Texas Democrats Face Session Lacking Numbers, Leaders


A couple weeks ago, a hard-right Republican state representative told me he was hoping for a 12-seat gain for the GOP.  At the time, it seemed like a possible, though unlikely, swing.


Apparently he was low-balling.


The Republicans gained  21 seats this election night, an almost unprecedented victory, even in a state with a history of big GOP wins. Of the 150 seats in the Texas House, the GOP controls almost two-thirds. The Democrats now face a legislative session demoralized and deflated, without numbers or leaders. In a year in which the state most cope with redrawing congressional districts and an enormous budget gap, estimated somewhere between $18 and $25 billion, the Democrats will likely have to fight to have any voice at all in forming public policy. It may make some people nostalgic for 2003, what used to be considered the “low point” for the Texas Democratic Party.


In the Legislature, the Republicans won pretty much every competitive race—as well as winning a number of races that didn’t even seem close a few days ago. With almost 100 Republican seats now, the Democrats won’t even be able to rely on House rules to to promote their policies—most rules can be suspended with two-thirds support. Instead the Democrats not content with sitting in back benches will have to stake their claims alone—either by compromising with the hard-liners or hoping the moderate Rs take them in. This session will be a fight between the moderate and hard-right factions of the Republican party. The Democrats will have to work hard to even remain relevant.


The state GOP is already in the midst of a schism between moderates and hard-liners. Last session, the House saw a shift in leadership, from the far-right social conservative Speaker Tom Craddick to the more moderate, process- oriented Joe Straus. Since then, many in the Craddick-faction have looked for ways to reclaim control and powerful committee chairmanships. Only a few weeks ago, state Rep. Warren Chisum, who had the plum assignment of Appropriations Chair during the Craddick years and is a political ally of the former speaker, threw his hat in the ring to challenge Straus. Now he’s well-positioned to gain support from many new freshmen Republicans. Straus likely has an uphill fight: two of his central allies, Republican state Reps. Tommy Merritt and Delwin Jones, lost their seats to Tea Party insurgents. The moderate faction of the party shrank in March. With the Democrats are much smaller minority, Straus will have to fight for support from the newly elected freshmen class.


Many of these new soon-to-be legislators were anti-establishment candidates who campaigned for on Tea Party policies and aren’t used to playing ball with the other side. “I’m everything liberals hate,” boasted Lubbock Tea Party candidate Charles Perry, who beat a moderate Republican incumbent for the nomination. Those relying on Tea Party support won’t have much room for compromise. Without a sizable Democratic opposition, they’ll likely turn on their more moderate factions of the Grand Old Party.


The Democrats will have a tough time cobbling together an opposition, since their losses included some of their most respected and powerful members. . When the Republicans rode to power in the 2002 election, winning the House majority and installing Tom Craddick as Speaker, Democrats have relied on leader Jim Dunnam to throw bombs at Craddick’s hard-right, authoritarian leadership style. But Dunnam is out, beat by Marva Beck, a candidate few initially considered a serious challenge.


In addition to the political leadership, the Ds have also lost some of their major policy voices. Take, for example, state Rep. Jim McReynolds, the chair of the Corrections Committee, who lost to Tea Party Republican James White. As chairmen of the House Corrections Committee, McReynolds played a major role in trying to reform state prisons and beef up mental health services and drug therapy for offenders. He’s frequently reached across the aisle to work with others on such issues. Now we may see the corrections in Texas take an entirely new direction. Other committee chairs and vice-chairs are also gone: Mark Homer, the chair of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, Patrick Rose, the chair of Human Services, Allen Vaught, the vice chair of Defense and Veterans Affairs and Stephen Frost, the vice chair of Public Safety.


So all-in-all, it wasn’t a great night for Texas Democrats—it likely isn’t going to be a good session for them either.