AUSTIN — The new year is shaping up to be a huge political one in Texas.
With the presidential race, a competitive battle for the Texas House and an increase in voter turnout expected in this year’s elections, there is a large amount of uncertainty and excitement in the air for Texas politics in 2020.
Here are five things to keep an eye on in Texas politics this year.
How will presidential race affect voter turnout?
Voter turnout always spikes during presidential years. It’s the election that most voters identify with and can most easily wrap their heads around. This year is no different, with potentially record-breaking turnout in the state.
The reason is simple: President Donald Trump is up for re-election. The Republican commander-in-chief is adored by his supporters and loathed by his opponents, which is a recipe for juggernaut numbers at the ballot box.
With the added fuel of an impeachment process, voters on either side will need no extra motivation to show up on Election Day.
“This whole impeachment process and President Trump’s tenure has fueled people to such a degree,” said Renee Cross, the senior director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston. “He’s certainly a turnout machine for both parties and if we thought that before, think of what it’s going to be after this year.”
Which side will benefit from the increase in turnout?
Both parties are expected to have motivated bases for this year’s election. But Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston, said the challenge for Republicans is that their voter base has seemingly hit a plateau.
“The number of votes Republicans are getting is pretty stable but the number of votes Democrats have been getting has been increasing since the 2000 elections,” he said. “That’s where I think Democrats have a bit of an edge because they are still not at maximum turnout.”
Brian W. Smith, a political scientist at St. Edward’s University in Austin, said a major factor in whether Democrats will hit peak turnout is who they pick as their presidential candidate. If they find a dynamic and highly appealing candidate like Barack Obama in 2008, they will turn out large numbers, but if they go with a less charismatic candidate like John Kerry in 2004, the enthusiasm may not be there.
“If they don’t run someone who can inspire their base then the Democrats are going to face the same challenge as in 2016,” Smith said. “That’s going to be one of their challenges.”
But Cross thinks Trump’s impeachment also will motivate Republican voters.
“Before impeachment, everyone was saying it won’t be too high, they’ve got their guy,” she said. “But now I think with the polarization between people, we’ll see higher Republican voter turnout than we would have if impeachment hadn’t been on the table.”
What impact will the end of straight-ticket voting have?
Voters in the state will no longer be able to use one-punch straight ticket voting this year. So what impact will that have on close races?
Rottinghaus, who has studied the impact of doing away with straight-ticket voting in other states, says both parties end up losing votes, but the change affects Democrats more.
No votes are lost at the top of the ticket, he said, but once you start going further down the ballot to the all-important statehouse races in this year’s election, the dropoff is noteworthy. Republicans lose between 1,000 and 2,000 votes, but Democrats lose between 3,000 and 4,000.
“That’s significant in races decided by a few thousand votes,” he said. “So the loss of straight ticket voting for state legislative seats could be profound for Democrats.”
Cross said both parties have to focus on educating voters that they need to go down the ballot and vote for all their candidates.
“The state and county parties across the board are really going to have to start pounding this,” she said. “This will be a rude awakening for a lot of folks who don’t know [straight-ticket voting] isn’t available anymore.”
Smith, for his part, guarantees only one thing: longer lines.
“You’ve gotta vote one by one by one by one, everyone will expect longer lines,” he said. “That’s bipartisan.”
Who will be the next Texas House Speaker?
The tenure of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen came to an ignominious end in 2019 after it was revealed that he tried to work with a political activist to target 10 fellow Republicans in the 2020 primary elections.
Bonnen will not return to the House next year, a decision he made after scores of his colleagues called for him to resign. So, who will replace him?
Any debate over who will be the next speaker is premature until after the November elections, when the make-up of the House is determined. (The 150 members of the chamber select the speaker from within their ranks.)
If Democrats take over the chamber (for the first time since 2003), Smith said, they will need a “dynamic” leader.
“Somebody able to push through the Democratic policies that got that person elected but also probably going to have to work with Republicans, or else they’re going to give the gavel back in 2022,” he said.
If Republicans keep the majority, the challenge may be even more difficult. A new Republican speaker would have to bring together a party highly fractured by infighting for the better part of the decade.
“They’re going to have to have someone who will unify that caucus,” Smith said. “They don’t need necessarily a dynamic leader, they need a unifier, not somebody who will be very divisive.”
Where does Empower Texans stand?
Bonnen was brought down by a recording of his meeting with the leader of Empower Texans, a far-right political group funded by West Texas oil and gas magnates.
In that meeting with Michael Quinn Sullivan, Bonnen hatched a plan to target 10 fellow Republicans he disagreed with. He made disparaging remarks about fellow lawmakers, including calling some “vile,” “heinous” and saying that one Houston lawmaker was gay.
Sullivan secretly recorded that meeting and then made the audio public, tossing the Republican party into chaos and more infighting. In the end, Sullivan succeeded in bringing down Bonnen. But was Bonnen’s ousting a pyrrhic victory?
Cross said she doesn’t see how lawmakers could continue to trust Sullivan and his group going forward and pointed to his split with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a favorite of far-right conservatives, as evidence of Empower Texans’ diminishing influence.
“He obviously came out victorious in the situation but even the really cosnervative Republican politicians who have benefited from his money or his influence, how do you trust that he’s not recording everything you say?” she said. “They’ll be treading carefully around him.”
Rottinghaus, however, said the group could continue to exert its force through the Republican primaries, where turnout is lower and often benefits the highly motivated right-wing faction of the party.
“The rumors of their death have been greatly exaggerated,” he said. “The money and influence they have will always make them players.”