Texas loses two all-star lawmakers in one week

Texas loses two all-star lawmakers in one week
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This week the Texas GOP House delegation learned it would no longer have two of its all-stars, Reps. Jeb HensarlingThomas (Jeb) Jeb HensarlingRyan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Consumers need a hero, not a hack, to head the CFPB Right scrambles GOP budget strategy MORE and Lamar Smith, on the roster on opening day in January of 2019. That’s like the World Series Champion Houston Astros losing José Altuve and Dallas Keuchel prior to the 2018 season.

Their decision to not seek re-election, for which they were both virtual locks, is unlikely to affect the balance of power in the House, since Republicans should retain both seats. But, the departure of these two heavy hitters raises the prospect that there are some doubts within the GOP that the party will retain its House majority in 2018.

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And, since Texas has the second earliest filing deadline in the country (December 11, one week after Illinois), it’s possible that Hensarling and Smith are merely congressional canaries in the GOP coal mine, with further retirements likely as filing deadlines approach in other states throughout the course of the first seven months of 2018.

 

In the realm of the personal, Smith turns 70 in two weeks and Hensarling’s children will leave for college in a few years. Also, while Smith is quite wealthy and nearing retirement age, the younger and less affluent Hensarling may wish to utilize the experience and contacts developed over the course of his 16-year tenure in Congress to earn a much higher income in the private sector.

In the more salient realm of the political, both Hensarling, Financial Services Committee chairman, and Smith, Committee on Science, Space and Technology chairman, are being forced by GOP Caucus term limits to step down from their current chairmanships. This does not mean that they would not have been able to obtain another influential post in 2019, but there were no guarantees.

Added to this drop in status associated with the loss of a committee chairmanship might have been the growing fear among many Republicans that public displeasure with the Trump administration could drag down enough Republicans in otherwise relatively safe seats to cost the party its House majority next year. And, as anyone who has lived through the transition from majority to minority status in the U.S. House knows, it is not a pleasant experience, and it is not difficult to imagine a longtime incumbent being less than enthusiastic about the possibility of returning to minority status in 2019.

Hensarling is from a solidly Republican district (5th) that has its population base in the eastern portion of Dallas County, but then spreads out into East Texas. Unlike the case in the state’s Republican-held 7th, 23rd and 32nd districts, which Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGrassley blasts Democrats over unwillingness to probe Clinton GOP lawmakers cite new allegations of political bias in FBI Top intel Dem: Trump Jr. refused to answer questions about Trump Tower discussions with father MORE won in 2016, President Trump is quite popular in the 5th, having won 62.5 percent of the vote there in 2016, only 2 percent below Mitt Romney’s 64.5 percent in 2012 (statewide Trump’s 52.2 percent was 4.9 percent lower than Romney’s 57.1 percent). There is no chance whatsoever Democrats will be able to improve their prospects of taking back the House by flipping the 5th. 

Hensarling’s successor will be equally or more conservative than Hensarling, reflecting the current ideological profile of the East Texas GOP primary voters who constitute a substantial majority of the Republican primary electorate in the district. Potential successors include state Sen. Bryan Hughes, former state Rep. Kenneth Sheets and former Florida Rep. Allen West, who now resides in the Dallas area.

While not falling among the Texas House districts in either the category of a toss up (23rd) or Republican-leaning (7th and 32nd), Smith’s district (21st) nonetheless could conceivably be flipped if a perfect storm occurred: Democrats run, and adequately fund, a high quality candidate, Trump’s approval ratings crater over the next 12 months, and the Republican nominee possesses serious flaws. Trump is not well liked by the district’s voters, receiving only 51.9 percent of their support in 2016, compared to 59.8 percent for Romney four years earlier. 

The Texas Republican Party, however, has a deep bench of talented potential candidates who could keep the 21st in GOP hands even in the event of a significant anti-Trump wave at the national and state level. These include state Sen. Dawn Buckingham (Austin), state Rep. Jason Issac (San Marcos) and former Bexar County Sheriff Susan Pamerleau (San Antonio). 

The Austin-San Antonio corridor where the 2lst is located is among Texas’s most gerrymandered regions, and thus issues of residency are less salient in the 21st than elsewhere, since the district contains portions of five distinct communities (San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Austin, and six rural Texas Hill Country counties to the west). 

Hensarling and Smith’s decisions to retire this week could be a mere coincidence, and not represent the start of a broader trend of GOP retirements during the 2018 cycle. However, the 2018 electoral season for Republican members of Congress begins for all intents and purposes in the Lone Star State, with most other state deadlines still more than four to eight months away. Therefore, the departure of these two powerbrokers could signal that at least some Republican insiders are not overly optimistic about the party’s prospects in November of 2018, and that more GOP retirements are possible, especially if President Trump’s approval ratings drop even further as 2018 progresses.

Mark P. Jones is the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy’s fellow in political science and the Joseph D. Jamail chair in Latin American Studies at Rice University as well as a co-author of “Texas Politics Today: 2017-2018 Edition.” Follow him @MarkPJonesTX.