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Analysis: Changing the Texas Senate, a special election at a time

With all these candidates lining up, you might think there are going to be special elections for the Texas Senate in Houston and San Antonio. Eventually, you're probably going to be right.

State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, is shown speaking about the "bathroom bill" during a Texas Tribune event on July 31, 2017.  Garcia and Rep. Ron Simmons, R-Carrollton, spoke as the Texas Legislature was in the midst of a special session.

* Correction appended

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Candidates are lining up for the day — maybe soon, maybe not — when two Texas Senate incumbents get out of the way.

Texas is poised to have a couple of state Senate elections ahead, in Houston and in San Antonio — races that are not yet on the ballot. One is opening because the incumbent, Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, ran for higher office (successfully, so far); the other could happen because the incumbent, Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, was convicted of 11 federal felonies including money laundering and fraud.

Garcia won last month’s Democratic primary for an open seat in Congress, getting 63.2 percent of the vote and leaving six other candidates in her dust. Republicans are having a runoff in May to decide her opponent. Whoever that turns out to be — Phillip Aronoff or Carmen Maria Montiel — will enter the general election campaign as an underdog. Incumbent U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, has held sway in the 29th Congressional District since 1993. It’s strong Democratic territory, a blue zone where Hillary Clinton got 71 percent of the vote against Donald Trump in 2016 and where Democrat Wendy Davis beat Republican Greg Abbott 62.3 percent to 36.1 percent in the 2014 governor’s race — a race Abbott won statewide by more than 20 percentage points.

It’s Garcia’s to lose. If calling it a shoo-in is too strong, just say that a Republican win in CD-29 would be the sort of upset worthy of notice in the presidential twitter stream.

Still, the state Senate seat is Garcia’s to hold until she quits or is sworn into Congress, whichever comes first. She could quit today and start the machinery of a special election to replace her, or she could wait it out, putting the special election sometime after the start of the Texas legislative session’s beginning early next year.

Candidates are already lining up, notably Democratic state Reps. Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez, both of Houston. They and others can declare their interest and raise money, but there’s no real hurry until Garcia is gone.

Her departure from the Senate, like Green’s from Congress, would probably be a change in personality but not a change in party. The numbers in her 6th Senate District are similar to his: Clinton got 70.9 percent in 2016, Davis got 62.9 percent in 2014.

That said, special elections are free-for-alls, with candidates from all parties in the first round and — if nobody wins a majority — a runoff between the top two finishers, regardless of party. It’s a Democratic district, but special elections sometimes take funny bounces.

Uresti is in an entirely different situation, and unlike SD-6, his Senate District 19 could be competitive in a general election between a Democrat and a Republican.

He has said he will appeal his convictions and has announced no immediate plans to step down. Like Garcia, he is in the middle of a four-year term that expires in 2020 and doesn’t have to quit.  

As with Garcia, his would-be replacements are lining up like eager heirs, hoping to be first in line when the current occupant moves on to the next world. State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, had political signs posted around the district almost as soon as the convictions were announced. He got a jump of more than a month on other would-be candidates. The others are coming. Pete Gallego, a former state and federal representative, is preparing a bid. A half-dozen others are quietly exploring the idea.

Unlike Garcia’s seat, Uresti’s could conceivably be won by a Republican candidate. Clinton beat Trump with 53.4 percent of the vote, but Abbott and Davis came to a near tie: He got 49.1 percent to her 49 percent in 2014.

On average, statewide Democratic candidates beat statewide Republican candidates in that district by just 0.2 percentage points in 2014 and by just 8.5 percent in 2016. It’s blue-ish, not indigo.

Both seats will probably come open in the next days or months, but they have this in common right now: They’re not open until the incumbents decide it’s in their interest to step down.

Their political heirs await, right outside their doors.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave Houston Democrat Gene Green the wrong title. He is a United States representative.

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2018 elections Carlos "Charlie" Uresti Sylvia R. Garcia Texas Senate