That gain gives House Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) a slightly bigger cushion in his governing majority after spending over $1 million in a number of general elections. When the body reconvenes in January, there will be many new faces after an interim of significant turnover. Fifteen members decided to retire, and 10 opted to seek another office — one of those being state Rep. James Talarico (D-Round Rock), who jumped county lines to run for a safer Democratic House seat.
Republicans Janie Lopez in House District (HD) 37, Caroline Harris in HD 52, and Kronda Thimesch in HD 65 won their respective races.
In the Rio Grande Valley district, Lopez will succeed state Rep. Alex Dominguez (D-Brownsville), who chose to run in the Democratic primary for the open Senate District 27. Dominguez lost to Morgan LaMantia in that primary, who narrowly won the seat over Republican Adam Hinojosa on Tuesday.
Harris will succeed Talarico in the Williamson County seat, winning comfortably over Democrat Luis Echegaray.
Thimesch won on her second try for the House seat after redistricting shifted the district 17 points towards Republicans. That shift caused state Rep. Michelle Beckley (D-Carrollton) to bolt first for the 24th Congressional District race and then for the lieutenant governor contest, where she lost in a Democratic primary runoff to Mike Collier.
In those three races, Phelan spent at least $173,170 since July 1 with the lion’s share going to Lopez.
Phelan’s largest two beneficiaries at that time were state Rep. John Lujan (R-San Antonio) in HD 118 and Jamee Jolly in HD 70 — the most competitive races after redistricting, both rated “even” by The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index. On those, Republicans batted .500 with Lujan keeping his seat and Jolly losing by a mere 821 votes.
“I am extremely proud of the hard work and resources our team devoted to support our Republican House incumbents and open seat candidates in the General Election,” Phelan said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Our message resonated with the people of South Texas where we made significant gains this election cycle that will impact the political climate in the region for years to come. We also doubled the number of Republican women in the Texas House.”
In the primary, Phelan’s focus was on defending incumbents who faced stiff primary opposition; the effort proved successful, despite a handful of hotly contested fights.
But in the general election, eight of the candidates the speaker jumped in behind were non-incumbents.
Overall, Tuesday’s results give Republicans 85 seats in the 150-member body — nine more than is required to approve a speakership, but 15 less than a supermajority required to pass constitutional amendments or establish a quorum. Republicans have now retaken three of the 12 seats Democrats flipped in the 2018 “Beto wave,” while most of the rest were made staunchly more Democratic-favorable during redistricting.
Despite the gains, the turnover introduces some mystery into the Texas House, especially concerning the speakership.
State Rep. Tony Tinderholt (R-Arlington) declared his candidacy for speaker last week in a bid clearly focused on the issue of Democrats being appointed to chair House committees.
Phelan appointed 13 Democrats to chair committees last session, ranging from as consequential as the Public Education Committee to the fairly benign Resolutions Committee — the latter of which was chaired by then-Democrat state Rep. Ryan Guillen (R-Rio Grande City), who flipped parties last year.
Winning re-election for his eleventh term on Tuesday, Guillen punched well above his weight, winning with over 70 percent support in a district with an R-57% rating.
It remains to be seen whether Tinderholt can mount much of a challenge to Phelan’s speakership. Phelan put the contest to bed two years ago when he announced with 83 members in support, including 32 Democrats, 11 of which became committee chairs.
But even with that nine-member cushion for Republicans, that 76 member-majority is a fickle one. Last cycle, Phelan’s competition didn’t come from the other side of the aisle. It came from the ranks of his own — as is often the case, members of the majority party haggling among themselves and trying to draw numbers from the minority.
The most formal opposition came from state Rep. Geanie Morrison (R-Victoria), who dropped out the day after Phelan announced his speakership bid following days of behind-the-scenes political jockeying between the two. No majority coalition developed for Morrison, who thus threw in the towel.
Thirteen years ago, an audacious insurgence came in 2009 when former Speaker Joe Straus secured his majority by aligning with Democrats and 11 Republicans to win the position, and followed that up by appointing 16 Democrats as committee chairs.
After the back and forth in 2020, all but two House members coalesced behind Phelan: state Reps. Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) and Jeff Cason (R-Bedford), the latter of which is not returning after being drawn a heavily Democratic seat during redistricting.
Last session, a vote was held on an amendment to the chamber rules that would have prohibited the minority party from receiving chairmanships. Only a handful of members voted for it, and of those, only Tinderholt and Slaton are returning. Slaton endorsed Tinderholt for speaker on Wednesday.
However, two GOP regular session newcomers to the Texas House have publicly voiced opposition to Democrats as committee chairs: state Rep. Brian Harrison (R-Midlothian) and Nate Schatzline.
Harrison won a special election to replace now-Congressman Jake Ellzey (R-TX-06) after he bolted for Congress last year, but that was after the regular session during which the rules debate occurred.
As with everything in the Texas House, the speakership vote is a game of numbers, and Tinderholt has a lot of ground to gain if he hopes to present a challenge to Phelan’s speakership. But that issue of Democratic committee chairs will be one to watch in the beginning days of session as the House rules are debated and amended; it’s something for which the Texas GOP has remained critical of House leadership, with little sign of letting up.
But on the policy side, Phelan has been clear that the House has unfinished business from last session — most notably its 2021 health care and criminal justice reform priority lists.
There’s also property taxes to address — something the governor has thrown his rhetorical fire behind — along with the school choice issue, the preferred version of which among the legislature remains foggy at best. Phelan’s been clear that he doesn’t see the votes in the House for the latter policy at the moment.
Lawmakers could also fight over renewal of the Chapter 313 property tax abatement program that expires at the end of the year after failing to achieve renewal during the 88th Legislative Session; Phelan’s made clear his desire for a renewal in some form.
Then add whatever the Senate decides to throw at the lower chamber next year — something like another stab at banning child gender modification surgeries, which died in the House last session — and there’s a recipe for another chaotic five months chock full of haggling and last-minute scrambling.
This time, however, it is unlikely there will be another global pandemic or power grid collapse to soak up as much legislative oxygen.
Disclosure: Unlike almost every other media outlet, The Texan is not beholden to any special interests, does not apply for any type of state or federal funding, and relies exclusively on its readers for financial support. If you’d like to become one of the people we’re financially accountable to, click here to subscribe.
Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.