The GOP's New Crowded House

They carry more weight, but is it muscle or fat?

Former Democratic Reps. Aaron Peña and Allan Ritter are swallowed up by the state Republican leadership, including Gov. Rick Perry (l), Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (r), and Attorney General Greg Abbott (foreground).
Former Democratic Reps. Aaron Peña and Allan Ritter are swallowed up by the state Republican leadership, including Gov. Rick Perry (l), Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (r), and Attorney General Greg Abbott (foreground). (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

Remember that old saying about ruling in Hell rather than serving in Heaven? Texas Democrats are left wondering which side of that equation Reps. Allan Ritter of Nederland and Aaron Peña of Edinburg are on after the pair announced their defection to the Republican Party on Tuesday.

The switch means that the already huge Republican majority in the House – which stood at 99 before Ritter's announcement – becomes a 101-seat supermajority. If Republicans can remain unified on the House floor, it gives them the numbers to cram pretty much any legislation, including constitutional amendments, through the House. Democrats had thought the recount victory by 12 votes of Austin Rep. Donna Howard could keep them safe – see "Repub­licans Denied a Supermajority (Again)," Dec. 10 – but this week's party-flips made that a short-lived victory.

Explaining his decision in a brief statement, Ritter said he wasn't making the switch because of any major personal change of heart but simply "in order to best reflect the views of the majority of the people of District 21." Citing his discontent with the Democratic Party leadership, Peña described his consideration of a jump as pragmatic: With Republicans sitting on a massive majority, it would be easier to get a seat at the committee table with an "R" next to his name. "If you don't have a seat at the table, you may be on the menu," he said Tuesday. Both members denied that any promises about committee appointments or other quid pro quos had been made in exchange for their new allegiance.

Texas Democratic Party Chair Boyd Richie fired back, saying that if the representatives are so certain their districts are Republican strongholds, they should step down and run under the GOP banner in a special election. As for Peña's argument that he was simply representing the Hispanic community in South Texas, Richie replied, "The Texas Republican version of 'Hispanic outreach' amounts to reaching out to self-serving politicians like Aaron Peña while reaching into communities to take away economic and educational opportunity."

However, Ritter's and Peña's announcements weren't that surprising. Ritter, who filed paperwork to run as House speaker when the House was a more balanced 76-74 in 2008 (see "Let the Race Begin," Nov. 14, 2008), faces a rough redistricting in the next session. With East Texas accounting for a decreasing percentage of the state population, that means it's likely to be allotted fewer House seats for the 2012 elections. The redrawing of district lines could see Ritter's seat reconfigured, or it could disappear from the electoral map altogether. Peña may represent solidly Democratic Hidalgo County, but he was one of the staunchest and most unrepentant Democratic supporters of former Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland.

It's uncertain exactly which House GOP Ritter and Peña have joined. The fringe right of the Republican caucus has started an open and bloody civil war against Speaker Joe Straus, whom they've painted as a pro-abortion moderate. The establishment conservatives have thrown their backing behind Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, while Rep. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, has picked up a lot of tea party momentum both inside and outside the House. However, there's also been widespread distaste over attacks on Straus, Texas' first Jewish speaker, which have smacked of anti-Semitism. Both Paxton and Chisum have publicly distanced themselves from comments like that of State Republican Executive Committee member John Cook, who said, "We now want a true Christian conservative running" the House. That didn't stop Randy Weber, R-Pearland, from announcing on Dec. 12 that he was withdrawing his pledge from Straus and telling his Facebook friends, "Please pray that Texas will be strengthened and in GOD's will."

With the Republican hard right doubling down, it's still questionable exactly how welcome any defectors will be. Last session, Ritter only got a 30% score on the Heritage Alliance conservative-o-meter for his voting record and 32% from the Young Conserv­atives of Texas, while Peña only scored a 25% and 29%. With many blue-dog Demo­crats booted out in November, those scores would place both men toward the right wing of the current Democratic caucus. But those same scores put them well outside of the GOP mainstream.

There's also the question of where these defections place Ritter and Peña for the 2012 elections. While their decisions are based in part on the GOP having a large freshman class heavy on conservatives, the new reps have yet to prove they can do anything other than win a seat in a Republican high-water year. With tea party activists already threatening to remove Sen. Kay Bail­ey Hutchison for being a RINO (Republican in name only) and Democrats already sounding out candidates for 2012, the long-term political health of Democratic Party switchers may not be so rosy.

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