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Texas Democrats Gained, if Only a Little, in 2012

Tamir Kalifa via Texas Tribune

Have another look at those election results, you blue bashers. Republicans kept the state reliably red, but theirs was not the party recording gains on Election Day in Texas.

Democrats still do not have any statewide officeholders — and their numbers in those races were dismal. But they held their ground in the state Senate, gained seven seats in the Texas House, split the four new seats in Congress and wrested another one away from the red team. The rebound from the disastrous 2010 election was not dramatic, but a gain is a gain.

Democrats have enough players to stay in the game in the Texas Senate, unless the chamber’s Republican majority changes a rule that generally requires approval from two-thirds of the senators to take up any piece of legislation. Anyone with 11 votes can block a bill, most of the time. It is not always a partisan thing, but when it is, the Democrats come into the session with 12 votes.

It is not the best situation, but it could have been a lot worse: Republicans orchestrated a well-financed but ultimately futile challenge against Democrat Wendy Davis of Fort Worth. She will be back, and with her, the Democrats have the 11 votes they need to block partisan legislation, and one insurance vote just to make sure.

The situation for House Democrats is more fluid. They were walloped in 2002 and the Republican majority that came in that year started by electing the first Republican speaker since Reconstruction, then redrawing political maps to give their party lasting control of the statehouse.

They nearly blew it, trying to maximize the number of Republicans by including some marginal districts instead of drawing as many safe Republican districts as possible. Over time, Democrats whittled away at the Republican advantage, cutting it from 88 in 2002 to 76 in 2008. That losing streak, and the precarious partisan balance in the House — Democrats had 74 members at that point — were enough to upend Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, and to replace him with Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.

Straus got there with a coalition of disaffected Republicans and Democrats that sometimes plagues him today in an overwhelming Republican House. Two years later, in 2010, riding a wave of Texan distaste for the federal government in general and President Obama in particular, Republicans swamped the Democrats and got a supermajority that now stands at 102-48.

They drew new redistricting maps, this time building as many safe seats as possible. They knew they would lose some seats in this month’s election and they did; come January, they will have a 95-55 majority.

The Senate has been more stable. Republicans have held the majority there since the 1996 elections, and few of their political districts are considered competitive in general elections. But in the House, Democrats hope to repeat the successes they had during the first decade of this century, hacking away at the Republican majority, gaining a few seats every election.

The numbers are not as favorable. Last session’s Republican mappers learned something from last decade’s redistricting efforts and did not draw nearly as many competitive districts. But the maps are still the subject of court fights and could change. And Democrats hope infighting in the Texas Republican primaries could produce some wounded or weak candidates who might not be acceptable to general election voters.

A couple of Republicans won by unimpressive margins — the kind of victories that attract predatory interest from Democrats. Linda Harper-Brown of Irving and Kenneth Sheets of Dallas are examples. On the other side, Republicans will be pointing at Democrats who won in swing districts and who might not do as well in 2014, a gubernatorial election year when turnout will likely drop and a Democratic president might be combating mid-term grumbles, as was the case in 2010. Put Democrats Joe Moody of El Paso and Mary Ann Perez of Pasadena on that list.

Republicans and many political observers dismiss Texas Democrats as a disorganized and unfocused group of partisans who have not proved themselves as a legislative force. But infighting within the Republican ranks could produce opportunities for coalitions — Democrats and moderates, for instance — and gradually, for more seats in the Legislature.

The Democrats’ numbers are not great, but they are better than they were two years ago.

Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.