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Analysis: In 2020’s Texas legislative elections, competition is tricky business

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The Texas House of Representatives. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

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Lobbyists and special interests around Texas government have generally followed the “friendly incumbent rule” — withholding political contributions to candidates challenging incumbent members of the House and Senate.

They might help an incumbent, or not, but they won’t work against one. It’s a matter of self-preservation.

That’s because incumbents, on average, survive electoral challenges. And if you’re a member of what passes for a royal court in Austin — the people who know the names of legislators’ children and pets, their favorite restaurants, and how and why they vote the way they do — getting on the wrong side of a returning legislator is not very smart.

So, they duck.

Legislators themselves have usually followed the same rule inside their respective parties. Republicans don’t eat Republicans. Democrats don’t eat Democrats. Running against colleagues of the opposition party, however, has long been considered fair game.

But some members have become cautious. As the legislative session was ending last year, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said publicly that he would frown on members of the House campaigning against other members, regardless of party. He quickly got in very hot water for not following his own advice, but other members have picked up the idea.

In an election year when either party has a plausible shot at winning the majority in the Texas House, there’s some reluctance to add friction to the competition. That’s why some of the member-driven political funds and efforts have opted to defend members targeted by the other party rather than to go after new seats.

Republicans can keep control of the House by not losing, so not losing is their first order of business. With Democrats scheming to flip at least nine seats currently held by Republicans, defense is the GOP’s priority. That’s one reason Republicans in particular are tamping down talk of chasing Democratic incumbents: They can hold their majority without it.

Democrats have shanked two attempts to take Republican seats in special elections. In 2018, Republican Pete Flores beat Democrat Pete Gallego in a Senate district that stretches west from San Antonio and takes in most of the state’s border with Mexico. It’s ordinarily Democratic territory, and the Democrats in the race collected almost 60% of the votes in the first round. But the Republican prevailed in the runoff.

A more recent result in House District 28 was predictable. But it was a comeuppance to Democrats who sold themselves on the idea that trends in Fort Bend County would give them an upset in a consistently Republican district. Gary Gates easily beat Democrat Eliz Markowitz by 16 percentage points.

Flores is on the ballot again in November, this time in a general election where Democrats think they’ll fare better than in 2018’s special election. Even if they were to beat the incumbent, the partisan balance in the Senate is likely to remain in Republican control.

And Gates might well prevail in his bid for a full term in the House, which would keep a Republican seat in Republican hands. Under the current battle rules, he’ll have help from Republican colleagues in the House if he needs it.

In addition to the seats they’ll be defending, Republican strategists have their eyes on House districts lost to the Democrats in 2018 and now held by the likes of Erin Zwiener of Driftwood, Vikki Goodwin of Austin, James Talarico of Round Rock, Michelle Beckley of Carrollton, Ana-Maria Ramos of Dallas, Terry Meza of Irving, Rhetta Bowers of Garland, John Turner of Dallas, Julie Johnson of Carrollton, Gina Calanni of Katy, Jon Rosenthal of Houston and John Bucy of Austin.

But challengers might have to shop around for help outside of the House. So far, Democrats don’t seem restrained in the same way, and they’re mounting an offensive this year in hopes of gaining a House majority.

The incumbents they’re hunting include Morgan Meyer and Angie Chen Button of Dallas, Matt Shaheen and Jeff Leach of Plano, Brad Buckley of Killeen, Lynn Stucky of Denton, Tony Tinderholt of Arlington and Craig Goldman of Fort Worth, among others. Their list of “opportunities” has more than 20 districts on it.

Whatever happens in the elections, the Republican-Democratic split in the House in the 2021 legislative session is likely to be close — close enough, in fact, that it will be hard for anyone to get anything done without at least a few votes from the other party’s members.

And with Bonnen gone, the first major vote, a House speaker election, will almost certainly require votes from Democrats, if the House remains Republican, or from Republicans, if Democrats win a majority.

It wouldn’t be impossible to get a straight party-line vote from either majority, but the factions within both parties would make it difficult.

Fighting incumbents who might be back would strain relationships, making that kind of cooperation harder. That’s some of what Bonnen was getting at, back when he was preaching unity. It’s not something voters and donors think about, necessarily. But legislators do.