The Texas Legislature’s prolonged reign of terror ended on an acrimonious note this year as Republicans rammed through new redistricting maps.
Like a political etch-a-sketch, Texas’ new maps shook away the geographic, demographic, and partisan sorting that successfully secured GOP majorities through the 2010s and drew a new political landscape that Republicans expect will get them through the 2020s. Red seats were drawn redder, blue seats bluer. Competitive districts were all but eliminated.
Soon after the Legislature ended its final special session this fall, a game of musical chairs ensued. Dozens of state legislators announced retirements or runs for higher office, leaving behind around 30 open seats—most of them in Republican-leaning districts. Now, Republican candidates are lining up to fill them in a race to the hard-right.
An increasingly ravenous crowd of GOP primary voters—primed by the pandemic-fueled culture wars and spurred by bans on books and “critical race theory”—will likely fill these seats. That means in 2023, the Texas House, which has long served to temper the GOP’s most extreme impulses, will be filled with an army of extremists eager to throw bombs.
“The tides are shifting again,” Representative Dan Huberty told the Houston Chronicle. Huberty, a moderate Republican and expert on state school finance matters, is among the dozens of experienced politicos retiring. “You have different political leaders, and the constituency has a view of what they want. You’re going to see a shift. I would assume it’s going to be more conservative.”
Representative Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat and fixture in the Texas House for 30 years, was the most experienced legislator to announce his retirement, which Dems and Republicans alike lamented. Coleman has been one of the foremost advocates on healthcare, criminal justice, and voting rights in the Legislature. He has stood witness to the entire arc of Republican reign in the Texas Capitol and called this past session the “worst I’ve ever participated in.”
“It is the worst because it had no soul,” Coleman told the Chronicle. “You have the governor of Florida and the governor of Texas competing for who can be more mean and conservative and not using any common sense along with it—it was a challenge for me.”
A handful of other Texas House Democrats are retiring, like longtime Beaumont Representative Joe Deshotel and Representative John Turner in Dallas. Others are running for higher office: Representative Celia Israel of District 50, who is running for Austin mayor, and veteran legislator Representative Eddie Rodriguez of District 51, who is vying for the newly open 35th congressional seat based in Austin.
Redrawn lines and the radicalism of Republican legislators during the past session—in which almost every major piece of legislation was a radical piece of red meat—convinced about a couple of dozen Republican incumbents to bow out rather than try to survive a gauntlet of right-wing primary battles. Those included moderate, establishment members of the party like House Caucus GOP Chair Jim Murphy, Representative Dan Huberty, and San Antonio Representative Lyle Larson, who became an increasingly outspoken critic of his party’s leaders in the last session.
A further shift to the right could spell trouble for Speaker Dade Phelan, who in his first term helming the House repeatedly drew the wrath of House conservatives and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick for his perceived botching of GOP priority legislation and for granting political amnesty to Democrats after their summer quorum break. If right-wingers sweep their way through the primaries, an ambitious hardliner might be able to corral enough support to oust Phelan and banish Democrats to complete irrelevance. If you thought 2021 was bad, imagine a session where the House Speaker and Lieutenant Governor are actually working in unison.
Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s iron-fisted rule over the Texas Senate may only grow stronger in 2022. He’s already vanquished Panhandle Senator Kel Seliger, an occasional maverick and the only Republican who bucked Patrick. The new Senate maps redrew Seliger’s district to favor Patrick’s handpicked candidate, Kevin Sparks, a right-winger from Midland. Seeing the writing on the wall, Seliger announced his retirement.
Another legislative veteran and mainstream conservative, Senator Larry Taylor, was pushed into retirement when Mayes Middleton, a wealthy House member aligned with the right-wing enforcement group Empower Texans, made clear he would spend millions of dollars to take the Senate seat. Patrick was rumored to have privately encouraged Middleton to run; soon after Taylor announced his retirement, Patrick endorsed Middleton.
Patrick has anointed candidates in three other open Republican seats in the Senate. His biggest potential loss comes with the retirement of his favorite Democrat, conservative Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., whose seat might—might—fall into the hands of a more liberal Democrat. Despite this isolated loss, the Texas Senate in 2023 will likely be further cast in the Lieutenant Governor’s image—one of right-wing retribution and permanent outrage.
Texas’ congressional delegation won’t see the same degree of turnover as the Legislature, especially since a long line of Republican congress members already took part in a “Texodus” ahead of the 2020 elections. The previous round of retirements already significantly diminished the Texas congressional delegation’s seniority and clout in Washington. It will take yet another hit with the retirements of the two longest-serving members from both parties.
There’s Congressman Kevin Brady, a Montgomery County conservative who was first elected back in 1996 and served as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee for two terms. In that post, he was one of the chief architects of former President Donald Trump’s trickle-down tax cuts in 2017, which delivered huge savings to wealthy Americans and big corporations. The battle for his open seat, along with the race to fill a newly drawn district next door, will feature two of the most heated GOP congressional primaries in Texas.
And then there’s Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, the legendary Dallas Democrat who was first elected in 1992. After Democrats took back control of the House in 2018, Johnson became the first African American and first woman to chair the House Science and Technology Committee—a post she used to curb the damage of Trump’s attacks on science and to lead an offensive against climate change denialism.
The vacancy of her seat, which has for decades represented the Black communities of South Dallas, has sparked a scramble for power among the city’s Democrats. Johnson has thrown her weight behind state Representative Jasmine Crockett, a first-term legislator who injected a new voice into the Texas House after winning her primary challenge in 2020, upsetting the Democratic establishment.
While the handful of open Democratic seats will give the party a chance to elect a new generation of leaders, there’s little beyond that. The dozens of state House and congressional seats that Democrats were trying to flip these past couple election cycles are pretty firmly out of reach now—and will likely remain so for years to come.