Texas Democrats: Not as impotent in Austin as you might think

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Texas Democrats have not won a statewide election since 1994 and hold only a little more than a third of the seats in the Texas House of Representatives and Senate. Given this reality, it would be reasonable to assume that in recent years Democrats have been relatively powerless bystanders in the state capital of what is far and away the nation's largest red state.

That assumption would be incorrect.

Over the past few legislative sessions, Texas Democrats have exercised a considerable amount of influence on the policy process in Austin. And this year, in the Lone Star State's GOP primary, a host of Tea Party/movement conservative candidates skillfully utilized evidence of this Democratic influence to help propel them to victory over their establishment conservative rivals.

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In 2009, a small number of centrist Republicans allied with an overwhelming majority of Democrats to remove Republican Tom Craddick from the Speakership and install Republican Joe Straus as the leader of the Texas House. Since that time, the Straus-led House has been run by a coalition of centrist and center-right conservative Republicans and Democrats.

During the 2013 legislative session, Democrats chaired almost two-fifths of the standing House committees. Reflective of their influence over the legislative agenda, the average Democrat was on the losing side of non-lopsided final passage votes a mere 7 percent of the time during the regular (January-May) and special (May-August) sessions. While the Democratic win rates (the percentage of votes where a legislator cast a final passage vote and was on the winning side) were on average slightly lower than those of the group of centrist conservative Republicans who constituted the core of Team Straus, they were noticeably higher than those of the House's most conservative Republicans. More than half of the Republican representatives had win rates lower than those of every single Democratic representative, including all but two of the Republicans located to the right of the GOP ideological median, whose average win rate (75 percent) was close to 20 points below the Democratic average.

In 2013, the Republican-controlled Texas Senate opted to retain the body's traditional "two-thirds rule" for the regular session. Under this rule, two-thirds of the senators must vote in favor of a motion to allow a bill to move to the floor. This rule, combined with control of more than one-third of the Senate seats (12 of 31), allowed Democratic senators to block legislation they unanimously or near-unanimously opposed during the regular session. Democrats chaired a third of the Senate committees.

The locus of power in the Senate during the 2013 legislative session was within the body's centrist conservative bloc of Republicans, who on final passage votes often allied more frequently with Democrats than with their movement conservative brethren. As a result, in spite of a Senate with a 19-12 Republican majority presided over by a Republican lieutenant governor, the eight most conservative Republican senators had final passage vote win rates lower than those of all 12 Democrats.

The three Republican senators who competed for the party's nomination for a statewide office in the spring were victorious: State Senators Dan Patrick (lieutenant governor), Ken Paxton (attorney general) and Glenn Hegar (comptroller). Patrick and Paxton are firmly part of the movement conservative wing of the party, while Hegar has demonstrated a Gov. Rick Perry-like ability to successfully maintain a foot in both the establishment and Tea Party camps, although in his primary he vanquished a rival who was favored by a majority of the GOP establishment. In 2013, all three senators had final passage vote win rates (Patrick: 72 percent; Paxton: 77 percent; Hegar: 84 percent) that were noticeably lower than those of their two Democratic colleagues who are running for state-wide office this year: gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis (95 percent) and lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte (97 percent).

Quality Tea Party/movement conservative Republicans did extremely well in Texas earlier this year where they competed head-to-head with establishment conservative Republicans in the state-level primaries, winning all of these statewide races as well as four of five state senate contests (the average Senate district contains more than 850,000 people). This success was in no small part due to a reaction to the legislative dynamics described above by the very conservative individuals who comprise a majority of the 7 (first round) to 4 (runoff) percent of Texas adults who voted in the GOP primary. Movement conservative candidates were able to convince many voters that establishment conservative Republicans had failed to utilize the party's legislative majorities to push through sufficiently conservative legislation, and instead had compromised with Democrats to produce "purple" legislation. And while establishment conservative Republicans do not consider compromise to be a dirty word, many movement conservatives in Texas consider compromise and capitulation to be synonyms.

Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy's fellow in political science, the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American studies, and the chair of the Department of Political Science at Rice University.