Last Week’s District 19 Loss Hurt Democrats, But the Sting Will Be Even Worse If Republicans Keep a Senate Supermajority

click to enlarge GAGE SKIDMORE
Gage Skidmore
Republican Pete Flores’ recent upset victory in a Democrat-friendly state senate district wasn’t the kind of news Democrats wanted in advance of their much-anticipated blue wave.

Beyond showing that the party’s still capable of screwing up a sure thing, it also dims hopes the Dems can disrupt the so-called Senate supermajority that’s enabled Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to shove the legislative agenda further and further right. Anybody remember last session’s fight over the anti-transgender bathroom bill?

Under current rules, the party that holds three-fifths of the Senate — or 21 seats — can bring bills to debate without support from the other side of the aisle. Democrats had hoped a victory in dependably blue District 19 would be one of the three victories needed to break the GOP lock. Now, things look far less certain.

“I don’t think it can be overstated how bad that loss is,” said Democratic strategist Colin Strother. “I think we’re most definitely going to pick up two senate seats in November, but we’ve got to look hard and find another seat somewhere.”

The two seats to which Strother is referring are those of Don Huffines in Dallas and Konni Burton in Fort Worth, both Republicans. Huffines is running in a district where Clinton blew past Trump by nearly 5 points, and Burton is in a swing district that frequently changes hands.

The Dallas Morning News recently endorsed Huffines’ Democratic opponent Nathan Johnson, citing the incumbent’s willingness to support divisive legislation such as Patrick’s bathroom bill. And Burton faces an energetic and well-funded fight from Beverly Powell, a Democrat who’s served on public school and college boards.

The district of Houston’s Joan Huffman, where Trump barely eked out a win, also could be in play, but observers say not to count on it. And it’s slim pickings elsewhere.

“I go to Houston a lot, and I’m not feeling that one,” veteran lobbyist Bill Miller said. “But those other two races, you feel. They’re just pulsating right now.”

High Stakes Game

Republicans gained their operational upper hand in the Senate when Patrick became lieutenant governor in 2015 and muscled through a rule that dropped the supermajority from 21 senators to the current 19. There it’s stayed for two sessions, enabling Patrick to keep ramming through a social conservative agenda.

To be sure, if any time looks right for Democrats to chip away at Patrick’s control, now would be it. Voters in urban and suburban districts are seething at Trump and Republicans in general. What’s more, they expect the lege to move on pressing issues like public education and property taxes next session instead of engaging in ideological pissing matches.

Chuck Smith, CEO of LGBT advocates Equality Texas, said those issues have become a mobilizing tool. For the first time in his group’s almost 30-year history, it’s kicking off a major get-out-the-vote effort.

“The bottom line is people want solutions to real problems,” Smith said. “They’re not interested in laws that discriminate against LGBT people or serve no other purpose than to stigmatize people. That’s not a winning message.”

Reality Check

Without District 19, though, Miller wouldn’t lay money on Democrats shattering the supermajority in November. However, the current political climate may not allow Patrick to go as far as he did last session.

Voters’ backlash is only compounded by anger from business interests — many of which opposed the bathroom bill. Too many GOP elected officials, Miller maintains, felt the pain from both their electorate and financial backers by following Patrick.

“The Republicans are absolutely on notice,” Miller said. “It’s a new game, and it will probably never go back to what it was.”

Strother’s not convinced. If Republicans hold their supermajority, he expects them to knuckle down, no matter how bad the blowback. That means Democrats will need to learn from last week’s loss and take another swing at the senate wall in 2020.

“They’ll have to look at what they did wrong in District 19, find a district where they can win and start doing it right,” he said.

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