AUSTIN, Texas – With the crowd in the Texas Senate gallery chanting at deafening levels, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst stood at the podium with his hands in his pockets as his fellow Republicans pleaded and shouted for order.
The protesters refused to settle down as Dewhurst scrambled to the Senate floor and desperately tried to beat a midnight deadline to save one of his top priorities: legislation limiting abortions. He failed, amid one of the wildest scenes in the Texas Legislature in recent memory.
The bill will get another chance next week now that the governor has called another special legislative session, but Dewhurst’s political future may not be so easily saved.
Damage left by the raucous scene of an out-of-control Senate – broadcast live on the Internet – has made Dewhurst a target for blame among rivals within his own party who wonder why the presiding officer of the chamber let it happen.
Texas’ lieutenant governor is one of the most powerful politicians in the state. Elected statewide and independent of the governor’s office, the lieutenant governor controls the flow of legislation in the Senate. Dewhurst has held the post since 2002, when he rode a conservative wave that has allowed Republicans to dominate state politics for more than a decade. But he suffered a crushing defeat by a fellow Republican in last year’s U.S. Senate race.
The protesters were in the gallery Tuesday to support Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis as she filibustered the abortion bill for nearly 12 hours – without breaks – during a special legislative session. Official records hold that the bill passed just before midnight but that Dewhurst didn’t have time to sign it and send it to Gov. Rick Perry.
Still, Dewhurst faced almost immediate criticism from rivals within his own party, and the finger-pointing likely won’t go away as he tries for re-election to a fourth term next year. Along with the abortion bill – which opponents say would essentially shut down most abortion clinics in Texas – the chaos also blocked the passage of major transportation and juvenile justice measures.
“Clearly his opponents pounced on this. The meltdown in the Senate amplified the problems Dewhurst already had with his base among GOP primary voters,” said Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It wasn’t his best moment,” added Republican political consultant Bill Miller. “It was a national show. It was being viewed by people around the country and around the world. It was bad TV. (But) I think it’s survivable. He already had people wanting his job, so there’s nothing too new to that.”
Dewhurst, who is scheduled to speak Saturday at the National Right to Life conference in suburban Dallas, said at the time that he didn’t lose control of the chamber. He later released a statement saying he was “furious” about how the session ended.
“(An) unruly, screaming mob using Occupy Wall Street tactics derailed legislation intended to protect the health of Texas women and their babies,” Dewhurst said. “I pledge to Texas one thing: This fight is far from over.”
He has since declined comment.
The veteran politician had already been trying to patch up a political career staggered by a crushing loss in last year’s U.S. Senate race to political newcomer and tea party darling Ted Cruz, who labeled Dewhurst a moderate. That loss during the GOP primary stunned the Republican establishment, and it drove Dewhurst to do whatever he could to restore his conservative credentials in 2013 on volatile issues.
After the regular legislative session ended, Dewhurst pushed Perry to call the special session and put abortion on the agenda. When that effort fizzled, his enemies pounced.
“In the end, the responsibility for the Texas Senate falls on one man,” said Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, one of three Republicans challenging Dewhurst in the 2014 election. “I strongly believe he has lost his grip on the reins of the Senate and his horse has run wild.”
Perry has now called a second 30-day special session to start Monday. Given a new start and large majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans are all but assured of passing the bill.
But opponents and Democrats have turned the incident into a rallying call, and Davis’ filibuster turned her into a galvanizing figure in the national debate over abortion rights.
The activists who crowded the Senate gallery had maintained decorum for most of the day. They didn’t erupt until Democrats complained Dewhurst tried to unilaterally move to end Davis’ filibuster without a full Senate vote – a vote Republicans would have won and still given them time to pass the abortion bill.
Sen. Dan Patrick, whom Dewhurst appointed to chair the Senate’s powerful education committee, announced Thursday he would run against Dewhurst in 2014. He said the chamber needs new leadership.
“We elevated a rallying point for the other party,” Patrick said. “It should never have happened.”