Few Surprises on Election Day

For the seasoned political observer, there were few surprises on Election Day. While the presidential popular vote was very close, many pundits were not surprised by the Democratic dominance of the Electoral College. You can make up your own mind about why what happened in the presidential race – too many variables for this observer to contemplate, let alone explain, the day after the election.

The Republican failure to make progress in the US Senate was also predictable after two of the supposed-to-win candidates put their proverbial foot in their mouth making offensive comments about rape and unwanted pregnancy; once again – not a surprise.

The Republicans had such a large majority in the US House that not even the most optimistic Democrat expected that to change; completely predictable. The Texas congressional races went pretty much according to the incumbent party except for one modest surprise. In CD 23 Democratic candidate Pete Gallego (a sitting Texas House member) upset incumbent Republican Francisco Conseco. It was only a modest surprise because Conseco’s district had been changed this time around and he knew he was in for a genuine contest.

Texas has four more seats in the Congress this election due to population growth. The new seats split three for Democrats and one for Republicans. The new Texas delegation to the US House of Representative will include 24 Republicans and 12 Democrats compared to 23 and 9 last year.

In those Texas statewide races (Supreme Court Justices, Appellate Court Judges and Railroad Commissioners) everyone knew the Republicans would sweep. About the only statewide question is whether the new State Board of Education make-up is more or less conservative than the last one, and I can’t help you on that one.

The Texas Senate ended with the same number of Republicans and Democrats as the last session, 19 Rs and 12 Ds. Republicans hoped to defeat Sen. Wendy Davis (HD 10 – Fort Worth) but Rep. Mark Shelton came up short. The district was drawn to be a Republican district, but Davis’ popularity in Fort Worth carried the day. It was clearly the most competitive race in the state and I’m guessing one of the most expensive. All the other races fell along party lines as expected. The Senate will likely be more conservative than last session with four new senators decidedly more conservative than those they replaced. Sen. Mario Gallegos (D-Houston) died shortly before the election, too late to remove his name from the ballot, and he won. A special election will be held in January to fill the vacant seat which will undoubtedly go to a Democrat.

With more conservative senators, the question of eliminating the two-thirds rule will again be in play. The Senate rules require a two-thirds majority to bring a bill to the floor for debate. The rule allows the minority party to have more clout and forces a more collegial atmosphere; it is designed to reduce partisanship. Some Republicans don’t like the rule or the premise. The rule was discussed before the last session with some suggesting changing it to sixty percent rather than two-thirds. Of course sixty percent would mean the Republicans could bring bills to the floor without any Democratic support, so it is tantamount to eliminating the rule. The last two sessions Republicans did change the rules to provide exceptions to the two-thirds rule for certain specific legislation, such as Voter ID. That could happen again this session if the rule stays intact.

Republicans enjoyed a 102-member State House of Representative super majority in the last legislative session, but absolutely no one expected that too continue. Democrats picked up seven seats so they are still outnumbered 95-55 which sounds like only a marginal improvement for Democrats. But it does mean the Republicans have to get at least five Democrats to agree to pass anything requiring a two-thirds majority (such as proposed constitutional amendments). It also means the Republicans can’t have a quorum without some Democrats present.

The Republicans could have ruled the House during the last session without a single Democratic vote – or even presence – but Speaker Joe Straus was reluctant to use the two-thirds majority like a club. Republicans used the club about twice during the session. Democrats complained so vociferously that Straus wouldn’t allow the tactic again for the rest of the session. Straus first became speaker in the 2009 session with the support of the Democrats in a successful effort to unseat the existing Speaker, Tom Craddick (R-Midland). With Straus’ reluctance to use the club, losing the club is not as big a deal as it might have been.

The next potential for surprise would be the Speaker’s race. The House members elect their speaker on the first day of the legislative session. Straus was challenged last session by Ken Paxton (R-McKinney) to no avail. There was a lot of fanfare, but Paxton never was anywhere near the votes to unseat Straus. Paxton has moved on to the Senate, but in his place Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) announced, even before the election, that he was challenging Straus for the speakership. There is no doubt that with about 40 new House members, there will be a few more anti-Straus members than last session, but odds are still in Straus’ favor. It takes 76 members to elect a speaker. Straus has run for speaker on the platform of allowing the members to dictate the House agenda and has allowed members to have their say in most situations; it’s hard to imagine most of the Democrats abandoning Straus in favor of Hughes. If you assume all the Democrats will vote for Straus (and I realize the dangers of assumptions), he only needs 21 Republicans to vote for him. While the assumption will likely not be accurate, it points out the hill Hughes has to climb to be competitive. If Straus is defeated for Speaker – now that will be a surprise!

Regardless of who is Speaker, the House will likely be more conservative than last session. More conservative Republicans were elected and even if Straus is the Speaker, if he lives up to his promise for his leadership to reflect the will of the House, it will be a more conservative House. If the 83rd Texas Legislature is more conservative than those in the past, is that a good thing or a bad thing? You have to decide that one.

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