How one race could chart Texas Democrats' future

Photo by Nan Palmero;

This year’s Republican primaries in Texas featured a host of battles for the ideological soul of the state GOP. The Democratic primaries, meanwhile, were a veritable sea of tranquility. 

But Leticia Van de Putte’s decision to resign from the Texas Senate to run for mayor of San Antonio has set the stage for the highest-profile battle for the soul of the Texas Democratic Party in recent years. In early 2015, one of the most liberal members of the Texas House, Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, will face off in a Senate District 26 special election against his significantly more centrist colleague José Menéndez, D-San Antonio.

The election will take place in the wake of Texas Democrats’ shellacking on Nov. 4, when Van de Putte, who ran for lieutenant governor, and state Sen. Wendy Davis, who ran for governor, lost by about 20 points. The party now finds itself at a crossroads as it looks toward 2016, 2018 and beyond. Should it promote a liberal policy agenda and image based on the belief that a combination of education, outreach and mobilization will motivate ethnic and racial minorities to turn out in larger numbers and vote Democratic? Or should it promote a more moderate and pragmatic agenda and image designed to win the support of conservative Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans who in recent years have voted for GOP candidates? The two options aren’t mutually exclusive, but as state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, has astutely pointed out, Texas Democrats will likely have to prioritize one or the other in the short to medium term.

The figure below shows all 55 Texas House Democrats for the 2013-15 legislative session on the liberal-conservative dimension along which most legislative voting takes place. For each representative, a mean ideal point (his or her Liberal-Conservative, or Lib-Con, Score) and the 95 percent credible interval (CI) surrounding this point estimate are included, as is a vertical dashed line, labeled D, which pinpoints the Democratic delegation’s median Lib-Con Score during the session.

In one corner for the SD-26 match is Martinez Fischer, a quintessential Texas liberal. In the 2013-15 session, he was the sixth most liberal representative, with a Lib-Con Score notably to the left of the Democratic delegation’s median Lib-Con Score. The overlap of Martinez Fischer’s 95 percent CI with those of the five more liberal Democrats indicates that no Democratic House member was significantly more liberal than Martinez Fischer in the 83rd session. Martinez Fischer’s 95 percent CI also reveals that 20 of his fellow House Democrats were significantly more centrist than him.

In the other corner is Menéndez, a prototypical moderate Democrat. While far more liberal than even the least conservative Republican during the last session, Menéndez’s Lib-Con Score made him the 13th most centrist member of the Democratic House delegation. Menéndez’s Lib-Con Score is notably to the right of the delegation’s median Lib-Con Score and significantly less liberal than that of 16 of his fellow Democrats, but also significantly more liberal than that of the three most conservative House Democrats. 

Since their simultaneous arrival in the Texas House in January of 2001, Martinez Fischer always has occupied a position to the left of Menéndez, with the ideological gulf between them particularly deep and wide during the two most recent legislative periods. As was the case in 2013-15, Martinez Fischer’s Lib-Con Score in the 2011-13 legislative session was significantly more liberal than that of Menéndez. No House Democrat in 2011 was significantly more liberal than Martinez Fischer, while 20 were significantly more centrist. In the 82nd session, Menéndez was significantly less liberal than 18 of his fellow Democrats and significantly more liberal than five. Among the 49 Democrats who served in 2011, Martinez Fischer was the 10th most liberal, while Menéndez was the 15th most centrist. 

Voters in Bexar County’s heavily Democratic SD-26 will have a chance early next year to make a powerful statement about the future of the Texas Democratic Party. Will they follow the lead of Texas Republican primary voters, who this year largely sided with the candidate closest to the outer edge of their side of the ideological spectrum? Or will they opt for a more moderate path forward? 

Disclosure: Rice University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Mark P. Jones

Fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute