In a childhood obsessed with Guys and Dolls, I sometimes wished I could be a bookie. (What’s not to like about the world of singing New York gamblers and their chorus-line girlfriends?) The problem with my initial goals: I’m not a great handicapper. I picked the Colts for the Super Bowl and the Rangers for the World Series. I thought UT might have a prayer this season. So I’m certainly not stupid enough to bet on who’s going to win the Speaker’s race between current Speaker Joe Straus and hard-line conservative state Rep. Warren Chisum. I will bet, however, that in spite of the current support he enjoys, Straus faces a real fight.
The outcome also matters a lot. Come January, an overwhelmingly Republican legislature faces an unprecedented budget shortfall and a redistricting battle. The speaker will have a big say in how those fights go down, by making committee assignments, appointing chairs and determining which legislation comes up. For those with a short-term memory, Joe Straus emerged last session, almost out of nowhere, to unseat Speaker Tom Craddick, a hardline social conservative known for his authoritarian leadership style. During the Craddick years from 2003 through 2008 those in favor found it easy to get bills passed, while reps in the doghouse—a crew of mostly Democrats and some moderate Republicans—were often lucky to get even non-controversial bills on to the calendar. Straus rode to power on a wave of disaffection, from both Democrats and Republicans, appointing committee chairs from both parties and emphasizing process.
But despite the speaker’s integral role in creating policy, the decision has always been one made by the members alone. Outside groups have rarely tried to impact the decision, and speakers’ races are generally considered inside baseball.
Until now. On Thursday, House members found a letter arguing that “a change to a more conservative Speaker is in order,” signed by a variety of many conservative leaders like the the director of Texas Right to Life, the state director of Americans for Prosperity and Cathie Adams, the former state Republican Party chair and head of the state’s Eagle Forum. While Straus announced that he had 130 pledges of support from members after the election night, the letter will undoubtedly put pressure on new members to get off the Straus-wagon.
“Texas voters wanting a far stronger conservative leadership,” explains Michael Q. Sullivan, the head of the conservative group Empower Texans and one of the bill’s signatories. “This is the first speaker election Texans have actually been able to be involved in.”
Sullivan was pleased to see the speaker’s race move outside the chamber—although the effort began months ago. At the state GOP convention, some held signs criticizing Straus, and before the speaker came on stage, his name was met with booing. Many of the newly elected Republicans relied on Tea Party support to get elected and promised hard-line approaches, without much room for compromise. They’re hoping for bills to require a voter ID, to further limit abortion rights and create more anti-illegal immigration laws—none of which occurred under Straus. They ran against the establishment, and it might be difficult for them to support the status-quo when it comes to the Speaker’s race.
Straus is considered a more moderate speaker—in part because he arrived to de-throne Craddick. Of the ten Republican allies that brought him in to power, three are gone thanks to primary challengers and resignations. A fourth supporter, the ever-popular state Rep. Ed Kuempel died yesterday. That leaves Straus lacking in Republican negotiators. While he made some big last minute contributions to help several Republicans, likely ensuring their support, Straus also lost many of his Democratic friends on election day. On the other hand, Chisum, who served as Appropriations chair under Craddick, can likely count on many of the same supporters Craddick had—state Reps. Wayne Christian, Phil King and other hard-line social conservatives.
Chisum still has big hurdles to get over though. Despite ideological differences, the vast majority of the House has pledged their support to Straus. Remember though, this isn’t like the Pledge of Allegiance—loyalty to a speaker is generally negotiable. Craddick, himself, lost his position while holding many pledge cards. But Straus has a good bargaining chip. With all the losses on Election Day, many committees lost chairs and vice-chairs, including plum assignments like Corrections, Public Safety and Redistricting. While he can’t actually promise assignments, Straus will undoubtedly reward followers.
Members now face a tough balancing act. As always, they must choose which person would offer the best working environment for the House and which candidate would support their favorite policies. But thanks to the new outside involvement, they now also have to consider the political fallout from supporting Straus given the armies of conservatives aligned against him.
It’s tough math—tougher even than figuring out the odds that Straus keeps his seat.