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Texas Elections 2018

Analysis: The Texas Senate’s Republican supermajority, on the bubble

The November general elections are still ahead, but they won't by themselves determine all of the important spots in the Texas Legislature. Watch the empty chairs — they can be almost as important as the occupied ones.

State Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, sits in a nearly empty Senate chamber for his Republican colleagues to return on July 24, 2017.

Texas Elections 2018

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz defeated Democratic challenger Beto O'Rourke in the race for U.S. Senate. View full 2018 Texas election results or subscribe to The Brief for the latest election news.

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This isn’t necessarily about something that is going to happen when the 86th Texas Legislature convenes next January. But it could happen, and it’s a great peek into how political chess works.

Texas Republicans have a 20-11 advantage in the state Senate. That’s just enough, under current Senate rules, to proceed with debate on bills even when all 11 Democrats are in opposition. That situation is the setup for the November election and for the legislative session that follows.

If you’re with the Republicans, you’re hoping for the status quo — an election where none of the Republican seats on the ballot ends up in the hands of a Democrat. One in particular — Konni Burton of Colleyville — represents a district that, in a bad year for Republicans, could conceivably be won by a Democrat.

If you’re with the Democrats, you’re looking at that same seat, hoping that Beverly Powell, their nominee, will become the district’s next senator.

There’s a lot more to this than a local election, and it goes back to those rules. It takes approval from three-fifths of the senators in attendance to bring up a piece of legislation for debate. Not to pass it, just to debate it. It used to be two-thirds, but Republicans, who were short of that mark, changed the rules to three-fifths. When everyone is present, that’s 19 senators.

That’s the setup for this strategy session.

Say, for the sake of argument, that the Democrats win a seat. It could be Burton’s. They’re also targeting two other Republican senators, with a bit longer odds: Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas and Joan Huffman of Houston.

A one-seat pickup would leave the Democrats one vote short of the number needed to force debate. It would also put them in position, if they could hold their own folks together, to block debate by luring one Republican to their side.

Another way to put it: Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats would have any wiggle room — a generally rotten prospect for a group since it empowers any one member to hold an issue hostage by saying, “Do it my way or lose my vote.”

If the Democrats were to win more than one seat now held by Republicans, the Texas Senate would be back in the position it was in for years — when nobody could get an issue to the floor without brokering enough of a compromise to convince a supermajority that the issue is worth hearing.

That’s been used to keep all kinds of things — not all of them partisan, by the way — from coming to the Senate floor for a vote. For a moment, think like one of the swamp creatures; sometimes, it’s safer not to vote on something controversial than it is to take a stand. The three-fifths rule provides a way to either work on a compromise or just walk away without any political bruises.

One needn’t agree with that to appreciate its political value.

But even a big Democratic day in November could leave crafty Republicans with some breathing room. Two Democratic senators who aren’t on the ballot this year — Sylvia Garcia of Houston and Carlos Uresti of San Antonio — are contemplating resignation.

Garcia won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat in a district unlikely to elect a Republican to Congress. But she said Thursday, in an interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, that she won’t resign until after the Nov. 6 election. She said she’s doing that out of consideration for the voters and doesn’t want to presume what they’ll do. If she wins and then resigns, it’ll take a special election to replace her — one that would likely leave her seat in the Senate empty for the early days of the legislative session.

Earlier this year, Uresti was convicted of several felony charges of money laundering and fraud. He’s awaiting sentencing and also has promised to appeal. He also hasn’t quit. If he does, he’ll trigger a special election of his own. If it’s late enough, he, like Garcia, could leave a seat open in the Senate during the first days of the session. 

If Democrats take enough seats in the Senate, and if Garcia and Uresti leave late enough that the Senate opens the session with one or two empty seats , Republicans will have an opportunity to front-load controversial items in the session — via gubernatorial emergency orders — and try to win approval before the Democrats fill out their own ranks.

Remember that the ratio applies to the number of senators in the room.

A full house is 31 senators. Empty seats change the debate threshold. Three-fifths of 30 is 18. Three-fifths of 29 is 17.

Even if the Republicans lose a seat or two in November, empty Garcia or Uresti seats could give them a little room. A Republican governor, assuming Greg Abbott wins, could speed consideration of favored bills by naming them “emergencies.” A Senate with a Republican supermajority, however temporary, could zip them through.

And that leaves the final piece of this extremely speculative puzzle: the election of the next speaker of the Texas House. They’d like to get their conservative priorities out of the way before Democrats gather any strength. A reluctant House could foil them. With the departure of Joe Straus, who has been a moderate obstacle on some issues the Senate likes, the House hasn’t said, through its replacement vote, whether they’ll go along with anything the Senate or the governor wants to do.

Right now, the government’s best chess players are trying to work that out.

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