In early October, Kel Seliger took the floor of the Texas Senate to vote against a bill that would have opened the door to audits of the 2020 presidential election results that Donald Trump had called for in the state, though he won here by more than 600,000 votes. The state senator from Amarillo, who a week earlier had decried the bill as “a million dollars [for an] expensive comedy,” was the only member of his party in the chamber to vote against the legislation. (The House ignored the bill and it died when the special legislative session adjourned October 19. Governor Greg Abbott announced that the state was already auditing the 2020 results in four of the largest counties, and in November added some additional funding for the effort, tweeting that it would be the “most comprehensive forensic audit in the country.”)

About an hour after Seliger’s vote, Trump endorsed the senator’s primary opponent, Kevin Sparks, a Midland oil and gas executive. The day after the special session’s close, Seliger, the second-most-senior Republican in the Senate, announced he would not run for office again.

Seliger, 68, had never lost an election, but says it was his time to leave politics. After growing up in the small city of Borger, fifty miles northeast of Amarillo, and graduating from Dartmouth College, Seliger spent 35 years in his family-owned steel business. He served as a city commissioner in Amarillo, was elected to four terms as mayor, and then won a seat in the state Senate in 2004. The rural Thirty-first Senate District spanned 37 counties from the Panhandle to the Permian Basin and was the most Republican Senate district in the state of Texas: Trump carried it by 58 percentage points in 2020. 

Breaking with his party, however, was not unusual for the senator. Seliger, who chaired the Select Committee on Redistricting after the 2010 census, was the only Republican last year to vote against the new redistricting plan for state Senate districts. In a sworn declaration submitted in November as part of an ongoing federal court challenge to the new map, Seliger asserted that the redrawing of Senate District 10, currently represented by Beverly Powell, a Democrat, violated the federal Voting Rights Act. The current district—43 percent Anglo, 31 percent Hispanic, 21 percent Black, and 5 percent Asian—is located entirely within Tarrant County, with most voters living in Fort Worth and Arlington. The new lines would shift the district to include several rural counties to the south and west. It would go from a district that Trump lost in 2020 by 8 percentage points to one he would have won by 16 points. 

Seliger also argued that his district had been redrawn “to benefit a potential Republican primary challenger from Midland preferred by the Lieutenant Governor,” namely Sparks. In an extensive January 19 deposition in the case, Seliger said that he had experienced the “profound and vindictive” reprisals Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick meted out to those who defied him. But when it came to voting against the new redistricting maps he felt that there was “not much else that the lieutenant governor can take from me.”

As a champion of the traditional conservative values of small government and local control, Seliger was at odds with the new brand of social conservatism taking hold in the state, and has long been in Patrick’s crosshairs. After Seliger bucked Patrick during the 2017 session, on a “school choice” bill that subsidized private education and a property-tax plan that would have hamstrung local governments’ ability to raise taxes as they saw fit, Patrick stripped the senator of his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee and other plum assignments at the outset of the 2019 session. Then, when Patrick didn’t like Seliger’s responses to having his chairmanship stripped, he stripped him of a lesser chairmanship he had given him in its stead. “Once you cross Patrick, you’re going to get punished. That’s the law of the land. He’s the high sheriff,” Bill Miller, a prominent Austin lobbyist who admires Seliger as “an independent soul,” explained. “Kel crossed him and he got punished.” 

Yet while Seliger stood up to Patrick more than any other Senate Republican, he was not prepared to work with Democrats to try to limit the lieutenant governor’s powers. In 2015, when Republicans held 20 of the 31 seats in the Senate, Seliger voted to lower the threshold of votes required to bring a bill to the floor, from 21 to 19—effectively aiding Patrick’s efforts to eliminate the need for any Democrats to buy into legislation before it could pass. Then, in 2021, even with all Patrick had put him through, Seliger fell in line with him and all other Senate Republicans in lowering the threshold yet again to 18 votes, mirroring the number of seats the GOP held in the chamber that year.

On the day of his voting rights deposition, Texas Monthly spoke with Seliger about redistricting, the erosion of local control as a foundational conservative principle, and whether he could and should have done more to rein in Dan Patrick’s power to rule the Senate without any need to seek common cause with Democrats. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Texas Monthly: How are you feeling about your decision not to seek reelection?

Kel Seliger: It was the right decision at the right time. Everybody has to leave some time. And the timing just seemed right.

TM: Did the redrawing of your district influence your decision not to run again?

KS:  Not significantly. And the reason is that while there was an attempt for it to affect me, it really doesn’t. Even though it takes away counties in the Panhandle and moves the district down close to Midland to favor the candidate there, all those counties are rural counties. As a general rule, some of the most important influences in those rural counties are, as they should be, the school districts and local government, county commissions and city councils, and, as a rule, they don’t like Texas Public Policy Foundation [a right-wing think tank that has guided the Republican agenda in Austin for more than a decade, and on whose board Sparks has served], and they don’t like their candidates.

