Republican lawmakers in the Texas Senate were sitting pretty last year.
For years, the GOP had faced roadblocks to passing some conservative measures by the chamber’s two-thirds rule, which normally required the support of 21 members to get a bill to the floor. With 20 Republicans in the chamber, that left Republicans one short of moving out bills without the help of a single Democrat.
But then in 2015, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led a successful move to lower the threshold from two-thirds to three-fifths. Suddenly, any measure with the backing of all of the chamber’s Republicans had all the support it needed. For that session and the ones that followed in 2017, the GOP effectively ran the Senate floor.
Now, with less than two months until Election Day, Republicans are finding that keeping that supermajority in the Texas Senate is no longer a sure thing.
“We’re emphasizing the possibility of losses,” said Darl Easton, the Republican Party Chairman in Tarrant County, where state Sen. Konni Burton’s re-election bid as seen is a potential toss-up. “The more complacent you become, the more likely it is that you won’t win. We definitely have to keep the voters alert to the possibility of losing some seats. We’re not going to take anything for granted.”
“We are working and making sure we’re leaving no stone unturned,” added Missy Shorey, the Dallas County Republican Party Chairwoman, speaking of the party’s efforts in assisting state Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas. “People in Dallas certainly know there’s no chance that seat is going to flip. [Huffines] is working for every vote out there.”
The Senate is still poised to remain GOP-dominated during next year’s legislative session. What’s at stake for the chamber’s Republicans this election cycle is losing their three-fifths majority — the crucial threshold for bringing legislation to the Senate floor without any support from Democrats.
If at least two of [Konni Burton, Don Huffines, and Joan Huffman] lose their seats this election cycle, the political repercussions could be far-reaching: not only would it loosen Patrick’s stronghold over the upper chamber, Republican senators themselves would have to work across the aisle to get their bills passed.
“When you have to cross the aisle, you have to cross the river and that changes everything,” said Bill Miller, a veteran political consultant and lobbyist. “If [Dan Patrick] were to lose that three-fifths majority, his power would be diminished. That doesn’t mean he won’t be powerful, but he won’t be the most powerful person to ever hold the office — which is what he’s been up to this point.”
“If you haven’t had any power in a while and I give you power, it’s going to be tasty,” he added. “It’s a tasty morsel. If Democrats get back at the table, that will change how the Senate behaves.”
What’s also at risk is the ability to get conservative legislation to the governor. Without a Republican Senate supermajority, Easton said, measures important to hard-line conservatives might not get a hearing in the Texas House — let alone be brought up for debate on the Senate floor.
“Obviously, it’s going to be harder to get conservative stuff through the Senate if we don’t have the numbers, and if we don’t get it through the Senate then the House doesn’t even have to look at it,” Easton said. “It’s politics as usual. The stronger your base is, the more likely it is you’re going to get stuff through the House and eventually to the governor’s desk.”
Miller agreed, adding that Republicans in the Senate might have reason to worry.
“In recent cycles, Republicans have looked at every election cycle as just a reaffirmation of their dominance, and that has absolutely been the case,” he said. “This is the first time in memory where not only is that dominance in question, but there’s a high degree of confidence on the part of Democrats. So it’s a whole new world out there.”
There’s at least some polling evidence to suggest that both Powell and Johnson are in decent shape, though it’s one poll in each case and you know what we say about individual polls. I just want to observe that I wrote about the effect of Dems picking up two Senate seats last year, right after the filing deadline. Patrick could of course seek to eliminate the three-fifths rule in the same way that he eliminated the two-thirds rule; the Senate adopts the rules it abides by each session, and it only takes a majority vote to do so. All I know is that anything that clips Dan Patrick’s wings, even a little bit, is a good thing. Both Powell and Johnson have been endorsed by the DMN, for whatever that’s worth. These are all winnable races. It’s a matter of proving Dems can win in districts that weren’t drawn for them.