The Panhandle is rumbling again
Sure, House Speaker Joe Straus quaked Austin this week when he announced he won’t seek re-election. But the deeper rumbling at the Capitol is coming from the Panhandle, home to storied conservative independence. Those wondering what’s next in Austin should turn their attention toward Amarillo, from where tectonic shifts in Texas politics have long originated.
Of the 16 Texas counties that bucked Lyndon Johnson for Barry Goldwater in 1964, eight were in the Panhandle. Goldwater begot Ronald Reagan, who the region backed against Gerald Ford in 1976, and who the state backed in 1980.
“Prescient bucking” — that’s how Brandon Rottinghaus, professor of political science at the University of Houston, described the region’s independence to me. And he rattled off more examples, from voting John Connally for governor in 1962 to the pride of Castro County Kent Hance switching to the GOP in 1985.
But Panhandle bucking has, at times, proven as costly as it has prescient. “This time it’s your air base, next time it’ll be your zip codes,” is how Amarillo state Rep. John Smithee, 66, recalls LBJ’s warning to the defiant region days after his re-election. The closing of the Amarillo Air Force Base gutted thousands of jobs, an approximately $20 million annual payroll and millions in real estate assets.
Smithee, who was first elected in 1984, says, “There’s a great deal of independence in the Panhandle, as much as anywhere. It’s been that way for as long as I can remember.”
Which brings us to the present rumbling.
Two weeks ago, in the eastern Panhandle, candid state Rep. Ken King sat down with his hometown paper. And King was ready to buck.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick is a “carpetbagger who came from Maryland and changed his name (from Dannie Goeb) to be in politics,” King told the Canadian Record, completely aware that he was on-record.
He was fending for Amarillo state Sen. Kel Seliger, who King believes was “punished for not carrying the water” for Patrick in the last session. “Patrick basically ran the Senate like a dictatorship, and if you didn’t go along, you didn’t get recognized, and your bills didn’t pass … Seliger, held the ground in the Senate, and he paid the price for it. He took it on the chin to do the right thing for his district.”
The “ground” Seliger held was opposition to school vouchers, as well as mandates to hold local rollback elections before property tax revenues increase by 5 percent or more (legislation many perceive to be a new threat to rural zip codes).
The “punishment” King and others believe Seliger received culminates in an Austin think-tank effort to unseat him. Two GOP primary opponents have emerged in Seliger’s dumbbell-shaped rural district, which takes in a swath of the Panhandle, runs down the New Mexico line and takes in a swath of the Permian Basin. The theory is Victor Leal, a Panhandle restaurateur, will carve into Seliger’s support in the northern part of the district so Mike Canon, a former Midland mayor, can win the seat without a runoff. And, as Amarillo Globe-News’ Robert Stein recently reported, Leal’s campaign is being run by a Patrick campaign consultant.
I asked longtime Globe-News columnist Jon Mark Beilue what he makes of the rumbling. “Lots of people see Patrick as big government with his hands in their business. They want local control of their communities and for their school boards to direct policy in their schools — not Austin.”
Beilue believes Seliger is vulnerable (Canon came within 5 points in 2014). But he also thinks that if the primary is framed as Seliger vs. Patrick around the issue of school choice, Seliger could gain much more support than there appears to be now.
And much of that support would come from places in which Patrick beat incumbent David Dewhurst by 60 percent or more in 2014 — which, in state politics, was a long time ago.
A Seliger win could have Patrick reciting a flustered LBJ line: “To hell with the Panhandle, it’s all Oklahoma anyway” — which would invariably have King on record about Maryland again.
Smithee says King’s bucking is a sampling of the region’s independence. And Smithee, himself, bucks the notion that Seliger isn’t conservative: “That term has become amorphous over the last decade.”
Which is the point. The present rumbling could indicate another tectonic shift in Texas, one that topples the prevailing brand of suburban-defined, one-size-fits-all conservatism demanded by Austin’s current political establishment. Replacing it, instead, with a Panhandle-branded independent conservatism that can be tailored to fit from place to place.
And the effects of that shift upon the Capitol would be much more consequential than Straus’ announcement — as well as a great compliment to the outgoing speaker who long encouraged such rumbling.
This column first appeared in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal