Congressional and statehouse maps redrawn by Republicans this year have been widely panned for diluting emerging battleground districts and making it harder for Democrats to get elected even as the state’s nonwhite, urban population skyrockets.
But the maps have a secondary effect: purging the increasingly fanatical Texas GOP of any member who deviates from the purity politics held sacred by the state’s top elected officials.
Enter moderate Republican Senator Kel Seliger, the long-serving representative of District 31 in the Panhandle and West Texas. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, joined by a who’s who of right-wing advocacy groups, have previously failed to oust Seliger by propping up primary challengers, but they finally have him cornered. The redrawn maps take aim at select counties that served as Seliger’s base, shifting his district toward unfamiliar counties in the hardscrabble Permian Basin and making it more difficult for him to hold his seat.
Seliger announced last week he would not run for re-election, opening a power vacuum for Patrick, who controls the Senate, to install the puppet of his choice. Four months ahead of the state’s primary elections in March, the Texas GOP has already won its first redistricting victory. Seliger told the Observer on Tuesday that fellow Republicans shifted his district “maliciously” with the intent of unseating him. He announced his decision not to run for re-election after studying the maps “very carefully.” And with that announcement, the last Republican centrist in the state Senate is heading for the door.
“The Republican Party in Texas has gotten to be one of litmus tests and conformity,” Seliger says. “Everybody’s got to believe exactly the same way about everything or you’re a RINO.”
It’s worth noting that “centrist” and “moderate” are relative terms in Texas. In other states where Republicans don’t have the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches in a chokehold, figures like Seliger could accurately be viewed as significantly right of center. In the last legislative session, he joined the rest of his conservative colleagues in banning the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools, limiting access to the ballot, and allowing residents to carry handguns without a permit in public. Still, Seliger has occasionally bucked his Republican Senate colleagues when it comes to the far right’s pet policies—especially when it comes to issues of local government control and funding for public schools.
Much like Seliger himself, his constituents have historically been hesitant to jump fully on the far-right bandwagon. The collection of counties that touch Oklahoma and New Mexico before sweeping down into oil country aren’t liberal by a long shot, but they seem to understand the importance of public education, ready access to health care, and a reliable supply of immigrant farmworkers. By contrast, the GOP base has long sought to privatize schools through voucher programs and has refused to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, which would infuse struggling hospitals with critical funds. Republicans’ crusade against immigrants threatens to leave Panhandle farmers without the requisite workforce to harvest row crops and operate dairies, two of the top agricultural commodities in the region.
Amarillo is geographically closer to four other state capitals than it is to Austin. It’s a fact that residents here frequently mention when the topic of state politics comes up. Voters here tend to trust the sausage-makers in Austin about as much as they do the feds. Which is to say, not much. Seliger’s ability to hold his seat for 17 years, despite interference from Patrick and right-wing advocacy groups such as Empower Texans, means they trust him.
In the statehouse, however, Seliger has been persona non grata in the upper chamber since the 2014 election, when Patrick ousted former Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst, a Republican moderate, and took control of the Senate. Other centrist Republicans, including Senators John Carona, Robert Duncan, and Kevin Eltife, dropped like flies as they either declined to run for re-election or were trounced by more conservative candidates. Seliger was the last one standing.
Now Patrick’s power in the Senate approaches omnipotence. To keep a seat here, Republican members must steadfastly hold the party line and never dream of crossing it. But that’s what mad lad Seliger has done on occasion. Seliger’s first point of insubordination can probably be traced back to the 2017 legislative session when he dared oppose a Patrick-supported provision that would have required local governments to hold a referendum for local tax increases above 5 percent of the existing rate. In the same session, he bucked Patrick’s plan to subsidize private schools with taxpayer money.
Patrick holds a grudge: In the 2019 legislative session, the lieutenant governor stripped Seliger of two important committee assignments: higher education and finance. Seliger’s ability to legislate for his district was effectively neutered. It’s a cautionary tale for lawmakers in Texas, where ever-more-radical Republicanism—call it Trumpism if you like—spreads like wildfire and burns hotter with each passing year.
To the denizens of District 31, now’s the time to carve the headstone for Seliger’s political career. The last of the old Republican guard has been purged from the Texas Senate. Seliger says he’ll finish out his term, which ends in January 2023—and you’d best believe that Patrick and the rest of the party elite are counting the days.
Top image: Senator Kel Seliger at the Texas Capitol in 2013.