The conservative drift of the Texas Senate: 2011-2017

Photo by Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Between 2011 and 2017 an already conservative Texas Senate shifted even further to the right. The total number of Republican senators increased by only one during this period (from 19 to 20), explaining very little of this shift. However, 14 Republican senators were replaced by fellow Republicans, and each Republican successor was more conservative than his/her predecessor — most, significantly so.


A total of 4,792 non-lopsided roll call votes cast between January 11, 2011 and May 29, 2017 were examined. The Bayesian joint-scaling methodology used for the analysis allows for a comparison of legislators who served in different sessions by employing the voting behavior of legislators who overlapped with these legislators as ideological anchors.

The chart contains the ideal point (Liberal-Conservative Score) and 95 percent credible interval (CI) for the 49 Texas senators (34 Republicans and 15 Democrats) who served in one or more legislative sessions between 2011 and 2017. If two senators’ CIs overlap, their positions on the ideological spectrum might be statistically equivalent, even if their Lib-Con Scores are different. The names of the senators who replaced other senators (or in the case of multiple changes in one district, the most recent replacements) are in bold. Dark red (Republicans) and dark blue (Democrats) circles indicate the senators who currently serve in the 2017 Texas Senate, while the parties of former senators are indicated by light red and light blue circles. The senators are arrayed from left to right, ranging from the most liberal senator during this period (Sylvia Garcia of Houston) to the most conservative senator during this period (Konni Burton of Colleyville).  (Here’s a table with the 49 senators ranked from most liberal to most conservative).


Between the end of the 2011 regular session and the start of the 2017 regular session, Republicans replaced Republicans in 14 instances. In one district (SD-8), a Republican (Florence Shapiro of Plano) was replaced by another Republican (Ken Paxton of McKinney), who in turn was replaced by a third Republican (Van Taylor of Plano). Finally, in one district (SD-10) a Democrat, Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, was replaced by a Republican, Burton.

The Republican Shift

Burton is more conservative, by leaps and bounds, than her predecessor. Davis’s Lib-Con Score is to the left of the Democratic median while Burton has the most conservative Lib-Con Score in the Texas Senate. What’s noteworthy is that every single one of the 14 Republicans who replaced another Republican is more conservative than their predecessor; in 12 of 14 cases significantly more conservative. 

The dozen significant GOP shifts to the right occurred in the following cases (presented in decreasing order of magnitude of the ideological shift): Bob Hall of Edgewood replacing Bob Deuell of Greenville (in 2015), Don Huffines of Dallas replacing John Carona of Dallas (in 2015), Charles Perry of Lubbock replacing Robert Duncan of Lubbock (in 2015), Bryan Hughes of Mineola replacing Kevin Eltife of Tyler (in 2017), Van Taylor replacing Paxton (in 2015), Brandon Creighton of Conroe replacing Tommy Williams of The Woodlands (in 2015), Charles Schwertner of Georgetown replacing Steve Ogden of Bryan (in 2013), Lois Kolkhorst of Brenham replacing Glenn Hegar of Katy (in 2015), Donna Campbell of New Braunfels replacing Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio (in 2013), Kelly Hancock of North Richland Hills replacing Chris Harris of Arlington (in 2013), Dawn Buckingham of Lakeway replacing Troy Fraser of Horseshoe Bay (in 2017) and Paxton replacing Shapiro (in 2013). The two shifts where the successor is more conservative, but not significantly more conservative, than his predecessor are: Larry Taylor of Friendswood replacing Mike Jackson of La Porte (in 2013) and Paul Bettencourt of Houston replacing Dan Patrick of Houston (in 2015).

Another way to look at these same data is to split the 34 Republicans who served during the 2011-17 period into the most and least conservative.

Sixteen of the 19 Republicans who served in the 2011 Senate are located in the least conservative half. All nine of the Republican senators in the least conservative quartile were in office in 2011. Conversely, only two of the nine senators in the most conservative quartile were in office in 2011 (Brian Birdwell of Granbury and Patrick). 

Today, 15 of the Senate’s 20 Republicans are located in the most conservative half and only 5 in the least conservative half. Eight of the 9 senators in the most conservative quartile are in office now (and the ninth is now lieutenant governor). Conversely, only two of the nine senators in the least conservative quartile are in office today: Kel Seliger of Amarillo and Craig Estes of Wichita Falls.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the 2017 GOP Caucus

The figure also locates Lt. Gov. Patrick’s position on the Liberal-Conservative Dimension compared to that of the 20 Republicans who comprise the 2017 GOP Texas Senate Caucus. Patrick’s Lib-Con Score is significantly less conservative than those of four current GOP senators (Burton, Hall, Van Taylor and Huffines) and significantly more conservative than those of 11 current GOP senators. Patrick’s Lib-Con Score is not notably different from that of five sitting GOP senators: Creighton, Bettencourt, Hancock, Birdwell and Kolkhorst.

The Democrats

Democrats occupied 12 (2011, 2013) or 11 (2015, 2017) seats during this time frame, with only three cases of a Democrat replacing a fellow Democrat. There is no clear trend in the ideological direction of these replacements, with two of the Democrats (Garcia and José Menéndez of San Antonio) significantly more liberal than their predecessors (Mario Gallegos of Houston and Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio) and one Democrat (Borris Miles of Houston) significantly more conservative than the senator he replaced (Rodney Ellis of Houston).

Many Austin insiders believe that the Texas Senate has veered to the right this decade, an opinion firmly supported by the roll call vote data. Over the course of seven years, the Texas Senate has gone from a body where centrist conservative Republicans were substantial in number and even more substantial in influence to a body where centrist conservatives are small in number and notably less influential. Today, centrist conservative Texas Senate Republicans are approaching the status of an endangered species, not quite yet at the critically endangered level of the gorilla and orangutan, but arguably at the vulnerable level of the giraffe and hippopotamus.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter 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