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Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the reigning hegemon of the Texas Senate.
Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, the reigning hegemon of the Texas Senate.
Gage Skidmore

One of Texas' Biggest Mid-Term Fights Is Over Before it Really Started

One of the most intriguing sideshows of Texas' mid-term elections is basically over before it opened, thanks to a special election upset in the Rio Grande Valley.

Until Republican businessman Pete Flores beat former Democratic U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego in an emergency special election to fill the last two years-plus of a term won in 2016 by Carlos Uresti, a Democrat who quit after being found guilty of 11 federal felonies, Democrats had a puncher's chance to break Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick's hegemony in the state Senate. With Gallego's loss last Tuesday night, however, Democrats look like they're headed for a first-round knockout.

While there's never been much chance Democrats would take over either chamber of the Legislature this year, every seat in the Senate is particularly important thanks to something called the three-fifths rule.

The rule requires that three-fifths of the chamber's members — 19 — agree to let a bill be sent to the floor for a vote. The rule used to be the two-thirds rule, but Patrick pushed for it to be changed before his first session in charge of the Senate in 2015.

As things are, Patrick can get anything he wants to the floor because Republicans control more than three-fifths of the chamber. If Democrats can reduce the GOP advantage to 18-13, Democrats would have enough votes to block Patrick's agenda unless Patrick changes the rules again.

"Nobody anticipates that Democrats will actually take control of the Texas Legislature, but if they're able to win enough seats to have blocking ability, that would seriously cramp Republicans' style," Southern Methodist University political science professor Matthew Wilson told the Observer earlier this year. "That would be a real thorn in the side of Dan Patrick."

Before Uresti's resignation, Republicans held a 20-11 seat lead in the 31-member Senate. Democrats, if they'd been able to swing two seats, would've broken Patrick's super majority. With Flores taking over for Uresti, however, Democrats now need to pick up three seats to gain their check on Patrick.

That means they have to run the table of competitive state Senate seats in November. When the Observer first took a look at the Senate tea leaves in March, Mark Jones, Rice University's Texas politics guru, identified three vulnerable Republicans in the Texas Senate — Colleyville's Konni Burton, Dallas' Don Huffines and Houston's Joan Huffman.

Burton, who represents parts of Fort Worth, Arlington, Mansfield and Colleyville, faces a stiff challenge from moderate former Burleson School Board member Beverly Powell in Wendy Davis' former district. Huffman and Huffines both represent districts that voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.

Winning two of those three elections was a doable long shot for Democrats. Winning all three is likely a bridge too far, especially if, as Jones told the Observer could be a possibility on Wednesday, Flores' victory points to a lack of Democratic enthusiasm in Texas. 

Patrick introduced Flores before he spoke at his victory party Tuesday night. The lieutenant governor pushed hard for the new senator throughout the abbreviated campaign to replace Uresti and certainly seems to think Flores' win means big things for his agenda. Wednesday, he posted an image of a calm ocean on his Facebook page.

"No sight of Blue Wave in SD 19. The tide is out," Patrick wrote.

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