Texas Speaker's Race: the New Majority's First Test

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.