By Paul A. Anthony, Editor in Chief
With Election Day less than a week away, the congressional picture is still about as clear as West Texas mud.
From the intricacies of the state legislature to the nationally watched U.S. Senate race, Texas has become a state in transition-one that could see Republicans fully in power for the first time since the turn of the 20th century.
“The odds that the Republicans should hold the Senate are fairly good,” said Neal Coates, instructor of political science. “The more interesting question is what’s going to happen with the Texas House of Representatives.”
Democrats have held a majority in the state House for more than a century, but their once-overwhelming majority has been diminished, Coates said. The GOP finds itself only six seats away from a majority in both houses.
For the past eight years, Democrats have seen a prize state turn against them. Starting with the election of George W. Bush as governor and Kay Bailey Hutchison as senator in 1994, Republicans have begun a steady takeover of Texas politics.
This year, they may complete it.
“That 78-72 lead may disappear,” Coates said of the Democrats’ tenuous grip on the 150-seat House, adding that Republicans could gain as many as eight seats. That would give them a 10-vote advantage. He said the GOP would almost certainly gain at least some House seats.
Such a shift would not only culminate decades of Republican progress but could also have major ramifications for national contests.
State legislatures redraw congressional district lines every 10 years based on census reports, and the ruling party can draw the lines to benefit colleagues running for national seats.
Last year, Coates said, a sharply divided Texas legislature failed to pass a redistricting plan, leaving the Republican-dominated Legislative Redistricting Board to draw the maps.
That is having strong consequences in West Texas where Rep. Charles Stenholm (D-Abilene) is fighting hard against city councilman Rob Beckham. Stenholm’s 17th district was reshaped to include a number of Central Texas counties that are counted as solid Republican votes.
Stenholm told the Abilene Reporter-News Sunday that although his race against Beckham is close, he didn’t feel it was as close as his 1996 race, in which he was nearly upset by San Angelo dentist Rudy Izzard.
“I was surprised by that quote,” Coates said, “because it’s my perception that Beckham is close to Stenholm. It’s closer, I think, that Mr. Stenholm is acknowledging.”
If the 17th district, which Congressional Quarterly rates as “Democratic favored,” is indeed so close, it mirrors the national race, in which two states with close U.S. Senate rates have been thrown into turmoil by the late departures of their incumbents.
In New Jersey, Democrat Robert Toricelli resigned amid scandal, and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) died in a plane crash this weekend.
As the national parties wrangle over a possible repeat of the 2000 presidential election, in which recounts force the country to wait past Election Day for a decision over who controls Congress, Texas too is wrangling-over who will be speaker of the state House.
“It could be that a Democratic speaker could be elected” even if Republicans take the majority, Coates said. Current speaker Pete Laney (D-Hale Center) is a well-liked conservative Democrat and has drawn support from several Republicans in the past. If the GOP gains a majority, Laney may benefit from some Republican defectors.
Such is the state of politics in a state where closely fought state races affect closely fought national races and vice-versa.
“Don’t forget about the George Bush factor,” Coates said. “He’s very popular here, and when [U.S. Senate candidate] John Cornyn campaigns with him, that has a spillover effect into those smaller races.”