AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Ninety-nine of the 150 seats in the Texas House are virtually uncontested, but the fight is on for the remaining 51 districts, with Democrats intent on whittling away at the Republican supermajority that ramrodded through legislation last year.
House rules require a quorum of 100 lawmakers to do business, and with 101 Republicans last year, Democrats could only use parliamentary procedure to slow down their conservative agenda. Lawmakers can suspend rules, including the Texas Constitution, with a two-thirds majority. But with new House districts drawn to reflect the 2010 census, Republicans will likely lose their supermajority and their ability to work unchallenged.
The big question, then, is how many Democrats join the Legislature in November? Looking at the 51 districts where candidates from both parties are competing, Republican incumbents face real competition in about 11 races, while Democratic incumbents have three races they could lose.
"Democrats will add four to five seats just from redistricting," said Kerrville Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, chairman of the Texas Republican Representatives Campaign Committee, hoping to limit losses to six districts. "If it goes our way, they'll have 54 seats."
Rep. Trey Martinez Fisher, a San Antonio Democrat who leads a new political action committee designed to encourage first-time Hispanic voters, said he thinks Democrats could win more, perhaps as many as 60.
"If Democrats can just get 50, then we've completely changed the dynamic of 2011 because the Republicans will not be allowed to suspend rules. A lot of the extreme positions that were taken on the House floor were a result of their ability to suspend the rules," Martinez Fisher said. "If we are playing with only 55 Democrats, it only gets better. If we are playing with 60, I do believe you will see the political will to break the Republican Party from its hard-right positions."
Reports from the campaigns, Martinez Fisher said, show that voters are feeling the $15 billion that Republicans cut from the state budget, including $4.8 billion from public school funding. He said more voters will turn out because they are angry about the cuts.
However, Hilderbran said he thinks Republicans have an edge going into November because Barack Obama's presidential campaign is not competing in Texas, something that would otherwise drive up Democratic turnout.
"The national ticket drives the turnout ... (and) you don't expect that Obama is going to put a bunch of money in Texas," Hilderbran said. "I think it's a turnout election, and in Texas I think that favors Republicans."
There is little reason to believe that the Democratic gains in the House will lead to greater compromise. Thirty-six of the incoming lawmakers will be first-timers, many of whom are tea party activists who defeated or replaced moderate Republicans.
The tea party targeted moderates in the May primary to demand greater conservatism in the House. Speaker Joe Straus last year continued a tradition of appointing some Democrats to chair committees and in some cases compromised on rightwing legislation. That angered conservatives.
The activist group FreedomWorks wants to replace Straus with Rep. Bryan Hughes of Mineola. Many of the Republican freshmen will back Hughes and demand a winner-takes-all policy, where only conservative Republicans chair all committees, and thereby control the agenda.
A fight for the speakership could make minority Democrats the kingmakers, if Straus is forced to lobby for their votes to remain in power. If Republicans take control of all the committees and deny Democrats a chance to pass significant legislation, the Texas House will become similar to Congress, where both sides dig in to block the other's agenda.
The House will also feel Gov. Rick Perry's influence, as he tries to set the stage for his re-election campaign or another bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, something he's said he is considering. Perry will likely threaten to veto any bills could possibly be used against him in a presidential campaign, likely producing more gridlock as Democrats gain strength.