Analysis: Political eyes are not all on the Texas prize you think

Texas Tribune News

Graphic by Todd Wiseman

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The idea animating many political candidates, consultants and donors in Texas in 2020 is one that’s way down the list of concerns for many Texas voters: redistricting.

The 150-member Texas House has 83 Republicans and 67 Democrats, creating a GOP majority that could flip to Democrats if the minority party could wrest away nine spots.

Leave aside, for a moment, just how difficult that might be. Consider instead the interest it’s generating both inside and outside of the state.

The legislators elected in 2020 will draw the next set of political maps for the state’s congressional and legislative seats. Right now, Republicans hold the governor’s office and majorities in both the state House and Senate — a trifecta that virtually ensures the resulting maps will favor their party.

Winning a Democratic majority in the Texas House would give Democrats some leverage over at least some of the maps the state will use for the next decade of elections. Specifically, it could break the GOP’s control over the congressional maps that will be drawn after the 2020 census. At the very least, it would allow the Democrats to prevent Republicans from drawing those maps — and to throw the political cartography to federal judges instead of Texas politicians.

Republicans, for obvious reasons, like the numbers just the way they are. Because of its growth, Texas is expected to gain more seats before it draws those districts, and Republicans would like to remain in charge.

Other 2020 contests will get more attention. That presidential race you might have heard about, for instance. And after Texas Democrats choose from the growing list of relative unknowns running for the U.S. Senate, the challenge to Republican incumbent John Cornyn will get a fair amount of attention.

Sometimes, the important attractions are sideshows. In this case, the downballot races for federal and state legislative jobs could be, over time, the most consequential races on the Texas ballot.

In the normal course of things, redistricting maps go through the Legislature just like any other bills, approved by the House, approved by the Senate and signed by the governor.

Unlike most bills, however, the content of redistricting bills — new maps — have to be drawn. If the Legislature can’t draw them, others take up the task.

Congressional maps go straight to federal court if the people in the Texas Capitol can’t reach a compromise.

For Republicans, that would introduce a wild card — federal judges — who probably won’t draw the maps Republicans, left to their own devices, would prefer. For Democrats, that’s not such a bad deal. Sure, they’d like to draw their own maps, but the governor is a Republican and 2020 doesn’t look like an election where the minority party has even a rumor of a chance to take over the Senate.

Winning a majority in the Texas House, however farfetched that might turn out to be, is the Democrats’ best chance to throw the congressional maps to the courts. The result could be crummy for them — but the bet is they’d be less crummy than whatever a Republican majority might draw.

When it comes to legislative maps, the Democrats can’t turn Texas blue enough in 2020 to control redistricting in 2021. The numbers aren’t there, and the seats they really need won’t be on the 2020 ballot. The Senate is likely out of reach, and the governor is not on the ballot. But when the Legislature can’t find a compromise on legislative maps, the chore passes to a mostly dormant committee called the Legislative Redistricting Board.

And in this case, the Republicans have that panel all locked up. Its five members are the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the House, the attorney general, the comptroller and the land commissioner. Right now, all five are Republicans: Dan Patrick, Dennis Bonnen, Ken Paxton, Glenn Hegar and George P. Bush. Four of them — everybody but Bonnen — won’t be on the 2020 ballot. Even if the House flips to the Democrats and a Democrat becomes speaker, the redistricting board would have four Republicans and a Democrat.

Don’t expect the next set of legislative political maps to be a delight for Democrats.

But the congressional maps, if the Democrats could swing the House, might be a different story. And the congressional maps are what Democrats outside of Texas are interested in.

The presidency is at the top of the lists: Republicans want to defend the incumbent, and Democrats want to send him home. Democrats have their eye on the U.S. Senate seat in Texas, and they have already put their stamp on efforts to try to flip a half-dozen of the Texas congressional seats now held by Republicans.

But both parties really want to draw those new congressional districts. And the map to that treasure goes through the Texas House.