by Enrique Rangel
It looks like the stars aligned for departing state Sen. Robert Duncan.
Eight days after the Texas Tech Board of Regents named him the sole finalist to succeed retiring Chancellor Kent Hance, the 5.5 percent of the 13.6 million registered voters who voted in the Republican primary runoffs overwhelmingly wanted a leadership change in the state Senate.
It is a change that — if the regents had chosen either of the two other finalists, Mike Moses or Karen Tandy — might have made the Lubbock Republican look like an outsider in the Senate, instead of being the key player he was for more than a decade.
But now, since he has to give up his Senate seat before becoming chancellor on July 1, Duncan won’t have to worry about parliamentary fights he would have likely lost because — barring a Democratic upset in the Nov. 4 general election — the so-called movement conservatives should control the legislative body in the next four years.
As Rice University professor Mark P. Jones has noted in his ranking of all 181 members of the Legislature, for several sessions Duncan and fellow establishment Republicans John Carona of Dallas, Robert Deuell of Greenville, Kevin Eltife of Tyler, Kel Seliger of Amarillo, and occasionally Tommy Williams of The Woodlands, were the most effective senators.
This was partly because more than 90 percent of the bills they voted for passed and partly because Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, the presiding officer of the Senate, appointed them to key leadership positions or to influential committees.
Dewhurst — whose 12-year legislative career is ending in January because Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston trounced him in Tuesday’s GOP runoff — appointed Duncan to the Senate Finance Committee and to the Legislative Budget Board, the joint panel that makes budget and policy recommendations to the Legislature.
Dewhurst also appointed Duncan chairman of the chamber’s State Affairs Committee and gave him other high-profile assignments that often made him a key player, especially in the budget bill negotiations between the House and the Senate.
If Patrick, a conservative radio talk show host and tea party favorite, defeats his Democratic colleague Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio in November, it is doubtful he would have given Duncan that kind of power because conservative activists don’t consider Duncan conservative enough.
In addition, after Tuesday night’s victory, Patrick renewed an old pledge.
“We WILL NOT give power to half of the Democrats to be committee chairs,” Patrick tweeted, a sign that if he is elected lieutenant governor, Washington-style gridlock may be common in Austin, the kind of infighting Duncan is familiar with but not completely used to.
Although in recent sessions Democrats and Republicans have fought like cats and dogs on contentious issues such as abortion, redistricting and voter ID, on most other legislative proposals they have found middle ground, especially in the Senate.
Moreover, buoyed by their success in this year’s primaries, conservative activists would have likely recruited a credible Republican challenger for Duncan in 2016, when he would have been up for re-election. This happened to Carona, Deuell and Seliger in this election cycle but only Seliger defeated his primary challenger, albeit narrowly.
Getting a well-funded challenger would have tested Duncan because — except for the first time when he ran to represent House District 84 and four years later in Senate District 28 — he never faced serious opposition.
If Patrick is elected lieutenant governor, Duncan’s legislative skills will still come in handy, but for a different reason: To lobby for adequate funding for Tech and for legislation beneficial to the institution.
This is standard operating procedure for the heads of state-funded colleges, universities and university systems invited to the Texas Capitol.
In short, Duncan is leaving the Texas Senate at the right time because the sharp turn to the right the chamber is likely to make could have largely diminished his influence.
He’ll end his 21-year legislative career on a high note — something Dewhurst, Carona and Deuell couldn’t do.