AUSTIN — If Pat Fallon is elected to Congress as expected in November, the Texas GOP may be forced into a game of “choose your own adventure” to find his replacement that could ripple through Texas politics.
On Saturday, Fallon, a Republican state senator from Prosper, won the GOP nomination to replace Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe as the party’s nominee in Congressional District 4. He will face Democrat Russell Foster in November in an election he will be heavily favored to win in a deeply Republican district.
But Fallon’s nearly guaranteed departure to Congress could cause dominoes to fall in other levels of Texas politics.
“There’s all sorts of things” that could happen, said Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University. “Some of them are more tricky than others.”
If Fallon wins, he will become ineligible to be a state senator once he is sworn into Congress next year and will have to vacate his seat. That will leave an open seat in Texas’ Senate District 30, which stretches from Wichita Falls to Sherman and dips into the northern sections of Denton and Collin counties, as well as Erath County in the southwest. Several candidates, including Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther and multiple state representatives, are being discussed as potential replacements.
But if a state representative jumps into the race to replace Fallon, that could lead to a vacancy in the Texas House, which could leave a district without representation for some time during the next legislative session, which begins in January. The impact of that vacancy will depend on the Republican-Democrat split in that chamber after the November elections.
“If it remains 83-67 it’s no big deal,” Jones said. “But if it’s 75-75 or 76-74 then that seat becomes far more pivotal. The moment that one person essentially had to resign to assume office as senator, Democrats would go from being tied to having the majority.”
Complicating matters further, none of these scenarios can begin to play out until Fallon vacates his seat, but it is unclear when he will do so. Fallon did not respond to requests for comment.
From a political perspective, Fallon’s safest bet is to hold onto his Senate seat until after the November elections. In the unlikely event that he lost, Fallon could simply return to the state Senate with his tenure — and benefits as a government employee — unimpeded. No harm, no foul.
But Jones said few things are more certain than a Fallon victory, so there’s likely some political jockeying from Republican officials happening behind the scenes.
“A lot will depend on the coordination between Republicans in terms of how many, if any, Texas House members decide to run,” he said. “If no House members decide to run, then everything is actually pretty clear cut.”
So far, several state representatives have said they are not interested in running and at least one has thrown their support behind state Rep. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, who is considering a run.
“I’ve been extremely honored that I’ve had so many members of the House call me and even senators have called me to run for it,” Springer said. “Hundreds of grassroots folks reached out as well. Myself and my family are praying about it right now. We know that it’s just happened with Sen. Fallon, and we’ll make our decision public fairly soon.”
Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, said he will not run for the Senate seat and threw his support behind Springer. Reps. Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, and Phil King, R-Weatherford, did not rule out a run but said their top priority is coming back to the House in 2021.
Luther, the Dallas salon owner who became a conservative favorite when she defied Dallas’ stay-at-home coronavirus order, has said she is considering a run. Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, who is not running for reelection has also been discussed as a possible replacement. He declined comment.
Jones said timing will be everything. Waiting until after the election to fill Fallon’s Senate seat could result in a vacancy in that chamber until late January or early February if the race goes into a runoff. That could affect Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s Republican majority in the Senate, especially if Sen. Pete Flores, who won an upset special election in 2018, is ousted by a Democrat in November.
Republicans currently outnumber Democrats in the Senate 19-12. If Flores lost, that would go down to 18. And if Fallon’s seat was unfilled for some portion of the session, it could be down to 17.
“[Fallon’s] seat would remain unfilled for a substantial portion of the legislative term especially if there would be a runoff,” Jones said.
Party leaders could try to clear the path for a consensus candidate to take Fallon’s seat, Jones said. But that’s not guaranteed given the discontent of the party’s right-wing with Gov. Greg Abbott’s response to COVID-19, which they have criticized as executive overreach.
Recently, party officials replaced former chairman James Dickey with former Florida congressman and tea party firebrand Allen West.
“The difficult thing with all of this is the Shelley Luthers or Sticklands of the world. They’re not exactly part of the machine, and so they’re far less likely to take one for the team or effectively accept what the party elite would say and not run,” Jones said. “You may be able to prevent multiple state reps from competing against one another, but it’ll be difficult to keep an outsider from mounting a campaign.”
Luke Macias, a Republican consultant who works with the party’s most conservative candidates, said the district has shifted toward his base. In 2018, Fallon ran as an insurgent against the incumbent, Craig Estes, a rural Republican who had served in the Legislature since 2001 but was considered too moderate by staunch conservatives.
Macias said voters will be looking for someone with a “true independent voice.”
“If they are someone who plans on raising a ton of money from Austin lobbyists and Austin PACs they set themselves up as Austin’s choice and that is not who SD 30 is looking to represent them,” he said.
Local Republicans are not worried about their choice of candidates whenever the seat opens up.
Britton Brooks, who represents the district in the State Republican Executive Committee, said local officials will “not allow ourselves to be underprepared for the difficult task which comes with filling Pat Fallon’s vacancy.”
“There is no concern on our part,” he said. “We believe that our influence in Austin will remain strong, and ultimately we will find an incredible conservative to replace Pat Fallon.”
But the questions remain: When will that happen? And what effect could it have on other levels of Texas politics?
“The best thing for the Republican Party would be for Fallon to resign immediately or tomorrow,” Jones said. “We’re short on time because Abbott would then have to call the election.”
“Absent a resignation from Pat Fallon today or Wednesday, we’re perhaps at the point of no return,” he added.