geren heads the powerful House Administration Committee. Raney is on the budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Burton was messing with legislative gatekeepers.

Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, is coming back. He’ll remember the money Huffines gave to his opponent, Dan Morenoff. Probably. So will Cook and Raney, each of whom found Huffines' name among their opponents' contributors in this primary.

Dan Flynn, R-Van, won a squeaker of a primary; his opponent, Bryan Slaton, ran with strong support from Hall, whose Senate district overlaps that House district. Flynn chairs the House’s Pension Committee. Another gatekeeper.

None of the senators openly opposing incumbent House members from their own party ever served in the House — maybe they missed the lesson on tribal loyalties within the legislative chambers.

They didn’t forfeit their right to support the candidates they want to support, either with words or money, when they ran for Senate. Everybody gets to do that if they want — but legislators have to answer for it.

Correction: Jeff Judson was not invited to testify at a Senate property tax hearing; he testified there as a member of the public.

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