Analysis: Two more months of musical chairs for Texans seeking office in 2020

Texas Tribune News

Six Texas Republican members of Congress have announced their retirements.
Six Texas Republican members of Congress have announced their retirements.
REUTERS/James Lawler Duggan

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Want to play parlor games?

Texas candidates who want to run in 2020 don’t have to declare their plans for another couple of months, leaving time for all sorts of crazy twists and turns before the election ballots are set.

Dec. 9 at 6 p.m. is the filing deadline for 2020 candidates in Texas. Here’s a lesser-known rule: Nobody can officially file to run for office until Nov. 9. All of that means nobody has paid the entry fee and signed his or her name to get on the ballot; many have started campaign finance operations, but those filings don’t put a candidate on the ballot.

The reasons for running, or not running, are still being created. On Monday, U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Clarendon Republican elected in 1994, said he won’t seek another term in office.

That particular development doesn’t create much opportunity for Democrats; Thornberry’s district is strawberry red. He won reelection in 2018 with 81.5% of the vote — with both a Democrat and a Libertarian in the competition. But for ambitious Republicans, it opens a door that has been locked for a quarter of a century. People will be filing for that election now who, with Thornberry in office, wouldn’t even have whispered about it.

Open seats like that — Thornberry is the sixth Texas Republican member of Congress to decide it’s time to collect that fat congressional pension — prompt changes in plans. Three of those — Thornberry, Mike Conaway of Midland and Bill Flores of Bryan — represent districts that would be difficult to impossible for Democrats to win. But three — Will Hurd of Helotes, Kenny Marchant of Coppell and Pete Olson of Sugar Land — are in seats Democrats could win. In fact, each of them survived a good scare on the way back into office in 2018: Hurd won by a 0.44-percentage-point margin, Marchant by 3.1 points and Olson by 4.9 points.

They had hard races in front of them, and each of those districts would have been on the 2020 list of battlegrounds with or without incumbents in the field.

Those aren’t the only possibilities, or even the biggest.

After Beto O’Rourke made a 2.6-percentage-point race out of what was initially supposed to be another landslide win for U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in 2018, political people across the spectrum see potential they didn’t see before.

A three-term member of Congress virtually unknown outside his El Paso district came that close to knocking off an extremely well-known incumbent who had, two years earlier, finished close to the top in a GOP primary for president.

That was big news for nobodies everywhere. Lots of Democrats were hoping O’Rourke would take another crack this year and challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

He ran for president instead, though some Democrats have suggested he should get out of that race and run for Senate anyway. O’Rourke has been emphatic about staying where he is, and he did a pretty thorough job of quieting that talk in the most recent presidential debate with the line, “Hell, yes, we are going to take your AR-15, your AK-47.”

None of the other Democrats in that race would endorse that line, and it’s an even harder sell in Texas.

Cornyn has opposition, to be sure; 11 Democrats, two Republicans, a Libertarian and an independent have expressed interest in a challenge.

They haven’t filed, of course. It’s not time yet. Some are raising money; none is particularly well known to most Texans. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll found that 78% of Democratic primary voters don’t know the best-known of the Democrats in the race. Anybody who can put together enough money for some advertising has a chance.

And a second Texan, Julián Castro, skirted the parlor game last week, when the former Housing and Urban Development secretary and San Antonio mayor said that not qualifying for the November presidential debate would mark the end of his presidential campaign. He’ll be on the stage for the next one, the fourth, on Oct. 15 in Ohio, but hasn’t qualified for the fifth, which will be next month.

Like O’Rourke, Castro has said he is not interested in dropping out of the presidential race to run against Cornyn. In fact, his twin brother, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, considered entering the Senate race and decided to run for reelection instead.

But remember that this is a parlor game, and that fifth debate comes well before Dec. 9 — the Texas deadline for candidates to file for office.