With the candidate filing deadline passing on December 13, much attention has been given to the number of Texas legislators who won’t be returning to the pink dome come January 2023 regardless of the electoral outcome in their own district. This is due to a combination of members seeking another office or outright retiring after a 10-month session that included redistricting their districts, a process that, in some cases, fundamentally changed the composition of the electorate who sent them to the Capitol.
It’s natural to look for patterns in these decisions, especially retirements, and to view each as yet another tea leaf to be interpreted in handicapping the upcoming primary and general elections. This intuition finds some support in evidence that congressional retirements appear responsive to short-term electoral forces. Expectations that Democrats will face a tough election cycle this coming Fall with a Democrat in the White House and the majority of electoral maps constructed by Republican legislatures certainly inform the conventional wisdom as we prepare to ring in 2022.
But how well does this apply to the current slate of retirements and expected electoral turnover in the Texas Legislature?
There is certainly fodder for explanation. As of this writing, 29 members of the 87th Legislature (24 in the House, 5 in the Senate) will not be returning to their current electoral position. As a share of the legislature, this is a big slice: 29 members represent 16% of the Texas Legislature. And with votes still to be cast in both the primary and general elections, the number should be expected to increase as some incumbents will fail in their efforts to be reelected (with at least one pair of Democratic incumbents running against each other in El Paso).
However, in historical context, the rate of turnover so far isn’t extraordinarily high, suggesting that the conventional wisdom may be overinterpreting the present (not an unusual problem). According to Jeff Blaylock’s data over at Texas Election Source, of the 29 members leaving their posts, 11 are seeking, or are likely seeking, another office. This calls into question the idea that representatives are leaving (at least solely) based on the determination that they are troubled by their electoral prospects in the current setting. (Nearly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, five and six, respectively, are seeking another office).
Looking at relevant data over time reveals some interesting facets of legislative turnover in Texas and provides useful context for thinking about the current choices being made by legislators. We gathered data on the last legislative session of members for each legislature going back to the 71st (1989) from the Legislative Reference Library. This does not allow us to assess the source of the turnover (another project for another day), and therefore includes retirements (voluntary or forced), deaths, but also electoral losses in either primary or general elections. It is a measure of how many legislators exited the legislature after a particular session.
While the nature of the data limits its applicability to the retirement question alone, concerns about this are probably limited. First, if it is the case that perception of electoral conditions increase the probability of retirement, they would also increase the probability of electoral defeat (whether in the primary or general election), and thus as a measure of this electoral sentiment (and we are talking about something rather abstract here), overall turnover is probably a good enough measure for the time being. Second, the data for the 87th session does not, as of yet, include any turnover due to an electoral loss in the primary or general. This is probably of limited concern given that the most recent redistricting cycle is likely to produce limited turnover among the incumbents in both parties who remain, though every cycle has its surprises.
Below, we present some of this information in graphical form (all of the graphics can be found here), and provide some observations about the data.
First, it’s notable that the 29 members currently expected to leave the legislature is in line with the historical average going back to 1989. Between the 71st and 86th Sessions, an average of 30.4 members left the legislature at each session's end, with a high of 46 leaving after the 82nd session (the last redistricting session in 2011), and only 12 leaving after the 76th session in 1999.
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Unsurprisingly given the respective size of each chamber, there has been more absolute turnover in the Texas House than in the Senate over the time period.
The partisanship of the turnover is particularly interesting. Democratic exits outpace GOP exits in every session from the 71st (1989) to the 78th (2003) — save for the 76th session, when both parties had 6 members exit. Since then, GOP exits have outpaced Democratic exits in every session save the 81st (2009) — in this case, a likely accurate reflection of Democratic anticipation of what would turn out to be a hard upcoming election cycle in 2010 (the first midterm election after Barack Obama’s election in 2008).
Legislative Turnover: Members Serving in Their Last Legislative Session in the Texas Senate by Party
As the 2022 elections unfold, we will continue to update the underlying data powering these graphics. You can bookmark the pages below for later reference.