Ross Ramsey maps the strengthening of Republicans in the Senate – especially the first
Redistribution is when politicians choose their own voters. It’s political as everything is going. The incumbents draw districts that contain the largest possible number of supporters and the fewest possible number of opponents, try not to cross any legal lines when they do, and expand their duties by rigging the game from the start.
It is a well-known, despised and yet persistent way of clinging to legislative power.
But there’s another game going on after these districts draw, best exemplified by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, currently the most skilled politician in the Texas government.
He chooses his own senators.
Patrick is supporting a current senator, Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway, in her candidacy for the commissioner of lands, a statewide office. This departure gave Senate cartographers some room on their redistribution maps, and the redesigned district now includes the home of former Senator Pete Flores of Pleasanton. Flores lost to Democrat Roland Gutierrez in 2020, and now the Republican is Patrick’s handpicked candidate for the reconfigured district of Buckingham. Patrick wants Flores to return to the Senate, where he was a reliable vote for the boss’s priorities.
Republican Ellen Troxclair, a former Austin City Council member, entered the contest for a hot minute, but major donors and influential business and interest groups – spurred on by endorsements from Buckingham, Patrick and Donald Trump – aligned with the choice of lieutenant governor.
Troxclair is now a Texas House candidate.
Last month Patrick traveled to Midland to tell a group of people in the oil and gas industry that they were not well represented in the Senate. It would have come as a surprise to Senator Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo – who represents Midland – if he and Patrick had not fought before.
The redistribution maps included changes that reduced Seliger’s chances, weakening the strength of the Panhandle, where he lives, while also increasing the political clout of the Permian Basin. Midland produced a Republican challenger, a former conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation board member named Kevin Sparks, who quickly won Trump’s backing.
Seliger has decided not to run for another term.
Take the case of Fort Worth Democrat Beverly Powell, whose Tarrant County district stretched west to include the home of Weatherford’s Republican Phil King, a House member who wants to go to the Senate. Patrick likes the idea; he quickly endorsed the new entrant, who would make the difference between a Democratic vote and a conservative Republican vote.
You might hear an echo here. Following the 2019 legislative session, first-year House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and State Representative Dustin Burrows R-Lubbock met with a political activist to talk about the House and the upcoming election year. Among other things, they listed members of the House, including their fellow Republicans, whose tenure they wouldn’t mind ending.
Patrick does what Bonnen threatened, pointing out a difference between the political powers of lieutenant governors and House Speakers in Texas. Both respond to their constituents, but Bonnen made the mistake of plotting against his own.
When Bonnen suggested to a stranger – who recorded the conversation and later made it public – which members should stay and which should leave, backlash in the House forced him to step down as president. If he had hung on, he would have been much less powerful in a room of 150 people who choose leaders from their own ranks. Politics are rough and tumultuous, and elbows are tight, but electing a speaker is an exercise in confidence.
Plotting against those who elected him turned out to be a fatal mistake.
But lieutenant governors are not chosen by senators; they are chosen by the voters of the state. Speakers respond to their members in a way that lieutenant governors do not. And turning against Senators – as long as you don’t turn against too many of them at once – can even improve the powers of a small guv. It is punishment for whoever is in the doghouse, and it is an object lesson for the rest of the senators: See what happens when you get in my way?
The redistribution offers a greater opportunity for ambitious legislative leaders – to do with political cards what may not be possible in elections. Patrick’s political team attacked Seliger in his last election and was beaten. The duty to draw new maps gave his enemies another chance, and now Seliger is about to leave. Powell entered the Senate defeating a Republican ally in the small government.
The new cards favor Republicans, as you would expect when drawn by a Republican majority. But the hidden feature is that these Republicans are beholden to Patrick when they enter the Senate.
It’s good to be king. Or lieutenant governor.
Ross Ramsey is co-founder and editor of the Texas Tribune, where this column originally appeared.