Texas Speaker’s Race: the New Majority’s First Test
There's a battle for power in Austin centered on one question: Who gets to elect the next speaker of the Texas House? The answer to that question determines its outcome.
November 21, 2010 - 12:02 am
Now that the 2010 campaign is over, in Texas there’s a campaign after the campaign kicking into high gear. It’s fair to say that the race for Texas speaker of the House is heating up and may be the first measure of where the Republican majority intends to plant its flag for the next couple of years. The incumbent, Rep. Joe Straus of San Antonio, cruised unopposed to re-election to his seat on Nov 2, only to find that the Republican majority in the House had swelled to historic size. Republicans crushed Democrats from one end of the state to the other, save deep south Texas in the Rio Grande Valley and a few urban pockets of resistance, where Democrats still cling to some power. Republicans won everywhere else, including deep blue Travis County, and the GOP hold went from a 77-74 seat razor’s edge to a 99-51 total global ownage. Texas Democratic HQ remains little more than a smoking crater.
Paradoxically, the huge new Republican majority actually imperils Straus’ prospects of being re-elected speaker of the House. There are two reasons for that. One, he didn’t help grow that majority in any significant way during the 2010 elections, and two, very few Republicans actually elected him to become speaker in the first place. That’s because Straus became speaker prior to the 81st session of the Texas legislature in 2009, thanks almost entirely to an alliance he forged with the House Democratic caucus and 11 moderate Republicans. When the margin was as thin as it then was, it was possible to rebel against and kick out the then-speaker, state Rep. Tom Craddick of Midland, and get elected to replace him via Democratic votes. That’s what Straus did. And as part of that deal, Straus installed Democrats to chair 14 of the Texas House’s 32 committees — just under half. This spirit of bipartisanship has left a lingering bad taste among the GOP grassroots. It backfired badly when the Democrats used their power to stall bills dear to the hearts of conservatives and even brought the entire legislature to a grinding halt in order to kill a voter ID bill toward the end of the 2009 session. I was working for the Texas GOP at the time. It wasn’t pretty.
Fast forward to now, and the GOP’s grassroots find themselves divided going into the 2011 session (the Texas legislature only meets for 140 days every other year, an infrequency of legislative activity that many Texans believe is key to the state’s relatively small but efficient government). State Reps. Ken Paxton of McKinney and Warren Chisum of Pampa have already declared their candidacies to replace Straus, and the Paxton campaign in particular seems to be gathering steam. As for the grassroots, on one side are Straus and his allies, who are pitching him as a conservative leader deserving of another term with the gavel. On the other side are conservative grassroots groups like Texans for Fiscal Responsibility and Americans for Prosperity, who view Straus as a milquetoast compromiser who won’t represent the conservative majority that Texans clearly elected on Nov 2. Both of those groups have endorsed Paxton and engaged in the campaign after the campaign in his support. The battle is shaping up to be yet another “establishment versus the grassroots” fight.
Another group that’s come out firing in Straus’ direction is Young Conservatives of Texas. That influential group, which counts the current Republican Party of Texas’ chairman as its founder, has been hammering Straus over the committee chairmen he appointed during the 2009 session. The YCT also endorsed Paxton, citing the very high conservative legislative rating the group gave him after that 2009 session. If Straus is elected, the chairmanship issue isn’t likely to go away: Straus is touting the support of 49 Democrats along with 79 of the 98 Republicans (one passed away after the election and has yet to be replaced), and has already said he will appoint some Democrats to committee chairmanships. If those numbers hold up, and at least the Democratic ones will since their bylaws require them to caucus and then vote for a single candidate in bloc, Straus has enough support to win if the vote were held today.
But the vote isn’t being held today, and won’t be held until the first day of the next session, which is in January. That’s plenty of time to create fissures and realignments among the Republican state representatives and reps-elect. Anyone connected to Texas GOP politics at all has gotten either or both sides to request their support in Facebook group pages. There’s “Oust Joe Straus” and “No to Joe Straus” on one side, and “Conservatives for Joe Straus” and his actual Facebook page on the other, and big name social media consultants like the Vincent Harris Group are combatants in the battle. Inboxes are filling up with press releases from both sides, as endorsements for the candidates line up, or drop off and change sides. It really has become a campaign after the campaign, complete with outside groups and endorsers circulating emails that have backfired on their preferred candidates — the bane of communications pros and media reps no matter whose side you’re on.
All of this means that at this point no one really knows who is going to be the next speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. The betting money is probably with Straus, since he already has the Democratic caucus’ votes and only needs about a fourth of the GOP side, and if both Paxton and Chissum stay in the race, they’re likely to split the conservative vote. But the incoming class is more conservative than its predecessor. The thought of a GOP caucus that’s redder than red letting the Democrats, who were beaten like a cheap pawn shop drum in the last election, elect its leader is anathema to many of the newly elected and the voters who propelled them to victory.
Update: It turns out that AFP and Texans for Fiscal Responsibility haven’t endorsed anyone in the speaker’s race, though both are vocally leading what might be termed the “Texas needs a conservative speaker” side of the argument. Dick Armey’s group FreedomWorks did endorse Paxton, however, as has Mike Huckabee.