Federal judge says Texas should plan on May 29 primary

February 15, 2012 6:18:36 PM PST
The Texas primary, which once loomed as the biggest prize of next month's Super Tuesday and a possible kingmaker in the Republican presidential race, skidded toward becoming an afterthought Wednesday when a federal judge advised officials to instead aim for late May.

It was the latest toll of the Texas redistricting battle that began last summer and left state GOP leaders newly disappointed with a second primary delay. Instructions to plan on a May 29 primary came despite compromise earlier Wednesday over one of three disputed election maps that have kept the Texas political landscape in limbo.

Minority rights groups and the state announced a deal on the state Senate map for the 2012 elections, though that still left separate challenges to the Texas House and congressional maps unresolved. Democrats cheered the Senate deal, but another federal judge grew irritated that more maps weren't settled.

"So here we are since Thanksgiving, all this time has passed, $1.5 million has been spent, and we're fighting over one or two state districts?" U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez said of the Texas House map.

As the state's primary date has slipped due to the redistricting battle, so too have its chances of influencing the Republican presidential race.

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Jerry Smith told party leaders to instruct candidates and their campaigns to plan as if May 29 would be the primary date, though he didn't officially set the date. The ongoing battle over Republican-drawn voting maps has derailed two previously scheduled primary dates, including April 3.

Steve Munisteri, the state's GOP chairman, said Texas could still wind up as "kingmaker" on the backend of the primary calendar if Mitt Romney does not clinch the nomination early.

Texas has 155 delegates, second only to California. Yet Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have so far ignored Texas while campaigning in other early primary states.

Only six other states have primaries later than May 29, including California, which has the most delegates of any state.

"I'm very surprised at the lack of attention to Texas," Munisteri said. "Maybe they just haven't done the math."

While the compromise was only a small step toward a deal, it represented at least some progress after months of legal jousting that has reached all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The two sides didn't exactly come back to the bargaining table on their own terms. Another judge on the three-judge panel, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, on Tuesday night ordered them to return the next morning with a deal, sounding as though he was losing patience with weeks of stalled talks despite repeated court-ordered negotiations.

The Republican-controlled Legislature drew the disputed Senate map in a way to make sure one incumbent Democrat, Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth, was not re-elected. It also divided up minority voters into districts dominated by whites, something forbidden under the Voting Rights Act.

The compromise restores the district largely to its previous boundaries with a similar racial make-up.

Davis called the settlement "a tremendous victory" and said it would keep African Americans in southeast Tarrant County and Hispanics in the north from being split into Anglo-dominated senate districts. She said the Legislature drew their maps to prevent the election of someone who would represent minorities in the Senate.

"They were racially-motivated to pull apart the voices in our community very purposely so that their voices, which were being championed on the Senate floor through my voice, would be silenced," Davis said.

The state House maps remained hung up Wednesday afternoon as lawyers for the minority groups argued that because 89 percent of the new residents in Texas are minorities, they should have more opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice. The attorney representing Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said the minority groups were more interested in benefiting Democrats than making sure minority voters were represented.

By some counts, more than 50 of the state House's 150 districts remained in dispute. The judges ordered negotiations on the House map to continue Wednesday after court adjourned.

The federal courts must redraw the maps created by the Republican-controlled Legislature because of two parallel lawsuits that have yet to be resolved. Because Texas has a history of racial discrimination, any changes to electoral law must be approved either by the Department of Justice or the federal court in Washington. A three judge panel in Washington declined to approve the maps and the justice department said they discriminated against minorities.

Minority groups also brought a lawsuit against the state in San Antonio, asking the federal court to block the maps because they dilute the voting power of minorities. Pending an outcome of the Washington case, the San Antonio court must draw temporary maps.