AUSTIN — Is Texas’ political dinner bell ringing?
An unusual rash of seven congressional retirements is triggering a stampede among ambitious conservatives — and, gasp, even some Democrats — who see a rare opportunity for seizing higher-profile office in the state.
Five Republicans and two Democrats in Congress have announced that they’ll be stepping down next year. Also, the powerful GOP speaker of the Texas House and some of his top lieutenants are leaving, in what seems to be more of an actuarial blip than a seismic political shift.
But it’s turned what once looked like a low-wattage off-year election into a political spectacle.
No real change is likely in party balance: The open Republican congressional seats should stay in GOP hands barring upsets, and the Democratic ones look equally safe. The Texas Legislature will remain solidly Republican-controlled no matter what.
Still, Texas will see a large throng of conservatives going at each other in a political climate already polarized by President Donald Trump. And the U.S. may be introduced to new faces from a place that lately has been a launching pad for national GOP prominence, while giving rising Democratic stars potentially larger footholds in the country’s largest red state.
“I think a lot of our representatives that represent themselves as conservatives really aren’t,” said David Balat, a former hospital CEO who’s already firing early shots in his bid for the suburban Houston seat being vacated by retiring Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Poe. “When it comes down to how they vote, or how they behave, they do something that’s generally geared to their own interest and own longevity.”
Like Poe, set to retire next year are Republican Rep. Sam Johnson from suburban Dallas, Jeb Hensarling of Dallas, who is term-limited out of his chairmanship of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, and San Antonio’s Lamar Smith, who is similarly losing the House Science, Space and Technology Committee chairmanship.
Rep. Joe Barton, from Ennis, outside Dallas, who is Texas’ most-senior member of Congress, joined the retirement group after a sex scandal.
The departing Democrats are longtime Houston Rep. Gene Green and El Paso’s Beto O’Rourke, who is trying to oust U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz next November.
Texas has the most open congressional seats in its history this cycle. Of 36 seats, only two were open in 2016. More than 50 Republicans alone are running.
“It’s almost like free-market competition,” said Republican Party of Texas spokesman Jamie Bennett.
A vacancy in the Legislature may spark the biggest political scrum of all.
Joe Straus, the moderate San Antonio Republican who kept state lawmakers from moving farther right on many hot issues, like the “bathroom bill” targeting transgender people, is leaving as House speaker. Some House Republicans are already pushing to adopt rules to ensure that Straus’ replacement is more conservative.
The spate of competitive races should showcase the issues that conservatives believe are the best weapons to wield against each other.
One likely contentious point is who would be tougher on immigrants. That issue’s potency was reflected by the Legislature’s recent approval of anti-“sanctuary cities” policies that can jail police chiefs and sheriffs who don’t crack down.
Trickier would be trying to use Trump, who, said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones, “is too much of a wild card.”
Some of his policies “are in line with movement conservatives,” Jones said. But “the way he comports himself, as well as some of his other policies are not in line.”
That hasn’t spooked Roger Barone, a long shot to replace Johnson, whose online profile says, “I only speak MAGA,” for “Make America Great Again.”
Candidates relying on their colorful biographies include Eric Burkhart, a retired CIA operations officer, who wants to replace Smith. Burkhart says he survived being poisoned repeatedly over a three-week period during lavish meals prepared by a Russian contact while working in the Balkans in 2001.
For most, the objective is to get to the rightmost point in the field while attempting to paint their opponents as closet moderates.
Former state Rep. Kenneth Sheets, an Iraq war veteran, hopes to stake out the right flank in the race to replace Hensarling, saying, “People in this district are concerned about conservative issues.”
But Sheets may have trouble owning that turf if he has to face ex-Florida Congressman Allen West, a tea party darling who once famously called then-President Barack Obama “probably the dumbest person walking around in America.” West has moved to Texas but hasn’t announced plans to run.
On the Democratic side, state Sen. Sylvia Garcia is the favorite to replace Green, ending Houston’s run as America’s largest Hispanic city without a Hispanic in Congress.
“That’s significant, not just for me as a candidate, but for our community,” said Garcia, who would also be the first Hispanic woman from Texas in Congress.