The GOP’s 2010 victory–and their 2011 hangover

The Republicans are still celebrating a big victory in Texas (and across the country). Paul Burka, one of the leading commentators on Texas politics, described the Democrats as being bombed back into the stone age. Gaining more that 20 seats in the Texas House gives the GOP some additional strength in the coming years. However, they’re a long way from realizing Burka’s claim that the Democrats will not be a factor for a decade.

Party was clearly a key factor. Many people thought that an anti-incumbent fever would turn voters against incumbents from both parties. That certainly didn’t appear to be the case in Texas. The Republican brand in Texas was strong and it looks like there were lots of straight ticket voters (as usual) in Texas.

It’s easy to see the promise and the peril of the Republicans’ situation. They have a big win and lots of excitement. At the same time, they now lay claim to a sputtering economy, a huge budget shortfall, and  base that expects to see a lot accomplished. Anyone who thinks that doesn’t carry some political risks might want to speak to Obama or Pelosi.

In some ways, the Texas GOP’s victory doesn’t seem to change things as much as some are suggesting. Certainly, having control over the Texas Legislature is an important part of making the most of redistricting. However, the current districts a product of Republican mapmakers. The expanded Republican majority makes carving out the new districts that Texas will get a little easier, but the GOP already had control of the Legislature.

A big majority does present advantages. It also creates big expectations. The legislature will be expected to deliver on every issue that a Republican made promises on. However, there are a lot of different views of what that party stands for and meaning of the party’s agenda will be up for a vote. And, of course, that 140 day session doesn’t provide much time.

The first matter they have to resolve is the choice of speaker. Some of the new House members may be drawn into an effort to oust Joe Strauss. New members are hard to predict and might help launch a rebellion. At the same time, an expanding majority is usually a happy majority and some members are going to be reluctant to change leadership. Either way, a battle over leadership is going to produce hurt feelings that will carry over into the session

The most serious problem they have is the budget shortfall.  Whether it’s $18 or 25 billion, it’s big. And, one thing is clear: the “Tea Party” element of the Republican party is not going support anything that looks like a tax increase. Many Republicans rode into power proclaiming a disdain for taxes and compromise. That means that even a little tax increase would be a big no-no. That means that every dollar of the solution lies on the budget cutting side.

The budget cuts that are looming are going to be incredibly difficult and navigating those without alienating major constituencies will take a miracle. When the agencies that run a growing state have to function on 10% less than they had two years earlier, program delivery will suffer. The Republicans know that there’s not a lot of fat to trim from the budget–because they’ve been trimming that budget for about a decade now. The easy cuts were made years ago.

The Tea Partiers are going to want to pursue some highly visible (and difficult) issues like immigration, voter ID. etc. However, the business-oriented Republicans are going to want the party to focus on keeping Texas businesses healthy. The “silent majority” of the GOP may be the people who simply want a government that works.

Of course, issues like immigration are immensely complicated. Everyone is talking about immigration but agreement on solutions is tough. As with budgets, any easy answers would have been found already. Texas’ new high-tech border fence doesn’t seem to have done the trick. Elements of Arizona-style immigration reform have been opposed by Perry and other conservatives and Republicans will have to toe a fine line between being tough and making government too big..

Ironically, Rick Perry’s success and ambition may complicate Texas politics in two ways. First, whether Perry plans on heading to Washington to serve as vice president or as a commentator for some news organization, his pending book tour makes clear that his focus is increasingly on Washington. Other Republicans are going to position themselves to lead the state while Perry runs around the country. David Dewhurst may seem like a logical successor, but movements like the Tea Party have not proven to be especially patient at waiting their turn and Texans have demonstrated a willingness to elect newcomers to governor. If experience isn’t a requirement (and may be a liability),  the field could be wide open.

Second, while his next goal may be beyond the state, Rick Perry is still very much with us. Perry may not be the easiest governor to bargain with as he positions himself for his next job. He may be looking to make a splash with a dramatic veto or some other dramatic gesture.

The road ahead is tough. While some Republicans mocked the Obama themes of “Hope” and “Change,” they now find themselves peddling a different flavor of that same dish.


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