After every major election, it seems I find myself writing an obituary for the Texas Democratic party. It's not a true obituary, I suppose, since the Democrats are not exactly dead, just comatose. This year brought a rare combination of considerable early optimism by Democrats, followed by the worst pasting yet by Republicans.
I spent much of the past few months trying to make sense of Dan Patrick, the state senator from Houston who will become Texas's next lieutenant governor in January. The full profile, which will appear in our December issue, is online now. Here's a representative excerpt:
Yesterday morning, President Obama made a call for Net Neutrality—something that many on the Internet have been lobbying the President to do for years. Shortly thereafter, Senator Ted Cruz weighed in with a tweet that quickly attracted a lot of attention.
School is supposed to be a place where students feel safe. Every day, parents entrust their children with school officials with the understanding that they will be secure, supported, and free from harm. But it appears that dozens of North Texas schools have thrown that sense of trust into question with some disturbing disciplinary actions.
News of exorbitant executive compensation, even in the face of bankruptcy, has become almost the dog-bites-man story of the business section.
On January 23, 2013, the Texas Senate took up a minor administrative matter that would prove to be surprisingly consequential. The issue at hand had been dangling for several years. The 2010 census had captured a changing Texas: the state was younger, more urban, and less Anglo than it had been in 2000, and it had grown by about four million people. While demographers and economists and sociologists mulled how these trends would shape Texas’s future, politicians prepared for battle. For them, the census had an immediate implication: it was time for another round of redistricting. Or another few rounds, really. The Republican-controlled Legislature had produced a new set of electoral maps during the 2011 session, but Democratic groups challenged them as discriminatory. Not until 2012, after several rounds of legal wrangling, did federal judges approve the new maps.
The result was that the men and women elected to the Lege in 2012 represented new districts. And at the beginning of the next regular session, in January 2013, the Senate had to wrap up one last bit of business related to the redistricting. Senate terms are four years long, but the state constitution requires that elections for Senate seats be staggered. Half of the senators serving in the 2013 session would be assigned a four-year term; the others would get a special two-year term.
The matter was handled with Victorian gravitas and Elizabethan technology. John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston who is the longest-serving member in the chamber, laid out a resolution explaining the process. The secretary of the Senate, Patsy Spaw, would produce 31 slips of paper, numbered from 1 to 31. She would place each piece of paper in a capsule and place each capsule in a separate envelope. She would then place the envelopes in a bowl. Five senators, appointed by lieutenant governor David Dewhurst, would supervise these preparations. Then Spaw would summon the senators, in alphabetical order, to pick a number. Those who drew odd numbers would have a four-year term. The others would have to run again in 2014, regardless of whether they had just slogged through an election in 2012.
For the senators with aspirations for higher office, the drawing was nerve-racking. Texas’s leadership had been largely unchanged for more than a decade. Rick Perry became governor in 2000, after George W. Bush was elected president. Dewhurst was elected in 2002, as was Greg Abbott, the attorney general. In January 2013, though, it looked as if Perry was preparing to move on. If so, the domino effect would create opportunities all the way down the ballot in 2014. Glenn Hegar, a Republican from Katy, left the dais with a smile. He was considering a run for comptroller, and his draw of a four-year term meant that he could do so without giving up his Senate seat. Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, folded her slip of paper precisely and walked back to her desk with a coolly blank expression as Spaw announced the verdict: a two-year term. She had just been reelected in November, in the Senate’s closest and most expensive contest of the year, and had been mentioned as a possible candidate for governor. She would have to choose a race in 2014, and neither option was a sure thing.
For once, few people were paying attention to Dan Patrick, a Republican from Houston, as he approached the dais. Since his first session in the Senate, in 2007, he had made an outsized impression. A talk-radio host by background, Patrick had brought drama to the normally staid Senate; during that first session, he left the chamber rather than listen to an imam give the day’s opening invocation. He filed a bill proposing to give women $500 to choose adoption rather than abortion. He turned up one morning with a million dollars in bundled bills, which he displayed on a table outside his office to illustrate the point that a million dollars in the state budget is a lot of money.
That first session showed what kind of senator Patrick would be: independent, energetic, outspoken, and full of contradictions. In response to qualms about the abortion-alternative bill making it seem as if women would be paid to have babies, for example, he scoffed, “I seriously doubt any woman would get pregnant, carry the child for nine months, and give birth for the equivalent of one week’s pay at McDonald’s.”
By 2013 Patrick had amassed more experience and power than anyone would have predicted ten years earlier, when he was just a Houston shock jock, perhaps best known for having undergone a vasectomy during a live broadcast. Like Hegar and Davis, he was considered a potential candidate for statewide office in 2014. In particular, he was thought to be interested in his boss’s job—the lieutenant governor’s office is arguably the most powerful in the state. In practice, Perry was a strong governor, but constitutionally the office is a relatively weak one. The governor can veto bills, call the Legislature into special session, and make appointments. The lieutenant governor runs the Senate by controlling which legislation makes it to the floor. Several, like Bill Hobby and Bob Bullock, used the office to essentially run Texas.
For Patrick, there were a number of reasons to view the 2014 cycle as a now-or-never moment. Since his first election, the Republican party of Texas had moved further right—that is, it had moved in his direction. And at 63, Patrick was older than people would guess. If he wanted to be lieutenant governor, he would probably never have a better chance than in 2014. But he would have to gamble his high-profile perch in the Senate to take a swing at it. Winning would make him one of the most influential officials in Texas. Losing would effectively mean an abrupt end to his unlikely political career.
Patrick returned to his desk and leaned back in his chair, stretching out his legs and slowly drumming his fingers on his armrest. The controversial senator from Houston, in this uncharacteristically pensive posture, stared into the empty vertical space between the gallery and his colleagues on the Senate floor. His envelope had contained an unlucky capsule. He had drawn a two-year term.
True to form, Patrick would decide to roll the dice. And on November 4, 2014, he was elected lieutenant governor of Texas.
Dear Governor-elect Abbott,
There were a few moments when it seemed that the governor's race might produce some excitement, but reality quickly settled in. Greg Abbott buried Wendy Davis beneath piles and piles of money and videos, and there was nothing Davis could do to counter him. Texas is a Republican state and nothing is likely to change that in the foreseeable future.
As the returns are started to roll in--find updated results here--here are a few quick thoughts:
1. As the race in CD23 begins to take shape, the only competitive Congressional seat from Texas looks be breaking Republican. Challenger Will Hurd is leading Democratic incumbent Pete Gallego 53-44%.
UPDATED AT 7:25: The polls have closed, and the early vote totals are coming in. Here are some of the quick results, with a whooping 1% of the vote having been counted:
VAN DE PUTTE: 41%