Analysis: An end to a weird legislative session, and the beginning of an uncertain political cycle

State Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, on the house floor on March 2, 2021.
State Rep. Keith Bell, R-Forney, on the house floor on March 2, 2021.

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The strangest regular session in the modern history of the Texas Legislature is ending, but the pandemic shadow that darkened these proceedings isn’t finished with the state’s government and politics.

Texas might be moving from a weird legislative session into a strange political cycle.

Because of the pandemic, the Legislature’s work isn’t done. And because that work isn’t done, the issues and the political fortunes that will be in play in the 2022 election year are uncertain.

COVID-19 delayed last year’s census. Because those numbers won’t be ready for four months, lawmakers didn’t have the data needed to draw new political districts for the state’s 38 U.S. House seats, 31 state Senate and 150 state House spots, and the 15 seats on the State Board of Education.

The mapmaking that would have taken place over the last five months is still ahead. Delayed maps could well mean delayed political primaries in 2022. Shifts of that sort can be disruptive, giving challengers and political nobodies time to catch up with established politicians.

It happened in 2012, when primaries were pushed from March to May as a result of redistricting litigation. That year’s U.S. Senate campaign frontrunner was Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst; Ted Cruz, who’d never been on a ballot, was the leader of a field of candidates who, unlike Dewhurst, had never run for statewide office in Texas. Cruz was running for second, vying not for an outright win in the Republican primary, but for the chance to face Dewhurst alone in a runoff. And the delay in the elections not only pushed that primary back — it pushed the runoff into July.

Cruz finished the first leg 12.5 percentage points behind Dewhurst, about as far behind as he had been in University of Texas/Texas Tribune polls in October 2011 and February 2012. When the July runoff came around, the extended campaigns had Dewhurst on his heels. Cruz had time to flip the results, turning that 12-point deficit into an almost 14-percentage-point victory, by raising his profile and the balance in his campaign account.