Seeing red in the Texas Senate

Photo by John Jordan

The Texas Senate was a more conservative body during the 84th legislative session than in the preceding 83rd. At the top, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick took the place of David Dewhurst. He was joined by nine new senators, including seven freshmen Republicans who were each significantly more conservative than the senators they replaced.

The evidence is in the voting records of the new senators and the lawmakers they replaced.

Analysis of the 2,469 nonlopsided roll call votes cast in the 83rd and 84th legislative sessions using a Bayesian joint-scaling methodology allows for a comparison of the ideological location of senators who served in one, but not the other, legislature by employing the voting behavior of senators who served in both periods as anchors.

The chart contains all 40 senators who served in the Texas Senate between 2013 and 2015, arrayed from left (most liberal) to right (most conservative). The names of the freshmen senators are in bold, near those of the senator they replaced. The graphic provides each senator’s median ideal point (their Liberal-Conservative Score) as well as the 95 percent credible interval (CI) around this point estimate. If two senators’ CIs overlap, their positions on the ideological spectrum may be statistically equivalent, even if their actual Lib-Con Scores differ.

Unsurprisingly, the largest ideological gap between former senators and their replacements was in the one district that flipped from blue to red in 2014. In Senate District 10, Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, won the open seat vacated by Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who ran for governor. The distance between Burton’s Lib-Con Score (the second-most conservative among the 40 senators) and Davis’s Lib-Con Score is 1.67.

The next two most notable Lib-Con Score shifts (0.79 and 0.76) took place in the Senate districts where challengers Don Huffines, R-Dallas, and Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, defeated incumbents John Carona, R-Dallas, and Bob Deuell, R-Greenville, in the 2014 Republican primary. The fourth- (0.56) and fifth- (0.36) most visible moves to the right are seen in districts where incumbent Sens. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, and Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, resigned to pursue career opportunities at Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, and Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, were chosen in special elections to succeed them.

The final, and most modest, significant differences (0.28 and 0.20) between the GOP freshmen and the senators they replaced are in the cases of Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, and Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, who were elected to the statewide offices of attorney general and comptroller. Their constituents were represented in 2015 by state Sens. Van Taylor, R-Plano, and Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham.

The one Republican who is not significantly more conservative than the senator he replaced is Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston. In outflanking his predecessor, Bettencourt faced a more uphill struggle than his fellow freshmen, because the legislator he replaced in Senate District 7, Patrick, was the most-conservative senator in 2013. Bettencourt’s Lib-Con Score is slightly lower than Patrick’s (-0.06), but the two senators’ CIs clearly overlap and are functionally the same. Of note however is how Patrick’s CI falls to the left of four senators in the current Senate; based on their roll call voting records, Burton, Hall, Huffines and Taylor are notably more conservative than then-Sen. Patrick.

In the midst of the conservative freshman wave that rushed through the Capitol’s east wing in 2015, the lone freshman Democrat swam against the tide. After winning a very competitive special election, José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, took the place of Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, who resigned to run for mayor of the Alamo City. Menéndez’s Lib-Con Score is significantly more liberal than Van de Putte’s, and represents the only instance in 2015 where a freshman senator was significantly more liberal than his or her predecessor.

Mark P. Jones

Fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute