It only stands to reason that, if the state’s general elections generally fall to the people from one political party, much of the competition would move to the party primaries.
And that, with a speaker of the Texas House deciding not to seek re-election, the factions within that majority Republican Party would be vying for supremacy now — the better to control who succeeds the outgoing speaker.
Or that the state’s chief executive and his number two — frustrated last year by resistance from the socially moderate wing of their party — would be acting to silence some of that wing’s louder voices with endorsements, campaign advertising and any other means they can find.
That’s the layout, more or less, for the primaries that a select few Texans will be voted in. Most races at the top of your ballot weren't all that interesting. The consequential parts of the 2018 party primaries — particularly on the Republican side — were down there in the legislative contests.
House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is on his way out. Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are involved in separate but parallel efforts to strengthen the social conservative faction in the Legislature, and members of that faction’s Freedom Caucus in the House are talking openly about increasing their numbers and dominating the debate over Straus’ successor.
Straus, if you haven’t binged on earlier episodes of this political drama, has been the head of the institutional foil — the House — to Patrick, leader of the social conservatives. Midway through the regular session in 2017, the governor more or less joined the lieutenant governor’s side, but for all of their combined strength, the two couldn’t force all of their pet issues through the House.
Straus’ decision to leave at the end of his term gives them — and others — an opening. Several races up and down the legislative ballot featured candidates from one end of the GOP’s pool running against the kids from the other end.
Republicans of all stripes have talked about picking a candidate among themselves and then sticking together to thwart wannabe speakers with bipartisan support. With that strategy in mind, each group within the GOP is working through this election season to increase its numbers within the Republican Caucus.
There are lots of Republican races, but some of them figure more directly into the conversation about what the GOP contingent in the 86th Legislature will look like, and who’ll be in the 150 seats when the House picks a new speaker. The list includes Dan Flynn, Ernest Bailes, Paul Workman, Hugh Shine, Giovanni Capriglione, Charlie Geren, Jason Villalba from outside the House’s most conservative wing, and some — Mike Lang, Kyle Biedermann and Valorie Swanson — from within those ranks.
Counting winners and losers from those races will be fundamental to counting votes for the next speaker — if it turns out that the next speaker is chosen on ideological grounds. (Relationships and ambition often trump party in these matters.)
Both Abbott and Patrick face relatively weak primary opponents (though Patrick is spending like a candidate who’s taking his challengers very seriously). Both leaders’ campaigns have spent significant time on other races. Patrick has so far stuck with the Senate, where he and his consultants are working to protect Republican Sens. Bob Hall and Joan Huffman, and trying to defeat Sens. Craig Estes and Kel Seliger.
Abbott’s attention has been on the House, where he’s endorsed a number of Republican incumbents but attacked three: Sarah Davis, Lyle Larson and Wayne Faircloth.
It’s not just the Republicans. Texas Democrats, for all of their weaknesses in statewide races, hope to increase their numbers in the Texas House this year, adding five to ten members to the 55 already there. That wouldn’t make a majority — the Republicans have 95 at the moment — but in a House where some believe the next speaker will be elected by the biggest political bloc, the Democrats’ numbers are important. Straus himself was initially elected in 2009 after a coalition of most of the Democrats and about a dozen-and-a-half Republicans publicly backed him, forcing Tom Craddick of Midland to end his bid for another term at the job.
The general elections will decide the number of seats for the Republicans and the Democrats. That can wait. The primaries on March 6 will decide, with the help of runoffs, which Republicans and which Democrats get on the November ballot, and into the House and Senate.
You’ll know a lot about the next Texas Legislature on March 7.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.