February 18, 2020

Austin Could Have Surprise Senate Competition
on Horizon if Capitol Conjecture Is Not Off Base

By Mike Hailey
Capitol Inside Editor

The Austin delegation to the Texas House could become a boxing ring for the next few months if unsubstantiated speculation on a potential early exit by a Democrat across the rotunda turns out to be on the mark.

With the Capital City beltway abuzz late Monday night on a Texas Senate resignation announcement that's expected today, Democratic State Senator Kirk Watson of Austin appears to be the betting favorite on who the departing lawmaker in the east wing will be.

A decision by Watson to step down before his term ends would most likely spark a furious scramble for the competitive edge among Democrats in the state's most liberal urban area in a special election to fill the vacancy that the veteran solon would leave behind if he calls it quits early in Senate District 14.

The seat that Watson won initially in 2006 isn't on the ballot in 2020. Democratic activists in Travis County would have had the task of choosing a replacement nominee if Watson had been a candidate for re-election this year. But Watson claimed a new term at the polls in 2018 and wouldn't be up for re-election until 2022 if he wasn't on the verge of leaving.

While the Republicans would be tempted to make a full-fledged effort to wrestle SD 14 from the Democrats in a special vote, the odds for a GOP takeover there would be slim in a district where Watson defeated GOP challenger George Hindman with almost 72 percent of the vote in 2018 when Beto O'Rourke garnered 74 percent there as the Democrats' U.S. Senate nominee.

The pool of possible contenders in the event of an opening in SD 14 could contain any one if not all of the House Democrats from Travis County where Watson represents three out of every four residents. As the Austin Democrats with the most experience at the statehouse, State Reps. Eddie Rodriguez and Donna Howard could expect to be among the early frontrunners if they decided to take aim at SD 14 in a special election.

Austin State Rep. Gina Hinojosa also could be in the potential mix in a possible special Senate contest as the daughter of Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa. Democratic State Rep. Celia Israel of Austin could consider an impromptu Senate bid as well if Watson hangs it up.

State representatives would have the luxury of running for the Senate without having to give up House seats if a special vote took place before the November general election.

Watson had served as the Austin mayor before an unsuccessful campaign for Texas attorney general in 2002 in a battle that current Republican Governor Greg Abbott won. But Watson bounced back four years later with his election to the upper chamber.

The state senators who do return for the next regular session will be entering it in the face of uncertainty with redistricting on the Legislature's plate in 2021. Senators typically serve four-year terms. But half of the Senate seats here will be good for only two years based on a drawing that the senators will conduct.

more to come ...


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