Texas state senators draw for term lengths

Dave McNeely

Unless you are a relatively close follower of Texas politics and government, you may not know this.

The Texas House of Representatives has 150 members, who have two-year terms. All the seats are up for election every two years. No problem.

But the 31 members of the Texas Senate serve staggered four-year terms. That means 15 seats are up for election in one even-numbered election year, and two years later, the other 16 seats are up.

But once a decade, after the decennial census, the Senate adjusts its districts, to accommodate population shifts -- and, to be blunt, to see the party in power gerrymander the districts as much as possible to help their side for elections for the next 10 years.

In the election year following the census – in this case, 2022, after the 2021 redistricting, based on the 2020 census – all 31 senate districts are up for election.

Then, to restore the senate to staggered four- year terms -- roughly half of the senators chosen every two years – all 31 senators elected in 2022 will draw lots early in the regular 140-day legislative session beginning in January of 2023 following the elections of all 31 senators – this time in 2023 – the senators will draw lots to see which 16 get four-year terms, and which 15 will get two-year terms.

And barring successful lawsuits challenging the redistricting, the districts, with the staggered four-year terms will be in place until the 2030 census starts the shuffle once again.

This ritual to restore the staggered terms every ten years can have a major effect on the political choices of senators.

If they draw a two-year term initially, then they will come up for election in presidential election years for the rest of the decade. If they draw a four-year term, their seat will come up for election in non-presidential election years – the years that statewide officials are chosen.

For instance, if a senator wants to run for attorney general, if they initially drew a two-year term, their district would be up for election in the same election years as the attorney general’s four-year term.

That means their choice would be “Up or Out.” Since you can’t be on the ballot for more than one office in an election (except for president or vice-president), you’d have to give up your senate seat to run for attorney general.

An example of the “Up Or Out” race for a state senator was when Democratic state Sen. Wendy Davis was catapulted into national prominence by her filibuster to block an anti-abortion bill in 2013.

She ran in 2014 for governor, rather than for re-election. But she lost the general election to Republican then-Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott. And had sacrificed her senate seat in the process.

If she had drawn a four-year initial term, she could have made a “free-ride race,” where a senator could seek statewide office, and if they lost, would still be a senator for another two years.

An example is State Sen. Royce West, the long-time Dallas Democrat, who ran in 2020 for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

West lost the Democratic primary runoff to M.J. Hegar and was out of the U.S. Senate contest. But he was still a state senator.

So, the drawing for terms in 2023 among the 31 senators elected in November of 2022 ought to be really interesting – at least to the 31 senators.

Some senators bowing out

Three of the most senior members of the Texas Senate have announced they won’t run for re-election in 2022 – leaving their seats up for grabs, which is already going on.

The three are:

— Eddie Lucio, Jr., D - Brownsville 75 – third in seniority, senator since 1991, after two House terms. A surprise, because he had earlier announced he would run again.

His anti-abortion stance distanced him from other Democrats, but endeared him to Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

His son, State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, was considered a potential successor, but announced he also will not run for re-election in 2022.

— Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, 70, senator since 1993, is the most senior Republican. Chair of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee for the last four sessions.

— Kel Seliger, Republican, 68, former longtime Amarillo Mayor, joined the Senate in 2005.

— Dawn Buckingham, R-Lakeway, 53, senator since 2017, is leaving to run for Land Commissioner.

— Senate Dean John Whitmire, D-Houston, 72, a House member for 10 years before joining the Senate in 1983, plans to run for re-election in 2022, but after the regular legislative session ends May 29, 2023, he says he’s running for mayor of Houston in November 2023.

Dave McNeely is a statewide political columnist. He can be reached via email at davemcneely111@gmail.com

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