In legislative terms, tomorrow's runoff elections in Texas are not hugely significant: Only three congressional seats and one Texas Senate seat hang in the balance. Symbolically, though, this bout of holiday balloting could prove dramatic.
For Democrats, there are few good tidings. The GOP has already retained the eighth District seat vacated by retiring Republican Jack Fields, as both runoff contenders are Republicans. GOP candidate Dolly Madison McKenna could topple Democratic incumbent Ken Bentsen in the 25th, and freshman Republican Steve Stockman seems to be standing firm against challenger Nick Lampson in the ninth.
But that's not all. If Republicans triumph in a runoff contest to fill a vacant state Senate seat, the GOP will take control of that body for the first time since Reconstruction.
Texans turning to the right
To some observers, it's the latest sign of a glacial shift that's turning Texas into the nation's largest Republican enclave.
"At every level of government, this state has been sliding into the Republican column for 10 years," says University of Texas political scientist Walter Dean Burnham. "Barring some change, Texas will be a Republican state in the foreseeable future."
Yet Professor Burnham and others note that in some ways, the runoff results may not be a reliable measure of the Lone Star State's political mood. Turnout is likely to hover in the 20 percent range, they say, and victory could depend on which candidate's core supporters turn out. Most voters, they add, are more focused on wrapping gifts than weighing the day's grand political issues.
Moreover, they note, even if Republicans add a seat to their congressional majority and take control of the Texas Senate, they won't have much more political leverage in either body. In Texas, the lieutenant governor, Democrat Bob Bullock, plays a leading role in determining the Senate's agenda, regardless of which party enjoys a majority.
The congressional runoffs stem from a US Supreme Court decision this year that outlawed districts in three states that had been drawn to favor minority candidates.
But unlike the other two states affected, North Carolina and Louisiana, Texas officials decided to reconfigure the districts this year. As a result, primary results were nullified, and races in altered districts were opened to all candidates. In the three districts where runoffs are being held, no candidate achieved a majority.
In reshaping the three contested districts, the panel of federal judges had to change the boundaries of 13 districts. This domino effect had a significant impact in the 25th, where Congressman Bentsen, nephew of former Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, watched his already marginal Houston Democratic district grow more so.
Although Bentsen only mustered 37 percent of the vote in a crowded field, he could benefit from a split among conservatives. His opponent, businesswoman Dolly Madison Mckenna, has angered many religious conservatives by taking a pro-choice position on abortion.
Political 'mano a mano'
In the ninth District, a traditional Democratic stronghold centered in Beaumont, GOP freshman Rep. Stockman and Mr. Lampson have been locked in a muddy battle marked by charges of political hijinks. Although considered one of the most vulnerable GOP freshmen, Stockman has so far withstood a barrage of negative advertising funded by labor and environmental groups.
North of Houston, in the conservative Eighth District, the race is a choice between two brands of conservatism. Gene Fontenot has been embraced by former presidential contender Patrick Buchanan, while Kevin Brady has been backed by more mainstream Republicans like Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.
In the Texas Senate seat in Tom Green County, former state Rep. Robert L. Duncan (R) is favored to beat former Lubbock Mayor David R. Langston, a Democrat.