Texas Republicans, trying to push aside their legislative opponents, have targeted Democratic Senator Wendy Davis for defeat tomorrow and may wind up with a free hand to pursue objectives such as school vouchers.
Governor Rick Perry’s party, which controls both legislative houses, may be able to ram through his priorities over Democratic senators’ objections for weeks or months, if Republican Mark Shelton beats Davis, 49, and Mario Gallegos, a Houston Democrat who died in office Oct. 16, wins posthumously.
“If Wendy doesn’t make it and we can’t fill Gallegos’ seat early enough, they will have, for a short period, the ability to do whatever they want,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, the Texas Democratic Party chairman. The senate convenes in January.
Should Shelton, a state Representative from Fort Worth, win while the Gallegos seat is vacant, Senate Democrats may be pushed aside as Republicans press for school vouchers and a ban on so-called sanctuary cities that don’t enforce immigration laws. Perry tried to get the latter measure passed last year, while cutting more than $5 billion from school budgets.
With the stakes so high, money has poured into the Davis-Shelton race. Davis, a former Fort Worth City Council member raised $3.59 million to his $2.3 million through Oct. 27, according to Texas Ethics Commission reports. Davis may have gained an edge after successfully challenging an attempt by Republicans to redraw her district in a way that would make it harder for her to win.
“It’s more significant for the Democratic Party if she should win, because it makes her the No. 1 Democrat prospect for future statewide office,” said Bill Miller, a co-founder of Austin lobbying firm HillCo Partners. “A victory will show that she can win in a Republican area during a presidential year.”
Davis defeated Kim Brimer, a Republican lawmaker for two decades, to take the seat, 49.9 percent to 47.5 percent in 2008. A Libertarian candidate may have siphoned off some Brimer support: Tarrant County voters, where her district is located, backed Republican presidential candidate John McCain 55 percent to 44 percent for Barack Obama, who won the national election.
“We think we have a better than 70 percent chance of holding that seat,” Hinojosa said.
Gallegos, who had spent more than $100,000 on his campaign, faced Republican Rasuali Bray, an Air Force veteran who raised about $8,500 through Sept. 27, Texas Ethics Commission filings show. Bray is likely to lose because at least 65 percent of voters in the district typically back Democrats, said Mark Jones, a Rice University politics professor in Houston. Gallegos, who died from liver disease, won with 70 percent of the vote in 2008.
Texans have voted in a dead lawmaker before. State Representative Glenda Dawson, a Pearland Republican, died in September 2006, then was re-elected that November with 60 percent of the vote. Mike O’Day, who won a special election and runoff, filled the vacant seat on Jan. 24, 2007.
If Bray fails to win, a special election may occur in January or February, said Robert Miller, a lobbyist and lawyer with Locke Lord LLP in Houston. He isn’t related to Bill Miller. Much may depend on how quickly Perry acts to replace Gallegos, he said.
“If Perry wanted to drag everything out as long as he could, the new senator wouldn’t take office until late April,” Jones said. That assumes a runoff election is required, he said.
The Legislature convenes for about five months every other year, with the next session starting in January. During a session’s first 60 days, only bills related to “emergency” issues, as determined by the governor, may be passed.
In 2011, Perry declared six such emergency issues, leading to the passage of measures such as requiring pre-abortion ultra-sound examinations, which produce sonogram images, for pregnant women and a bill forcing Texans to show photo identification to vote. The sonogram requirement is now law, while the voter-identification measure has been blocked by a federal court.
Davis has beaten the odds before. In 2011, the Legislature recast her district to reflect the 2010 U.S. Census, removing black and Latino voters -- groups that backed her in 2008. After she successfully challenged the new lines in federal court, state Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, agreed in February to reset the boundaries as they were in 2008.
“Davis is ahead in the polls because she’s a great candidate and a great campaigner,” Robert Miller said. He was referring to voter surveys conducted by the two campaigns, which neither would discuss.
A divorcee with a baby daughter living in a trailer park by age 19, Davis went to a community college and then Texas Christian University. After graduating first in her class, she went to Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Returning home, she practiced law and was elected to five terms on the Fort Worth City Council before running for the state Senate in 2008.
The lawmaker drew national attention last year by leading a last-minute filibuster against a Republican budget that cut billions from public schools. Perry used a special legislative session to get the spending plan approved.
“Davis is very articulate, very energetic and is a whale of a campaigner,” said Allan Saxe, who teaches politics at the University of Texas at Arlington and moderated a debate between Davis and Shelton last month. “Shelton is less forceful and more soft-spoken. But he still has a chance because of a lot of people will be voting a straight party ticket, and that could help him.”
A pediatrician, Shelton has been cast by Davis’s advertisements as too extreme because of his votes to cut public-school funding, air-quality monitoring and the state’s women’s health program. The Republican lacks Davis’s star power, said Robert Miller.
Shelton has attacked Davis over conflicts of interest because she voted on issues involving a legal client, toll road operator North Texas Transportation Authority. He brought a complaint to the Texas Ethics Commission that won’t be resolved until after the election.
“Any time you have an elected official who is using her position to enrich themselves and line their pockets with taxpayer dollars, it’s going to draw attention,” said Clayton Stewart, a Shelton spokesman. “She hid her relationship and she didn’t disclose enough information.”
Davis denies any wrongdoing, campaign spokeswoman Anthony Spangler said. “She hasn’t represented any clients before state government agencies, nor has her law partner,” he said.
Conflict of interest charges could decide the election by helping Shelton attract moderates, said HillCo’s Bill Miller. “If it’s a close race that Davis loses, ethics issues will be the reason,” he said.