TM: In your declaration in the federal voting rights lawsuit, you describe the redrawing of the lines in your district as a transparent attempt to make it harder for you to win a primary. In the case of Senator Powell’s district, which was also a target of redistricting efforts in 2010, you contend that “it was obvious to me that the renewed effort to dismantle SD 10 violated the Voting Rights Act and the Constitution.” But in your deposition, you explain that the declaration was prepared by Senator Powell and you just signed it. Does the document accurately reflect your thinking? 

KS: It was prepared by Senator Powell, and I think it says [the redrawing of SD 10] is a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act. I don’t really believe that, but I signed that thing for Senator Powell and certainly it was the only opportunity to forward my feelings about my district. It’s a bit of an overstatement, but [the plaintiffs in the suit] weren’t going to change their filing for my declaration, which doesn’t have a lot of weight alone anyway. And so I didn’t ask them to change it to suit my preference. I signed it because I didn’t like my district, and I thought there might be a problem with Senator Powell’s district, and that’s all it is.

TM: Do you think there is a fairer way to redistrict?

KS: An alternative that people talk about is an impartial redistricting commission. At the end of the day, it is still a partial system, because you can have an impartial commission, they can all be native-born Lithuanians, but it is going to be a partisan Legislature that approves or disapproves that piece of legislation. People saying the process is now impartial and valid because they have these commissions are either naive or clueless.

TM: Your district is very much MAGA country. Are you worried about Trump’s continued grip on the party and its base?

KS: I’m not worried about Trump’s hold on the party. I’m worried about the growing embrace of authoritarianism, both in the state and the nation, where both governors and presidents think that if they don’t have a willing legislature, that they will simply govern by executive order. That’s legislating, and the executive should not be allowed to do it. 

I’m concerned about the future of the Republican party because I think we’re tearing ourselves apart. I think there is the Republican party that grew out of Reagan’s leadership. And I think there’s a new authoritarian, far-right-wing Republican party. And if you’ve got Republicans alienating Republicans, that’s not how we built our strong majority in the state of Texas.

TM: Even after your decades of service, does Trump come between you and your constituents?

KS: Long before I made the decision that I wasn’t going to run, Donald Trump, I assume at the request of the lieutenant governor, endorsed Kevin Sparks and called me a RINO [Republican in name only]. Keep in mind, Donald Trump doesn’t know me from anybody. He endorsed my opponent, said I was a RINO, and that I was just like Mitt Romney. Well, the person politically I would most like to be compared with, after Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, is Mitt Romney. So, the president called me a RINO and then paid me a great compliment. 

I have always been a Republican, because through my lifetime, [the party] always stood for fiscal responsibility and smaller government. It no longer does. But I can’t be anything else. What I can do is play whatever role to help us get back to what I think that our fundamental values are as Republicans, and that is fiscal conservatism and smaller government. 

TM: The governor, up for reelection, seems more in the thrall of Trump than ever.

KS: Greg Abbott has a very good political compass. He realizes the political implications of everything he says and does.

TM: How would you describe your relationship with the governor?

KS: I think it’s cordial. We don’t get into these differences of opinion because right now the best candidate for governor by far is Greg Abbott.

TM: The morning of January 19, Abbott described TPPF as the “premier policy organization in the entire United States.” Abbott has been guided by the TPPF credo that “liberty, not local control, is the overriding principle that should inform and direct our public policymakers.” Doesn’t this make the governor, in your view, the enemy of local control?

KS: The governor may be confused, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is, and what local control really is, is smaller government, more accessible and responsive government. Always has been. Let me just say, while the governor is saying TPPF is the finest public policy organization in the country, I think it’s a cancer on the Texas body politic. 

TM: You occupy space that is probably close to the center of gravity of state politics, but a poor fit with either party. Where do you think you fit best?

KS: The Republican party is not a centrist party in the state of Texas right now. I’m far more of a centrist. I voted with my Republican colleagues eightysomething percent of the time, which is a lot. And I apologize for none of that.

TM: Do you see a way past the current polarization?

KS: Our country and state are polarized now. We always kind of move back to the center and we will do that again. But I’m afraid, as Republicans, I think it’s going to cost us a lot before that happens. The loss of majority and the loss of leadership positions and things like that. And when we find out how costly this divisiveness is in our own party, we’ll decide it’s better to work together instead of trying to work off of two Republican parties.

TM: Dan Patrick entered the Senate in 2007 and was elected lieutenant governor in 2014. What was the first sign that your relationship might be problematic? 

