AUSTIN — Speaker Joe Straus’ decision to give up one of state government’s most powerful posts adds to the intensity of what already was shaping up as fierce combat in Texas House primaries in March.
Straus’ exit has demoralized business and trade association executives who prize predictability — and liked his governing style, according to several close observers of the Legislature.
It’s opened up the possibility of a far more conservative House, especially as center-right Republicans face a more uphill challenge. Next year’s GOP primary election is expected to be a lower-turnout affair than last year’s. Then, amid a spirited presidential contest that stoked voter interest, Team Straus virtually ran the table in closely contested Republican House races.
Next year’s GOP primaries are just taking shape. They now have new urgency, and that’s even as they’re likely to be more dominated by the most reliably Republican voters, who tend to be the most conservative, said Rice University political scientist Mark Jones.
On substance, the House may move toward arch-conservative Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, left, and the Senate but GOP speaker candidates will be loath to be seen as “Dan Patrick’s plant,” one political scientist said. (AP File Photo)
“It’ll be a battle for the heart and soul of the Texas Republican party — and public policy in Texas,” he said. “For movement conservatives, this is finally their opportunity to have the composition in Austin that they think reflects the will of the majority of Texas Republicans.”
For months and even years, lobbyists and campaign consultants have speculated that Straus might be tempted to yield the speaker’s gavel after tying his Democratic predecessors’ Gib Lewis and Pete Laney’s record of serving five sessions.
This year’s session marked the fifth for Straus, a San Antonio Republican who garnered national attention for killing a bill that would have required transgender Texans to use bathrooms and locker rooms coinciding with their gender at birth.
Nevertheless his Wednesday announcement he’ll step down still stunned.
As Straus explained to reporters why he was quitting, even though he believed could win the next speaker’s election, his campaign committee mystified some by sending out an email blast inviting lobbyists and other supporters to an Austin fundraiser next week.
On Friday, a Straus spokesman did not respond to a query about whether the event has been cancelled.
Straus scrambles plans
GOP consultant Luke Macias, who is advising more than a dozen House candidates who are critical of Straus and his allies, said the speaker’s exit scrambles the plans of lobbyists and trade group PACs. It makes it harder for them to figure out where to place their bets, said Macias, who also represents Irving Rep. Matt Rinaldi, a hard-liner on immigration and member of the Texas Freedom Caucus, a group of anti-Straus House members.
Straus’ departure also highlights for voters the 2019 speaker’s contest, and it could prove tricky for GOP candidates who at least in private condone his approach to governing, Macias said.
“From now until March, you’re stuck and you’re going to have to answer a question from voters on if you are going to make sure that the Republicans are voting together as a bloc [in the speaker’s race] or if you’re going to vote with the bloc of Democrats,” he said.
In 2009, Straus forced to the sidelines then-Republican Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland. Virtually every House Democrat agreed to support the choice of a small group of Republicans, including Straus, who chafed under what they described as Craddick’s dictatorial management style. Though other Republicans quickly fled from Craddick’s side and backed Straus, the impression that Democrats had elected Straus was one he never totally could shake.
Rice’s Jones said next year, many primaries will pit GOP factions with contrasting slogans.
“You’ll have a lot of the movement conservative candidates making the claim that if voters want to avoid a repeat of 2009, they need to vote for the most conservative candidate,” he said. “You’ll see the more centrist candidates make the claim — at least to their supporters — that if they don’t want to see the House become a mirror image of the Senate that they need to elect as many centrist conservatives as possible.”
Many have painted the past few election cycles as a struggle between Straus and his more establishment Republican allies and insurgents backed by Midland oilman Tim Dunn and activists from the groups Empower Texans, Texas Right to Life and Texas Eagle Forum.
Weatherford Rep. Phil King announced his bid for speaker last month. (AP File Photo)
“Straus as a kind of bogeyman may be gone, [but] his presence will still be felt — especially if he uses his campaign war chest to help his friends,” said Dallas-based GOP campaign consultant Kevin Brannon.
For most of the past decade, Brannon has helped key conservatives in the House who’ve opposed Straus, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, congressional hopeful and state Sen. Van Taylor of Plano and Weatherford Rep. Phil King. Last month, King announced he’d challenge Straus — or anyone else — for speaker next session.
Brannon said most House candidates will try to avoid being tied to Straus. He pointed to Wednesday’s tweet by former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis, who called Straus “the definition of public servant — always people above party.”
“Let’s be honest, when Wendy Davis laments the loss of Joe Straus, that only underscores the frustration conservatives have felt for years about his leadership,” Brannon said. Incumbents who helped the speaker forestall revenue caps for cities and counties, a tighter state spending limit and the bathroom bill could be seen as “enablers in obstructing the conservative agenda,” and out of step with Abbott and Patrick, he said.
“With Governor Abbott’s strong popularity among primary voters, that’s a different dynamic than we’ve had,” he said.
Binding vote for speaker
For years, Straus’ foes have demanded that the chamber’s GOP caucus should vote on a speaker candidate and then House Republicans should commit to honor that choice on opening day of the regular session, when all 150 members choose the speaker. Straus has called it “a faulty idea” because it’s not binding and apes Congress, with its partisan rancor.
Jones and Macias, though, said it’s a given that the House GOP caucus in Austin soon will adopt a binding-vote rule, now that Straus has said he’ll quit. Plano Rep. Jeff Leach is among five Republicans named by Caucus Chairman Tan Parker of Flower Mound to recommend bylaw changes on speaker selections next month.
Richmond Rep. John Zerwas, a Straus ally, announced his speaker candidacy Wednesday. (File Photo/Ashley Landis/Staff Photographer)
“It’ll be tough for anyone to actively oppose it,” said Jones, the Rice professor, speaking of more moderate speaker hopefuls such as Appropriations Committee chief John Zerwas of Richmond.
But staunchly conservative speaker candidates will need to tread gingerly, Jones warned.
Some very conservative Republicans will look for someone with a similar ideology to be speaker. But they’ll also be wary of supporting someone who’s “simply Dan Patrick’s plant in the leadership and will not represent the interests of the House against the Senate and the governor,” he said.
As a result, Abbott and Patrick probably only will send muted signals as to who’s unacceptable without hinting who their favorites are, Jones said.
The candidate filing deadline is Dec. 11.