Bolstered by big Election Day gains, Texas House Republicans are preparing for a legislative session in which they will vastly outnumber Democrats.
Indeed, House Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio notes in a Nov. 12 e-mail sent to Republican colleagues (and to reporters): "We have a record number of new members joining our ranks, and it is essential that we focus our energies on the business of the people, working together to achieve our common goal of a more educated, prosperous and secure Texas." Attached is a letter from 18 GOP House committee chairwomen and chairmen expressing their support for Straus, who is facing calls from the right for Republicans to line up behind an alternative candidate for speaker.
When we asked Straus spokeswoman Tracy Young about the "record number of new members," she said Straus was referring to Republicans only. She provided us with a chart showing the growth in GOP House membership over the past few decades that she said she received from Associated Republicans of Texas, a group created to strengthen the GOP presence in Texas government after 1974, when Republicans suffered at the polls in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.
According to the chart, which is organized by election year starting with 1974, the largest increase in GOP membership will take place when the Legislature convenes in January and at least 98 Republicans fill seats in the 150-member House.
But the GOP's chart only goes back to the 1974 election, and there were 60-plus legislatures before then. Also: Despite his spokeswoman's clarification, it's not obvious in Straus' e-mail that his mention of "new members joining our ranks" means only Republicans. The speaker oversees the entire House, so "our ranks" can (and maybe should) be read as inclusive of that body. It's no secret either that House Democrats were key to Straus winning the speakership, a job filled by vote of the House membership, at the start of the 2009 session.
In search of a definitive, historical count of GOP "true freshmen" in the House, we turned to the Legislative Reference Library. The library, housed in the Texas Capitol, tallied the Democratic and Republican freshman House members for each Legislature since the 15th, which convened in 1876. Catherine Wusterhausen, coordinator of public services, told us that the library's count of freshmen excludes anyone who had served in an earlier session.
Starting the count in 1876 leaves out the 12th Legislature, a majority-Republican body whose members were elected in 1869 during Reconstruction; however, we could not determine how many GOP freshmen came in with that group.
Upshot: According to the library, there will be at least 29 truly new Republican House members in 2011, the most of any of the 68 sessions included in the library's list. Depending on the outcome of a special election and a pending recount, that number could go up. The year with the second-highest number of new Republican members was 2003, when 27 freshman Republicans came to Austin.
But the upcoming influx is not a record increase in new House members in toto — not even close. According to the library, 2011 will see at least 34 freshman House members. However, from 1876 to 1967, when Democrats dominated Texas politics, turnover in the House was usually much higher, with a high of 97 new members in the 1913 session and only one session proceeding with fewer than 34 new members (32 in 1943). Since 1967, seven sessions have had a freshman class of more than 34, with a high of 71 in 1973.
Summing up: The 2011 Legislature stands to have a record number of new Republican House members. But the House record for new members won't be broken, and Straus's statement was not clear about limiting its scope to Republicans only. We rate the statement Half True.