During the 2013 legislative session, Joan Huffman, a former Harris County felony court judge and prosecutor, worked to scuttle criminal justice reforms in the Texas Senate. She made her mark on the 2015 session by sabotaging ethics reforms championed even by leaders of her own party. Last session, she was a reliable footsoldier for Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, casting votes to discriminate against transgender people, turn local cops into immigration enforcers, restrict abortion and throw another $800 million at the Texas Department of Public Safety to maintain a small army of cops in border communities.
Democrats hope to end that record this year and flip Huffman’s seahorse-shaped Senate district, which includes some of Houston’s wealthiest neighborhoods and large chunks of Brazoria and Fort Bend counties. Sure, Huffman has sailed to re-election every cycle since taking the seat in 2008, but Democrats point to the fact that Trump barely won her district in 2016. Couldn’t local Dems ride Beto’s coattails to a down-ballot upset, especially in a district Clinton lost by less than a percentage point? Or so the thinking goes.
That plan, which naturally relies on a blue-wave scenario, might sound like a stretch, but flipping state Senate seats has taken on new urgency for Democrats this election. Last month, the party face-planted in the special election to replace former senator and convicted felon Carlos Uresti, losing a South Texas district that Democrats had held for nearly a century and a half. Before that embarrassing loss, picking off a couple Senate seats and breaking Dan Patrick’s supermajority over the chamber seemed ambitious but doable. Now, Dems have to unseat three Republican senators in districts where voters were varying degrees of “meh” about Trump last election.
Like this year’s bleak race for governor, Huffman’s name on the list of must-flip Senate seats is another reminder of the steep odds the left faces in Texas. If anything, Huffman could actually be harder to beat now than last election, when she trounced local lawyer and progressive candidate Rita Lucido by nearly 30 points. Earlier this month, the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board grudgingly endorsed Huffman, largely as props for her pushing a bill to fix Houston’s pension woes through the Legislature last year.
Lucido, who is again challenging Huffman, needs to beat a popular incumbent who crushed her just four years ago — and that’s just one of the dominoes that must fall for Dems to have a chance at reining in Patrick’s power next session.
That puts the contest squarely in the long-shot-but-worth-watching category, a race that could later help us gauge how well the much-ballyhooed blue wave delivers or disappoints this election.