A knock-down, drag-out fight over the state's political maps and election laws might delay Texas' primaries. (Photo by Ben Sklar/Getty Images)
Politicians across the state are announcing their candidacies and hiring campaign workers, but the ongoing battle over redistricting could again delay the March primaries and make life difficult for incumbents.
Lawyers working for Attorney General Greg Abbott and minority groups filed briefs with a San Antonio federal court that hint at a knock-down, drag-out fight over the state's political maps and election laws. The fight has intensified since U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said he wants Texas to submit all proposed election law changes for federal approval before implementing them.
Minority groups first filed their lawsuit against Texas' new political maps on May 9, 2011, when the Legislature created them following the 2010 census. Because the case was underway, three federal judges in San Antonio drew temporary legislative and congressional maps for the state to use for the 2012 elections.
Abbott didn't like those maps, so he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed with him that the maps went too far, absent a verdict in the case. The protracted legal wrangling delayed the 2012 primary from March 6 to May 29.
Now after a landmark Supreme Court decision and another legislative session, the fight is still on in San Antonio. The Legislature has tried to end the lawsuit by throwing out the 2011 maps that a Washington, D.C., court declared intentionally discriminatory and replacing them with the 2012 maps drawn by the San Antonio judges.
Minority groups say that's not good enough because those maps include many of the same discriminatory elements drawn by the Legislature in 2011. They want the judges to draw new maps from scratch and require Texas to submit any other changes to election law for court or Justice Department review.
Abbott opposes all of this and wants the case dropped. In court papers, he signaled that he's ready to go to the Supreme Court if he doesn't get his way.
"A judicially imposed preclearance requirement is no less extraordinary and no less constitutionally suspect," Abbott wrote.
That places the San Antonio judges in a tough spot because time is running out for the spring primary elections. County clerks say they need to know what political maps to use by September to comfortably register candidates by Dec. 1 in order to vote on March 4.
If the court rules in favor of the minority groups, the judges will need time to draw new maps and give the state a chance to appeal their decision. These appeals can take weeks, and thus delay the primary.
If 2012 was any indication, a delayed primary can mean trouble for incumbents.
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was the clear front-runner to replace U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in early 2012, and polls showed that few Republican primary voters had ever heard of Ted Cruz, a man who had never held elected office before.
But as the primary date slipped, Cruz had time to travel the state and meet with every Republican and tea party group that would have him. He raised millions of dollars from outside conservative groups that recognized the delay gave him a chance to force a run-off against Dewhurst.
By the time Republicans voted on July 31, Cruz had a comfortable lead over a man that most people thought six months earlier was undefeatable. Dewhurst is now running for re-election as lieutenant governor with three challengers, all of whom plan to follow the Cruz playbook.
The 2014 election already promises a huge turnover in the state's top jobs due to retirements and candidates seeking to move up. A delayed primary due to redistricting could bring even more change as upstarts get more time to challenge the status quo.