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Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives have an eight-seat advantage over the Democrats. The minority party is spending boatloads of money to flip the nine districts it would take to regain the majority they lost in the 2002 election.
The first item of business, whichever party wins the majority, will be the election of a new speaker to replace Dennis Bonnen, who effectively talked his way out of the job just six months into his tenure, speaking too freely (and while being recorded) with a political activist about other members of the House.
The normal course of things would be to get past Nov. 3, see which party has the majority and then choose a speaker from that party’s members. It’s a bipartisan exercise, but the spoils go to the winners.
But what if they tied?
It could happen. If the Democrats picked up eight seats instead of nine, the House would have 75 members from each party.
It would be a strange political tangle. It hasn’t happened to the Texas Legislature before. But it almost happened 12 years ago. And the table is set for another chance in less than two weeks.
In the 2008 elections, one Texas House race was so close it took a few days to sort out who won. And those days were tantalizing, for a couple of reasons.
One: Who won?
Two: What would it mean for the future of the House?
The issue wasn’t about the prominence of the people in the race. State Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, was seeking reelection against a relatively unknown Democrat, Bob Romano, and Libertarian James Baird.
Voting in Texas
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The issue was management of the House. Republican Speaker Tom Craddick was facing a rebellion within his own party, and the Democrats were within an inch of regaining the majority they’d lost in the 2002 elections.
The 2008 election results were mostly in, and voters had chosen 75 Republicans and 74 Democrats to represent them in the Texas House.
One race — that one in Irving — remained open. If Romano pulled off an upset, there would be 75 members from each party, a situation that brought great joy to political reporters and dread to just about everyone in the House.
When the results were officially recounted, Harper-Brown was the winner — by fewer than two dozen votes. Republicans had a majority. After a different kind of wrangling, Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, became speaker and held onto that post for 10 years.
This year’s election could produce a narrowly Republican House — what we have now — or a narrowly Democratic one. Either way, it will deny either party firm control. Most issues aren’t decided along partisan lines, and the wheeling and dealing required to produce a budget and other major legislation forces members to get their votes wherever they can find them.
Narrow majorities can make for compromise or gridlock. The U.S. Senate is an example of the latter, but Texas legislators have avoided that, most of the time.
As it made the swing from a Democratic majority to a Republican one, for instance, the Texas Senate went through two sessions with 16 Republicans and 15 Democrats. At the same time, the leader of the Senate, Rick Perry, was boosted from lieutenant governor to governor when then-Gov. George W. Bush was elected president. That split Senate voted to replace Perry with Sen. Bill Ratliff, R-Mt. Pleasant. And Ratliff put a Democrat, Rodney Ellis of Houston, in charge of writing the state budget as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
The suspense over this year’s result has quieted the race to replace Bonnen. Two years ago, several candidates had already filed to run for speaker by now, and were openly politicking other members for support. So far this year, there is just one: State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, filed papers initiating her candidacy late Friday. Without any certainty about which party will be in control in 2021, most of the contestants are keeping their heads down. They all want to be in leadership positions no matter who wins the majority in November.
Or power brokers, if it comes to that. A 75-75 tie would start a very interesting negotiation over control of the Texas House.