CHRIS TOMLINSON, Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Elections and court rulings could bring tremendous changes to Texas in 2014, reshaping the political landscape for the first time in more than a decade.
Texans will choose a new governor, attorney general, comptroller, land commissioner, agriculture commissioner and railroad commissioner. The only question for voters is whether to hand out promotions to serving politicians or elect some new faces to run the state.
Judges next year also could upend the status quo, declaring the public school finance system insufficient, deciding the constitutionality of gay marriage and redrawing political maps that could dent Republicans’ grip on power. Judges also will rule on the legality of some of the toughest abortions laws in the country, setting the stage for a major U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2015.
Gov. Rick Perry tripped the political escalator when he announced his retirement, clearing the way for his heir apparent, Attorney General Greg Abbott. State Comptroller Susan Combs also announced retirement plans this year and Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman jumped in the race to replace Abbott.
Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples are trying to oust Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, weakened by his failed U.S. Senate bid in 2012. Of the top seven state offices, Dewhurst is the only incumbent running in 2014, and he’s got three challengers in the Republican primary.
The state hasn’t seen that much change at the top since George W. Bush moved from the governor’s mansion to the White House in 2000.
A key question for voters is whether to oust career politicians.
Tea party members are hoping to capitalize on voter unhappiness by promising more conservative policies if elected. That’s placed some veteran politicians, like U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, on the defensive. He’s proclaiming his conservatism at every opportunity and mirroring the junior senator from Texas, Ted Cruz.
Democrats hope the tack to the right will help them claim the political center.
Fort Worth Sen. Wendy Davis routinely touts her filibuster in the Texas Legislature, but not the one most people remember. She brags about her 2011 filibuster of the state budget to fight cuts to education money, leaving unmentioned her 2013 filibuster of an abortion law that made her a viable gubernatorial candidate.
Texans themselves are undergoing social and demographic changes, giving Democrats hope of winning their first statewide election since 1994. Whites are less than 50 percent of the state’s population and city dwellers now outnumber country folk, giving those traditionally Democratic blocs an edge if they turn out to vote in the same numbers as Republicans.
The biggest changes, though, could come from federal courts considering in 2014 the constitutionality of key conservative laws.
First up is the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Federal courts have upheld a ruling that declared Utah’s ban on gay marriage illegal, setting the stage for a Supreme Court challenge next year. Two gay couples in Texas will get a hearing before a San Antonio judge in February. If Judge Orlando Garcia, a Bush appointee, follows the path set by other federal judges, he could clear the way for gay marriage in Texas.
A three-judge panel in San Antonio, which includes Garcia, also will decide whether Texas’ political maps guarantee minority voting rights. The case has dragged on since 2011, and the Legislature adopted interim court-drawn maps in 2013 as the official maps. Minority groups argue the maps still discriminate against Hispanic and black voters and want the court to draw new ones for 2016.
Minority groups also are fighting the requirement to show a government-issued photo ID card to vote in Texas. A federal judge in Corpus Christi is considering that case, which U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has joined on behalf of the civil rights groups.
Republicans tout the Voter ID law, which they say prevents voter fraud, as one of their top achievements, joining strict new abortion regulations. Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers are also fighting those in federal court in a case Justice Antonin Scalia says likel will likely up at the Supreme Court.
All in all, change is in the air for Texas in 2014, and much of it could be profound.