When the Legislature convenes in January there’s sure to be fighting. Today’s election may well determine the battle lines.
Currently, the Republicans hold only a four-vote edge over Democrats in the Texas House, but many Democratic incumbents face close races. This political climate favors Republicans and challengers, which leaves many Democrats in danger. In particular, suburban Democrats who won rode 2008’s Obama wave into the state House now find themselves fighting to keep their seats―folks like Houston’s Kristi Thibaut, Round Rock’s Diana Maldonado and Dallas’ Carol Kent. Only two or three sitting Republicans have even moderately close races, while somewhere between 12 and 15 Democrats are in danger. If polls and conventional wisdom are correct, Democrats will lose seats.
The question that will determine next year’s public policy is: how many seats can they hold?
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. 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, has already thrown in his hat to challenge Straus.
With estimates of the budget gap ranging from $18 to $25 billion, the session undoubtedly will bring difficult decisions―what programs to slash, where the state can raise revenue. Additionally, the Legislature will be redrawing congressional districts, would could either level the playing field for both parties or allow Republicans to tighten their electoral hold on the state.
If the Democrats can stave off some of the Tea Party Republican wave, they can offer a strong challenge to Republican leadership, whether it be Chisum or Straus. They will be play a large role in determining who rules, and they can fight for their own policies―social programs and regulatory issues.
If the tides go the other way, and Democrats lose in mass numbers—10 seats or more—next session will be likely turn into a fight between moderate and far right Republicans. If Republicans hold 85-90 seats in the House—in a session with a $20 billion budget gap—state spending may drop to levels not seen in many years—if ever. (In 2003, the GOP held 88 seats and used a $10 billion deficit to cut the budget; some programs still haven’t recovered). That’s a nightmare scenario for some Democrats.
If the polls are right, tonight many Tea Party candidates will come into power. These potential new legislators are anti-establishment candidates, who campaigned for hard-line policies and aren’t used to playing ball with the other side. “I’m everything liberals hate,” boasts 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. If there’s not a sizable Democratic opposition, they’ll likely turn on their more moderate factions of the Grand Old Party.
In this scenario, the Democratic Party will be every man for himself. (And women, yes yes!) During the Craddick years, certain Democrats, known as the Craddick Ds, supported the hardline speaker in exchange for plum committee assignments and some campaigning help. We might see that again. Word is that Chisum has already been inviting some Democrats to his ranch out in West Texas. Individual Ds may be able to maintain fiefdoms of power, but the party will have work hard to cobble together credible opposition.
There’s always a chance the Democrats can hold the line, but everything would have to go their way tonight. Which isn’t exactly what we’re used to seeing.