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Analysis: Voters Tilt the Senate to the Right

Republican primary voters have already decided one thing for the rest of the state's citizens: The Texas Senate that takes office in January will be more conservative than its predecessor.

The 2014 elections are not over yet, but one thing is apparent: Not only will a new lieutenant governor preside over the Texas Senate, but the Senate will be markedly more conservative.

The Republican primaries made that clear.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who might be the perfect example of what can go wrong for a well-established and well-financed incumbent, will not be the lieutenant governor for the 2015 legislative session. He lost Tuesday’s runoff in his re-election bid, just as he lost the 2012 Republican runoff for U.S. Senate.

Not so long ago, people were speculating that Dewhurst, who succeeded Gov. Rick Perry as the lieutenant governor in 2003, might be more conservative than Perry.

Dewhurst lost this week to state Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, largely on the perception of voters that the challenger was more conservative and easier to relate to. That was the formula in 2012, when Dewhurst lost the U.S. Senate runoff to Ted Cruz. And that earlier race was important elsewhere on this year’s ballot, providing a template for 2014 challengers taking on established Senate Republicans with conservative reputations and voting records.

The first to fall was state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, drowned in a flood of mail and television advertising by Donald Huffines, a real-estate developer whose family name was well established by a line of car dealerships. Huffines won that primary in March.

It took Bob Hall two rounds to unseat Bob Deuell, a physician elected to the state Senate in 2002 after a race that established him, for a few years, as a conservative stalwart who wrestled a seat away from the Democrats.

Huffines and Hall campaigned as more conservative than the incumbents.

Other presumptive incoming Republican senators include Van Taylor of Plano and Paul Bettencourt of Houston. They are the likely replacements for state Sen. Ken Paxton, who won the Republican nomination for attorney general this week, and for Patrick.

One of two Texas House members — Brandon Creighton of Conroe or Steve Toth of The Woodlands — will succeed state Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, after a special runoff this summer. Williams, who like Deuell was once regarded as a conservative outlier, quit to take a government relations job with the Texas A&M University System; both of the candidates are running as more conservative replacements.

The Senate has just one district that both parties think they can win in a general election. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is leaving that one open as she runs for governor, and Libby Willis, a Democrat, will face Konni Burton, a Tea Party organizer and activist who defeated a more mainstream Republican in this week’s runoff.

Three more seats could open soon, depending on the fortunes of their current occupants. State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, will face Patrick in the general election. If she wins, her seat will open. State Sen. Glenn Hegar of Katy, the Republican nominee for comptroller, would have to resign to take that job if he wins in November. And state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, is the sole finalist for chancellor of the Texas Tech University System. His resignation would open that seat in a Republican district for someone else; state Rep. Charles Perry, a Lubbock Republican who ran with Tea Party backing, has already expressed interest.

The 2012 elections changed six faces in the Senate, including five Republicans who were a notch or two more conservative than their predecessors. (One of those was Paxton.) Whether the body is led by a Republican or a Democratic lieutenant governor, it will have a Republican majority, and the majority of those Republicans entered the room as movement conservatives.

In other words, they were sent to effect some change in a Legislature that has had Republican majorities in the Senate since 1997 and the House since 2003. Viewed through the arguments made in the primaries, it has remained too liberal. Republican primary voters, in 2012 and again this year, are trying to correct that.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at http://www.texastribune.org/2014/05/30/analysis-voters-tilt-senate-right/.

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