Ramsey: Maps bolster Republicans in Texas Senate -- especially the top one
Redistricting is when politicians choose their own voters. It’s political as all get out. Officeholders draw districts that contain the highest possible number of supporters and the lowest possible number of opponents, try not to cross any legal lines when they’re doing it and extend their incumbencies by rigging the game from the outset.
It’s a well-known, despised and yet persistent way to hold on to legislative power.
But there’s another game going on after those districts are drawn, best illustrated by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, at the moment the most adept politician in Texas government.
He’s choosing his own senators.
Patrick is backing a current senator, Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway, in her bid for land commissioner, a statewide office. That departure gave Senate mapmakers some room on their redistricting maps, and the redrawn district now includes the home of former Sen. Pete Flores of Pleasanton. Flores lost to Democrat Roland Gutierrez in 2020, and now the Republican is Patrick’s hand-picked candidate for the reconfigured Buckingham district. Patrick wants Flores back in the Senate, where he was a reliable vote for the boss’ priorities.
Republican Ellen Troxclair, a former Austin City Council member, was in that contest for a hot minute, but the big donors and influential trade and interest groups — spurred by endorsements from Buckingham, Patrick and Donald Trump — lined up with the lieutenant governor’s pick.
Troxclair is now running for the Texas House.
Last month, Patrick went to Midland to tell a group of oil and gas people that they weren’t well represented in the Senate. That would have been a surprise to Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo — who represents Midland — if he and Patrick hadn’t tussled before.
The redistricting maps included changes that cut into Seliger’s chances, weakening the strength of the Panhandle, where he lives, while bolstering the political clout of the Permian Basin. Midland produced a Republican challenger, a former board member of the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation named Kevin Sparks, who quickly won a Trump endorsement.
Seliger decided not to seek another term.
Consider the case of Fort Worth Democrat Beverly Powell, whose Tarrant County district was stretched to the west to include the home of Weatherford Republican Phil King, a House member who wants to move up to the Senate. Patrick likes the idea; he quickly endorsed the new entrant, who would be the difference between a Democratic vote and a conservative Republican vote.
You might hear an echo here. After the 2019 legislative session, freshman Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, met with a political activist to talk about the House and the coming election year. Among other things, they listed the members of the House, including fellow Republicans, whose tenure they wouldn’t mind ending.
Patrick is doing what Bonnen threatened, pointing out a difference between the political powers of lieutenant governors and speakers of the House in Texas. Both answer to their constituents, but Bonnen made the mistake of plotting against his.
When Bonnen suggested to an outsider — who recorded the conversation and later made it public — which members should stay and which ones should go, the backlash within the House forced him to give up the speakership. Had he hung on, he’d have been much less powerful in a room of 150 people who choose leaders from their own ranks. Politics is rough and tumble, and the participants have sharp elbows, but electing a speaker is an exercise of trust.
Plotting against the people who elected him turned out to be a fatal mistake.
But lieutenant governors aren’t chosen by senators; they’re chosen by the state’s voters. Speakers answer to their members in a way that lieutenant governors don’t. And turning against senators — so long as you don’t turn against too many of them at once — can even enhance a lite guv’s powers. It’s a punishment to whoever is in the doghouse, and it’s an object lesson for the rest of the senators: See what happens when you’re in my way?
Redistricting offers a bigger opportunity for ambitious legislative leaders — to do with political maps what might not be possible in elections. Patrick’s political team went after Seliger in his last election and got beat. The duty to draw new maps gave his foes another chance, and now Seliger’s on his way out. Powell got into the Senate by defeating a Republican ally of the lite guv.
The new maps favor Republicans, as you should expect when they’re drawn by a Republican majority. But the hidden feature is that those Republicans are indebted to Patrick as they enter the Senate.
It’s good to be king. Or lieutenant governor.
Ross Ramsey is co-founder and executive editor of the Texas Tribune, where this column originally appeared.