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Analysis: What Might Be Next in Texas Politics

Elections always raise obvious questions, like "Who'll be the next president?" and less obvious ones, like "Who would replace a U.S. senator from Texas if he won the presidential election?"

Gov. Greg Abbott is shown on stage on Feb 24, 2016, in Houston during the Harris County Republican Party's 2016 Lincoln Reagan dinner.

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Here’s a political parlor game we’ll call, “And then what?”

First, take a political occurrence, and then pop the question.

An example from several years ago: Gov. George W. Bush decides to run for president. And then what? (This was a burning question once upon a time.) Whoever was lieutenant governor — Agriculture Commissioner Rick Perry and Comptroller John Sharp faced off for the post in 1998 — could be in line for the governor’s office. Bush ran, Perry succeeded him as governor, some other offices shook out, and then very little changed in the upper rungs of state politics for another 14 years.

The game is obviously more challenging when you don’t know the answers. More fun, too. Try these:

• U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, is elected president. And then what?

The question is not about the presidency, tempting as that might be, but about the Texas end of this question. An empty Senate seat is filled by gubernatorial appointment until a special election — also called by the governor — can be held.

That happened after the 1992 election, when Bill Clinton tapped U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to serve as his Treasury secretary. Then Gov. Ann Richards appointed Bob Krueger to the open seat, and he lost in a special election runoff to Kay Bailey Hutchison. She retired in 2012. Ted Cruz is her replacement.

Whom would Greg Abbott appoint? And because a special election allows incumbent state and federal officeholders to run without risking their current jobs, who would run?

• U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro becomes the Democratic candidate for vice president and wins. And then what? Or loses. And then what? Or isn’t appointed at all. And then what?

In the first case, Texas would have a political toe back in the White House for the first time since Bush left office in 2009. It would be a Democratic toe, too, which could have some implications for a party trying to dig its way out of a very deep hole in Texas.

The second and third cases — a loss in an election or just the loss of a job as the administrations change — would set a young and ambitious Texas politician on the loose just as the campaigns are forming for the state’s 2018 election cycle.

• U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., leaves office for some reason. And then what?

If that seems like an inquiry from the outfield bleachers, remember that U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas — he’s the relatively quiet one — is the Senate’s No. 2 Republican. He’s powerful now, with his party in the majority, and he’s positioned, once McConnell leaves, to be the most powerful Texan in the U.S. Senate since Lyndon Johnson.

• Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton leaves before his turn is up. And then what?

Start with Paxton’s argument that the criminal charges against him are trumped up, political and will be dismissed or will result in an acquittal. It’s an expensive nuisance in his version of the story, and not a disqualifying set of circumstances. He’s not the first statewide elected official in Texas to be indicted in office, and that sometimes has a happy ending. Hutchison, indicted and acquitted while she was state treasurer, was in the U.S. Senate less than a year after her crucible.

That said, a Paxton departure would give the governor an appointment, with the appointee serving until the next election date. It’s a version of the Cruz question: Who would be on the governor’s list?

• State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, wins a spot on the Harris County Commissioners Court. And then what?

Ellis has been in the Texas Senate since 1990. It is safe to say there is some pent-up demand among ambitious Houston Democrats, and chances are, they’ll be able to try for his spot in the Senate in a special election that doesn’t cost the contestants whatever jobs they currently occupy.

He has to quit the Senate to trigger anything real, but his departure could reverberate through the Texas House, if someone were to replace him, or the Houston City Council, if the replacement comes from there.

• Rob Morrow, the vulgar provocateur who won Super Tuesday’s election for chairman of the Travis County Republican Party and who has already been condemned by its executive committee, shows up for his first meeting. And then what?

That one’s all yours.

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Politics 2016 elections