Texas Senate seat within Democrats's reach
Texas Senate seat within Democrats's reach
By MARTIN FROST | 8/3/09 4:43
I received an e-mail from one of my law partners in Denver recently asking me about Houston Mayor Bill White, who was in town raising money. Basically, my partner wanted to know who White is and why he is running for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in a reliably Republican state for a vacancy that did not yet exist.
The answer is that White may be the next Fred Smith, the founder of the revolutionary package shipping company FedEx, who correctly saw opportunity when no one else did. White started running a year ago for a vacancy that would occur if Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison finally acted on her off-again, on-again desire to run for governor of Texas in 2010, and if she decided to resign her seat early in order to seek the Republican nomination against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry.
Though not required to resign her Senate seat to make the governor’s race, Hutchison last week confirmed that she will do just that this fall. Thus, there will be a vacancy that will be filled first with an interim appointment and then by the winner of a special election next spring.
What gives White a legitimate shot are the intricacies of Texas election law, which are little understood outside the boundaries of the Lone Star State. If you don’t think Texas election law is complicated, just ask Hillary Clinton about her experience in the primary/caucus system during the 2008 presidential campaign.
Here’s what I told my law partner in Denver:
Under Texas election law, the governor makes an interim appointment whenever a Senate vacancy occurs. In most states, an interim appointee serves until the next general election (that’s the case in Illinois and Delaware, where appointees currently hold the seats vacated by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden).
But not so in Texas. That appointee can serve only until a special election that generally would be called within three to four months. The last three times a Texas Senate seat has been filled by an interim appointee, the appointee wound up losing the ensuing special election.
Texas uses the Louisiana-style primary for special elections. Anyone can run, regardless of party, and the top two finishers face off in a runoff if no one receives at least 50.1 percent in the first election.
Because Texas Senate vacancies don’t occur very often, there will be a large number of candidates. It is anticipated that Perry’s appointee, who would be a Republican, would face opposition from a number of other ambitious high-profile Republicans. White may be the only Democrat in the race, though one other former statewide Democratic officeholder, John Sharp, has said he might run.
If White, who has wide support from the Democratic establishment in the state and who has already raised a significant amount of money, were the only Democrat on the ballot, he would be assured of a place in any runoff against whichever Republican survives. Should the Republican turn out to be a weak or extreme nominee, White would have a legitimate chance of winning a runoff. Think Congressman Ron Paul, the Libertarian/Republican, who could finish second in a big field if he ran.
All current Republican House members from Texas would have a free ride in a special election. They would not have to give up their seats to run, and a number of them might jump in the race.
That’s exactly what happened in 1961, when a lightly-regarded Republican named John Tower faced archconservative Democrat William Blakley in a special election runoff for Lyndon Johnson’s Senate seat after Johnson became vice president. Tower won in a huge upset, becoming the first Republican to win a statewide race in Texas in the 20th century. There were 71 candidates on the ballot in that special election, almost all of them Democrats who split the vote badly, permitting Blakley to narrowly win a runoff spot with 18.1 percent of the vote. The more moderate Rep. Jim Wright finished third. Had Wright finished second, he probably would have defeated Tower in the runoff — and never served as speaker of the House a quarter-century later.
Hutchison herself won a special election against interim appointee Bob Krueger in 1993 after Sen. Lloyd Bentsen resigned his seat to join the Clinton cabinet.
Texas has been trending Democratic the past few years. The Democratic Party made dramatic gains in state legislative seats in 2006 and 2008. Currently, the Republicans have only a 76-74 margin in the state House. So a Bill White victory is not inconceivable, even if he faces a run-of-the-mill conservative in a runoff.
Meanwhile, White is methodically traveling the state, raising money and getting ready. Whether he is a true visionary remains to be determined.
Martin Frost represented the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Congress from 1979 to 2005. He rose to Democratic Caucus chairman and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He is now an attorney with Polsinelli Shughart in Washington.