McNeely: Guns just one of many issues to complicate Texas elections in 2020

Texas elections in 2020 could be a fascinating mess.

It’s not just that Republican President Donald Trump is almost certain to be at the top of the ballot, with whatever positives and negatives that carries with it. It’s that Texas politics has some homegrown hurdles of its own.

Here’s a look at them:

■ Distrust among Republicans in the Texas House of Representatives.

Republican House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, met secretly with Michael Quinn Sullivan, the leader of the far-right group Empower Texans. It was June 12, less than two weeks after the biennnial legislative session ended.

Sullivan later said Bonnen and Burrows had offered press passes to people affiliated with Sullivan’s group in exchange for working against 10 Republican incumbents.

Bonnen denied the allegations, but it turned out Sullivan had secretly recorded the meeting. He has refused to make public the tape, but is playing some of it for some Republican House members and others who mostly say it bears out Sullivan’s account.

As a result, Bonnen’s speakership could be on the endangered list if Gov. Greg Abbott gives in to House Democrats’ calls for a special session on gun control.

The Legislature cannot meet other than in its 140-day regular session beginning in January of odd-numbered years unless the governor calls them into special session.

■ Straight-ticket voting.

Straight-ticket party-line voting will no longer be available by pulling a single lever or pushing a single button.

From about half to two-thirds of Texas voters have voted a straight-ticket ballot. With that gone, down-ballot candidates could find it goes a long way on removing the political coattails they had hoped to enjoy.

It remains to be seen whether this will hurt Democrats or Republicans more. But it was the Republican-dominated Legislature that passed the change in 2017.

Some have observed that the decision to leave straight-ticket voting in place for the 2018 election, and wait until 2020 to drop it, may have been a bad one for Republicans.

In Harris County, for instance, Democrats captured all the district judgeships up for election in 2018, unseating several Republican judges.

Most states have done away with straight-ticket voting. Exceptions are Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Utah.

■ Gun control.

The election, and possibly the 2021 regular session of the Legislature, will be against a backdrop of battles over gun laws.

A rash of mass shootings, including in El Paso and Odessa, have citizens and some legislators — particularly Democrats — trying to stiffen Texas’ rather lax laws on gun control.

Surprisingly, one of the Republicans considered least likely to call for more gun control did so in early September.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, presiding officer of the state Senate, shocked the National Rifle Association, among others, by endorsing background checks for private gun sales. They are currently not controlled.

He told The Dallas Morning News he was “willing to take an arrow” from the gun lobby.

About gun sales, “That gap of stranger to stranger we have to close, in my view,” Patrick told The Morning News. “When I talk to gun owners, NRA members and voters, people don’t understand why we allow strangers to sell guns to total strangers when they have no idea if the person they’re selling the gun to could be a felon, could be someone who’s getting a gun to go commit a crime or could be a potential mass shooter or someone who has serious mental issues.”

Patrick told the Morning News that transferring firearms between family members, and friends, would also be exempt.

■ Redistricting.

That 2021 legislative session is also when Texas and other states perform legislative and congressional redistricting after the 2020 federal census.

Democrats, not incidentally, are trying to flip at least nine Republican seats in the Texas House. In 2018 they flipped 12, which brought them to 67 members in the 150-member House, to the Republicans’ 83. Nine more would give them 76 — a majority.

That in turn would probably produce a Democratic speaker, and some power to prevent Republican gerrymandering.

The Republicans, meanwhile, will be trying to forestall that growth. But Speaker Bonnen’s self-made difficulties, and the division it could produce over the next several months, could keep the House Republicans off balance enough that their leadership situation may be tough to hang onto.

Anyway, a fascinating year ahead. Stay tuned.

— Dave McNeely is an Austin-based columnist who covers Texas politics. His column appears Thursday.

Today's Bible verse

“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

— Colossians 1:13-14

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