Veteran Texas US Rep. Lamar Smith (R-San Antonio) rather surprisingly announced yesterday that he will not seek a 17th term in the House next year. Mr. Smith was first elected in 1986, and has averaged 81.5% of the vote during his 16 election campaigns. The lowest win percentage of his long career (57%) actually came last November.
Prior to his election to Congress, Mr. Smith served for a short time on the Bexar County Commission and in the Texas House of Representatives. In the US House, his current 31 years of service ranks him #14 in seniority. He is in his final term as chairman of the House Science Committee. Previously, he was chairman of both the Judiciary Committee and House Ethics Committee.
Rep. Smith is the second Texas Republican to announce his retirement this week and third overall. Earlier, Dallas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, also a committee chairman (Financial Services), made public his intention to retire. They join Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Plano) who announced his own retirement months ago. On the Democratic side, Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-El Paso) is leaving his safe congressional seat to challenge Sen. Ted Cruz (R).
Action is occurring now because the Texas candidate filing deadline is approaching on December 11th, in anticipation of the state’s early March 6th primary.
The 21st District contains parts of San Antonio and Austin. Aside from its portion of the respective Bexar and Travis Counties, the 21st houses six full counties and two other partial local entities. In addition to the San Antonio-Austin corridor, the district spans westward to annex the Texas Hill Country made famous in Willie Nelson songs, and the location where the legendary singer still resides.
Many Republican state and local officials are elected in this region, so the GOP could be potentially stacked with candidates. Six Democrats had announced against Mr. Smith, none of whom have ever been elected to any office. It is likely stronger Democratic potential candidates will now look at the open seat race.
One person drawing speculation as a possible congressional candidate is state House Speaker Joe Straus (R), who himself just announced that he would not seek re-election to the legislature. Straus is viewed as a long shot candidate, and with conservatives down on him as a coalition Speaker (he drew only 12 Republican votes in his last election for Speaker, winning because the Democrats voted in a block for him), he would have a difficult Republican primary fight should he choose the unlikely course of running for Congress.
Additionally, even though Mr. Straus has over $10 million in his campaign account, none of it would be transferrable to a federal campaign, but he could use every dollar if he were to run for Governor as an Independent as some long shot Texas political speculators have mentioned.
The wild card in the central Texas political situation is the ongoing redistricting lawsuit, however. The federal three-judge panel has already declared District 35 (Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin) as illegal. The 21st and 35th are adjacent, sharing the San Antonio-Austin corridor, meaning that a regional map re-drawn before the 2018 election would greatly affect the 21st.
Without an incumbent in the 21st, the map becomes easier to draw if the court gains the power to set the boundaries; therefore, Democrats could come away as major beneficiaries. The Republicans have filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court, and the re-map process is on hold until the Justices’ review is completed.
These newest announced open seats bring the national regular cycle incumbent-less total to 31, with two more to be settled in special elections. The UT-3 (Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Alpine/Sandy, resigned) special vote will be decided next Tuesday. The PA-18 vacancy (Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pittsburgh, resigned) will be filled on March 13th, with special party nominating conventions scheduled for November 11th (Republicans) and November 19th (Democrats).