KS: I think it became problematic in 2013, when I passed probably the only dark-money bill that’s been passed in the United States. [The bill, SB 346, would have required some politically active, tax-exempt, nonprofits to disclose their donors.] It passed the Senate. Senator Patrick voted for it. And then I think TPPF prevailed on him. And he did something that nobody around here had ever seen before. He introduced a motion on the floor of the Senate to call the bill back from the House, so it could be voted against. But the bill had already been sent to committee in the House, so it could not be called back by the Senate. It passed the House. And then Rick Perry vetoed it. 

TM: You opposed two of Patrick’s thirty priorities in the 2017 session: a “school choice” plan that would have subsidized private school and homeschooling costs, and a bill restricting local government’ abilities to raise property taxes. The school choice plan died in the House. The Legislature also failed to enact property tax reform that year, but successfully returned to the issue two years later. You ultimately gave Patrick the nineteenth vote he needed to get the bill to the floor, where it passed even though you voted against it. In retrospect, do you regret giving him that procedural victory? 

KS: He was gonna get what he wanted anyway.

TM: You paid a price at the start of the 2019 session for your two votes against the Patrick agenda in 2017: he stripped you of your committee chairmanship and memberships on three committees, and you were the only senator never recognized to bring one of your bills up for a vote. Did that surprise you?

KS: Did I know that Patrick’s vindictiveness had that kind of depth? I was surprised by that because vindictiveness and true leadership ought to be mutually exclusive.

I’m told there’s a term around the Senate called being Seligered. And that is, if you don’t do what the lieutenant governor wants you to do, you will be severely punished. It’s what happened to Kelly Hancock [a Republican whom Patrick removed as chair of the Business and Commerce Committee last year when he didn’t go along with the lieutenant governor’s attempt to reverse electricity charges consumers had to pay during last February’s deep freeze and grid failure]. It’s what happened to Craig Estes [a Republican who abstained from voting to lower the vote threshold needed to bring a bill to the floor in 2015 and was stripped of his chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee and removed from the Finance Committee]. And that’s the rule. And all those folks who are chairmen know it. 

TM: In an eleven-minute floor speech in 2019 directed at Dan Patrick you talked about the need to balance the pursuit of power with “statesmanship—a regard for other people’s ideas.” How was that received?

KS: The lieutenant governor said to me that his definition of statesmanship was doing what you say you’re going to do. Well, yeah, dictators have done that for a long time. And it’s not necessarily a virtue.

TM: Were there points in your career when you could have done more to rein in Patrick’s power? 

KS: Absolutely, absolutely, I regret the fact that we failed to [stand up to Patrick stripping Hancock’s chairmanship]. Keep in mind that most of the lieutenant governor’s powers are bestowed by the Senate itself. There’s nothing either in the rules or the Constitution that says that the lieutenant governor can summarily fire a committee chair. And we should have gone in and said, “This is our committee. And it’s our chairman. And we want to retain him.” And I knew that at the time. We had that opportunity. And I didn’t do it. Would the rest of the Republicans have gone along with me? I don’t know.

TM: Can you imagine that you would have even gotten a second senator on board with that? 

KS: I’d like to think so. 

TM: In an interview with Texas Monthly in October, Mike Collier, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor, predicted that if he defeated Patrick and were to preside over a Senate dominated by Republicans, those Republicans would be relieved to be rid of Patrick ruling with an iron fist. Do you think there is any truth to that?

KS: I think there’s something to it. But if Mike Collier is elected lieutenant governor and there’s still a Republican majority in the Senate, he will do exactly what that Republican majority tells him he can do.  

TM: Last year you supported key pieces of the Republican agenda despite personal misgivings, including a bill that lets Texans carry a firearm without a permit. Why?

KS: There’s no question it was overwhelmingly popular in my district. My reservation was that in the previous year, .04 percent of the convictions for violent crime were committed by people who had the permit. The [permitting] law worked. And so why fool with it? 

I do believe that the amendments that we put onto that bill to strengthen the bill so that you couldn’t carry if you had committed domestic violence or assault with injury made the bill a lot better.

TM: You voted for the “heartbeat bill,” banning abortion, including in cases of rape and incest, after the point when fetal “cardiac” activity is detectable, which is around six weeks. Did you have misgiving about the novel enforcement mechanism that relied on individual Texans suing other Texans, and potentially reaping a bounty as a reward?

KS: It used to be we as Republicans wanted to lessen the number of lawsuits. To sponsor the filing of lawsuits of Texans against other Texans I think is antithetical to us as Republicans. 

In seventeen years, I voted for things that I was not convinced were good. But I did it because I believe in teamwork and collegiality. I wanted to be accepted as a good Republican. That’s certainly the way I think of myself.

TM: Bill Miller told me you were too collegial to be a true maverick, that temperamentally you’re not a guy who wants to gum up the works. Does that sound fair to you?

KS: I’m a Republican, and I want to be considered a good and loyal Republican. But I’m not some kind of cipher.