Sometime in January, the House will elect a new speaker for the first time since outgoing top dog Joe Straus took the job in 2009. While that fight will likely still be decided within the Republican caucus, the dozen seats gained by Democrats in the House make the math more complicated for any potential speaker, according to Rice University political science professor Mark Jones.
"You think about the caucus as having three groups — this is simplifying it — but you have on the one hand the [arch-conservative] Freedom Caucus and its allies and on the other hand the [moderate, pro-business] Straus wing and their allies," Jones says. "The largest group is more this middle group — they're conservative, but they're not as dogmatic and conservative as the Freedom Caucus, but they're also not as pragmatic and centrist as the Straus wing. In the end, they're the pivot players."
"The largest group is more this middle group — they're conservative, but they're not as dogmatic and conservative as the Freedom Caucus, but they're also not as pragmatic and centrist as the Straus wing." — Mark Jones
Neither the Freedom Caucus nor the House's Republican moderates have enough power to force one of their preferred candidates for speaker on the other, so the big group of members who are conservative, but not Jonathan Stickland, have the power in the speaker's race, according to Jones. The only thing that could change that is if the moderates decided to go nuclear and align with Democrats, something Jones says is unlikely to happen.
"I think what's most likely to happen is the Straus wing is going to push for someone who's acceptable enough to the centrists ... but reject out of hand [very conservative candidates] like Phil King or Tan Parker," Jones says. "They're going to want someone in their camp ... or at the minimum someone they know they can work with."
While moderates may not want the chamber to lurch any further to the right, they also don't want to sacrifice any of their committee chairmanships, as would happen if they aligned with Democrats.
Jones sees a public education funding fix and the potential expansion of Medicaid in Texas as areas where moderate Republicans and the new, larger Democratic caucus could work together in the House. The Senate could be a trickier proposition, especially when it comes to expanding who is covered by the Affordable Care Act in the state.
"That's going to depend on Governor Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Patrick. I think in the House, they could come to some type of conclusion, some type of compromise. It's going to be much trickier to get that in the Senate, although, even there, Dan Patrick is a different Dan Patrick."
Two Republican Texas senators — Dallas' Don Huffines and Fort Worth's Konni Burton — lost their seats Tuesday, bringing Patrick perilously close to losing his super-majority in the Senate. The approval of three-fifths of all senators is required to bring a bill to the floor. There are 19 Republican senators, just enough to satisfy that requirement in a 31-member body.
Any of those 19 Republicans can play king or queen for a day, should he or she decide to partner with Democrats to hold up the Senate's business. Kel Seliger, a West Texas Republican who's clashed with Patrick over school financing, angering the lieutenant governor to the point that he didn't endorse Seliger in a competitive primary, could be a big thorn in Patrick's side, Jones says.
(Technically, Patrick will not need 19 votes to move a bill until Sylvia Garcia's replacement is elected in a special election early next year. Garcia, a Democrat, is headed to Washington to serve in the U.S. House. With her seat empty, 18 votes makes the three-fifths threshold.)
"The reality is most legislation occurs during the latter half [of the session]. By then, Patrick will need Seliger or one of the Democrats to support legislation, otherwise it's going to be blocked," Jones says. "That gives Seliger quite a bit of leverage compared to anyone else in the chamber."