If anything changes in Texas politics in 2018, it will probably be the work of voters — not mapmakers.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to stick with the state’s current political maps will preserve, for now, the Republican advantages that are baked into these particular biscuits. Specifically, that’s a 25-11 Republican-Democratic split in the congressional delegation, a 20-11 split in the Texas Senate and a 95-55 split in the Texas House. And it appears to squelch efforts by minority and Democratic groups to try to win in the courts some of the districts they've been unable to win at the polls. But the courts still have time to mess with the state’s 2018 elections.
The primaries are set for March 6. Judges say they don’t like disrupting elections, but they’ve done it before and nothing’s preventing them from doing it again.
Delays can be consequential. Just ask U.S. Sen. David Dewhurst.
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Dewhurst served 12 years as the state’s lieutenant governor but never made it to Washington. He was the pre-emptive favorite going into the 2012 race for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. But a court-ordered delay in the primaries — to May from March — and a late wave of financial support for a lawyer named Ted Cruz pushed Dewhurst into a July runoff, which he lost to Cruz.
That’s the latest incidence of the courts messing with dates, but it’s not the only one, or even the biggest.
In 1996, Texas held its March primaries just as it always does. Redistricting maps were being contested in the courts, just as they always are. But after that year’s primaries, the courts decided that the state’s congressional lines were unlawful. They ordered special elections in 13 of the state’s 30 congressional districts (Texas has since gained six more districts due to population growth). Candidates who had lost in March got another chance. Candidates who thought they were all but elected had to get back in the saddle and run in a special election that featured Democrats and Republicans on the same ballots.
In 2006, another court decision in another redistricting case forced the state to hold do-overs in five congressional districts. Once again, they threw out March primary results and ordered special elections, this time concurrent with the November general elections.
One candidate — Democrat Ciro Rodriguez of San Antonio, a state representative — lost the March primary in the 28th Congressional District that year. Given another chance under new maps drawn by the courts, he ran in a differently drawn 23rd Congressional District in the special election. He got less than 20 percent of the vote, but it was enough to make it into a runoff with incumbent U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-San Antonio. Rodriguez won — nine months after it appeared his hopes of going to Congress had been dashed.
Do-overs like those are not common, but they do happen.
This year, a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio has found fault with two districts in the state’s congressional maps and nine districts on the Texas House map. Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court said the maps for those districts should be left alone while the state’s appeal of the lower court rulings proceed.
For now, that means the contenders for the U.S. House and the Texas House will run in the same political districts used in the 2016 and 2014 elections. If the Supreme Court decides, sometime between now and November 2018, that the lower court was right and the maps are illegal, they can order corrections and new elections.
The minority and Democratic groups seeking changes to the state’s political geography are running out of time. Texas has been through three election cycles since the 2010 census — the normal prompt for drawing new political maps — and the reapportionment and redistricting that followed. Only two elections remain before 2020. Then it’ll be time to restart the cycle: Count the population, decide how to divvy things up and race to the court to fight over the results.
Ross Ramsey is executive editor and co-founder of The Texas Tribune.