AUSTIN — Incumbent politicians can breathe a little easier now that three federal judges have declared they won’t redraw the state’s political maps or delay the 2014 primary elections.
The nightmare of new districts and a prolonged primary campaign haunted many Republican lawmakers fearful they might lose their conservative majorities or face a tea party challenger. The San Antonio court’s order on Friday afternoon allows them to move forward with certainty about which voters they’ll need to mobilize on March 4.
The court handed Democrats a setback by not drawing new maps for 2014. The court agreed to consider claims by Democrats, minorities and civil rights groups that the current maps discriminate against minorities, but they left it in place for now. After all, they are the ones who drew them in 2012.
Democrats calculate that a fair map would give minorities the ability to elect their candidate of choice in five to eight more legislative districts, potentially eroding the Republican majority in the Texas House. They also think they could win two more seats for Democrats in Congress. But that’s unlikely to happen this year.
Overcoming an incumbent in any party’s primary is always a longshot, but Texas’ early primary makes it even more difficult. Campaigns rarely get any attention before Labor Day, and few people are interested in politics between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
Short of the incumbent committing a gaffe, a challenger really only has two months to get noticed and convince voters to give up on the person they elected last time. But a late primary is a different animal.
Every incumbent remembers well 2012, when redistricting litigation delayed the primary from March 6 to May 29. Former Solicitor General Ted Cruz used the extra time to come from nowhere and force a runoff election with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, a race he ultimately won to become a U.S. senator. Legislators also remember how conservative challengers used that time to defeat five powerful committee chairmen.
This year, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn began his campaign for re-election ready to deal with a rightwing challenger, particularly after the tea party-affiliated FreedomWorks started criticizing him. But with no serious candidate yet to register against him, the Republican nomination appears a lock.
When there is no incumbent, or there are more than two candidates for the same job, campaigns make it their goal to extend the primary by making sure no one gets more than 50 percent of the ballots and forcing a runoff. Voters can expect plenty of campaign ads for lieutenant governor, attorney general and other open statewide offices mixed in with Christmas commercials this year as more than a dozen candidates try to make it into a second round of voting.
An early primary may help Republican incumbents but it could hurt them in the general election campaign, which will last eight months next year.
With Gov. Rick Perry retiring and five out of eight major statewide offices without an incumbent, Democrats see a chance to break their 20-year losing streak. Recruiting Democrats to run for statewide office is a bigger problem than having multiple candidates competing for the same job, so Democrats will save their resources for defeating Republicans bruised and battered by their primaries.
Eight months is a long time in politics, and it gives Democrats the chance to get out their message and register voters if they can raise the money.
While politicians can enter the 2014 season knowing the parameters, the federal judges in San Antonio were clear that they’re only providing certainty for this election. They rejected Attorney General Greg Abbott’s call to dismiss the redistricting lawsuit entirely, and the judges are not convinced the maps Texas will use in 2014 should stand for 2016.