Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.
With one congressional resignation in the bag and a couple more pending — maybe — in the Texas Senate, special elections have become a spring parlor game in Austin.
Republican U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold of Corpus Christi quit earlier this month — pushed into the limelight and squeezed out of his office by a sexual harassment scandal and a related ethics investigation. He’d already decided not to seek another term. With his decision to quit, Gov. Greg Abbott is positioned to call a special election — on or before Nov. 6 — to elect someone to finish Farenthold’s term.
Abbott might want to keep his pen handy when that’s over. State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, was found guilty of 11 felonies earlier this year. He has not yet faced sentencing and says he will appeal the convictions on charges including money laundering and fraud. He’s not required to quit the Senate in the face of that, but it’s safe to say many of his colleagues are eager to see him go. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stripped him of his committee assignments, and the Senate Democratic Caucus called on him to quit.
The other potential resignation is a happier story: State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, won her party’s nomination to succeed retiring Gene Green in the U.S. House. It’s a Democratic district, but she’ll face the winner of a Republican primary in November’s election. And in the unlikely event that Garcia were to lose that race, she would still be a state senator; her term in the current job doesn’t end until 2021.
Without putting their names to their words, many of Garcia’s colleagues are hoping she’ll quit early, allowing a replacement to be seated before the Legislature convenes in January.
“A vacancy is never politically helpful, but no one is more harmed than the constituents who are in that district, who have zero representation,” said Harold Cook, a longtime Democratic operative and one-time staffer to the Senate’s Democratic Caucus. “Aside from the fact that it kind of screws with a few majority votes, and that is not unimportant, you’re leaving Texans with no representation — and you don’t have to.”
The idea is that Garcia’s election to Congress is all but certain and that her timely resignation would position Democrats in the Texas Senate at full strength next year, instead of leaving them waiting on a special election to fill her seat. Or Uresti’s seat, for that matter.
This is one of those political stories that hinges on the rules — and on how the various actors in this drama want to play within those rules. Depending on partisan and political interests, they can act quickly to get a friendly lawmaker seated, or slowly to keep an unfriendly one out of position as long as possible.
Empty seats in the Texas Legislature or the state’s congressional delegation — whether they are emptied by resignation or misfortune — trigger a countdown for special elections. State law is full of details, but the basics (with a nod to the Texas Secretary of State’s office) are:
• The governor gets up to 20 days after a vacancy is official to call an election. It can take up to eight days after a vacancy occurs for it to become effective.
• The state has a couple of so-called “uniform” election dates; this year’s are May 5 — less than four weeks from now — and Nov. 6. Barring emergencies and legislative sessions, a governor can hold off on a special election until the next uniform date.
• But governors can call special elections more or less at will, if they think there’s an “emergency” reason to do so. A special election has to take place on a Tuesday or a Saturday. It has to happen between 36 and 50 days after the governor calls it. Boiled down, that means an emergency special election can land between five and 11 weeks after a state or federal legislator leaves office.
• If a state legislator steps down during a legislative session — or during the 60 days leading up to one — the timeline for an “expedited” special election comes into play. When a governor in that situation calls a special election, it has to take place on a Tuesday or a Saturday and has to happen between 21 and 45 days after the seat becomes vacant. That means it could happen in just three weeks after a vacancy occurs or just more than 10 weeks after.
Behind those rules, here’s the strategy. Democrats hold 11 seats in the 31-member Senate. Until 2015, that was enough to block legislation from Senate debate under what was generally called the “two-thirds” rule in the Senate. The 2015 change effectively lowered that rule to three-fifths, so that the majority needs only 19 votes, instead of 21, to bring legislation before the full Senate.
Democrats are trying to add seats this year — their sights are set on GOP incumbents Konni Burton of Colleyville, Don Huffines of Dallas and Joan Huffman of Houston — to win enough leverage to exercise control over the Senate’s agenda during next year’s session.
But those efforts would be for naught, at least temporarily, if Garcia or Uresti wait until January or later to resign their seats. Late resignations and late special elections could play into Republican hands when the Legislature convenes. Democrats would like to have replacements in place.
It’s up to Garcia and Uresti to make the next moves. It’s not urgent yet, but it will be by the end of the summer. That’s when the special election and legislative timelines begin to overlap.