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Year in Review: Texas Politics

2013 wasn't supposed to be a very political year, but in this very political state, it became one. Rick Perry got out, others piled in, two new stars grabbed the microphone and jumped into the political spotlight, the Republicans started a contentious bunch of primary races and the Democrats began showing signs of political life.


Rick Perry
announced that he will leave office, just in time for the children born his first year in office to enter high school.

Wendy Davis and Ted Cruz rode their soap boxes into the political stratosphere, with her attempting to jump from the state Senate to the Governor’s Mansion and him kicking the tires on a presidential run, with visits to states that wouldn’t normally be intriguing to a U.S. senator from Texas.

It’s the year the Democrats unveiled new plans to get back into a competitive position in Texas state politics, and the year that the obstacles fell from the Republican political ladder and freed a swarm of candidates to run for statewide office.

2013 was supposed to be a political interim, a year when the focus of Texans interested in civics turned from mostly politics to mostly policy. With a couple of exceptions — including the constitutional amendment on water and the race for mayor in Houston — the ballots were quiet.

The year started with Cruz taking office after his surprise defeat of Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in 2012, and with the Legislature coming to work with a huge Republican contingent that was just short of the supermajority needed to completely ignore the Democrats.

Cruz immediately made it clear that he wasn’t going to follow the longstanding advice to freshman members of any legislative body — that they should take their seats and close their mouths until they have a few years of experience. With a talent for getting in front of cameras and a ready message for Republicans coming out of a disappointing national election in 2012, he ends his first year in office better known to friends and foes than many senators in their second and third terms.

That legislative situation was new, too. A supermajority doesn’t have to listen to a minority, and Republicans in the Texas House who were almost impervious to Democratic influence in 2011 started 2013 ready to talk. What followed got the regular biennial meeting of the Legislature branded “The Kumbaya Session,” with members pulling together on prickly issues from water to the state budget. They restored 2011’s public education cuts. They left that session, the legislative equivalent of a G-rated Pixar movie, and started a series of special sessions that could have been scripted by Quentin Tarantino, focused on messy political issues like redistricting and abortion and women’s health.

Lawmakers forfeited some of the goodwill that marked the first five months of the year. And they made a star of Davis, the Democratic state senator from Fort Worth whose filibuster on abortion and women’s health services marked the end of the first special session. The legislation itself passed in another special session and got Perry’s signature. It’s now being litigated. But the livestreamed event got international attention, and the politician at the focal point — Davis — is now running for governor. She might have run for statewide office without that boost. But with it, she instantly built a fundraising base around the country and kindled hope among Texas Democrats who have been shut out of statewide office for almost two decades.  

A couple of weeks later, the other side of the governor’s race opened up, when Perry announced he wouldn’t be seeking another term in 2014. That freed Attorney General Greg Abbott to get into that race without challenging the incumbent and set up a potential general election next year — assuming both win their primaries — between a couple of candidates with interesting personal stories and easy-to-distinguish political profiles.

Perry’s decision to get out of state politics triggered a game of musical chairs on the Republican side of the ballot. Democrats were free to file for any office; since no Democrats hold statewide posts, the candidates don’t have to defer to any officeholders. On the Republican side, Perry’s move opened Abbott’s job. Dewhurst is the only Republican in statewide executive office trying to hold his current position, but he’s weakened by his loss to Cruz in last year’s U.S. Senate race. Three officeholders who supported him then are opposing him now. Among other things, that means the offices — land commissioner, agriculture commissioner and a state Senate seat — are open.

Since 1994, the last time the Democrats won a statewide race in Texas, all a Republican has had to do is get out of the GOP primary alive. That’s harder this year, with all of the candidates. And the Democrats hope to change the math in November.

A year ago, out-of-state liberals announced a program they call Battleground Texas, designed to organize Texas voters and make the state competitive in November elections. The national math behind that is compelling for both parties: Without Texas’ electoral votes, it would be virtually impossible for a Republican to win the presidency without flipping a number of other states. The Battleground Texas organizers said at the start that they didn’t expect fast results, and that they might not chalk up big wins for four years, or six.

Some Democrats are hoping candidates like Davis — and like state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a San Antonio Democrat running for lieutenant governor — can speed that up and turn the state purple.

Political maps make that proposition more difficult in races for Congress and the state Legislature. Most districts were drawn to favor one party or the other, and only a few could go either way, given the current behavior of voters. Higher turnout could change things in a few districts, but in most, the numbers are set. With some shifts possible here and there, the next versions of the Texas House and Senate, and of the state’s congressional delegation, will probably look a lot like they look right now, with respect to parties.

One more thing about Texas politics in 2013: national politics in 2016. Perry didn’t say he was done with politics — just that he won’t seek another term in the state’s top position. He has not said he wants to run for president again after his ill-fated run for the nomination last time, but he is doing the sorts of things one might do if one wanted to investigate the possibility of another run for national office. Cruz’s explorations, already noted, could put another Texan into the mix.

And this wasn’t even supposed to be a political year.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2013/12/31/2013-year-politics/.

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