Joe Straus has been speaker of the Texas House for less than a year and a half — long enough to see that in the fanatically competitive world of the Legislature, there's always somebody after your job.
Nobody's openly campaigning right now, but there's talk of who might succeed the freshman speaker if he stumbles. Attribute the speculation to inertia: The House's top job was in play for at least four years before Straus won it in January 2009, and members and the lobby and the press and other gawkers have been trained to study every new complaint, slight, reward and compliment for signs of a coup. While he appears to be on solid ground going into his second session behind the podium, don't erase the possibility of a contest. It's an uncertain environment: It's an election year, Straus is green and the House is full of people who are constantly looking for a better deal than the one they've got.
Straus isn't worried about it. "I'm concerned with the work of the House," he says. "As far as politics goes, I'm focused on protecting our Republican incumbents and helping Republicans in the open seats. ... I'm focused on retaining and expanding the Republican majority in the House."
The beginning of a real race for speaker of the House looks the same as a dud; it's just about impossible to tell the difference at the outset. Straus looks safe right now. He closed the last session — about a year ago now — saying he had pledges from 123 of the 150 members in the House, including 62 Republicans and 61 Democrats. That's changed some, with some members leaving and others, not yet elected or sworn in, who've apparently told him he'll have their support. Some, undoubtedly, have told him they don't want to sign pledge cards. Straus isn't releasing a list. But he's got a supermajority if everybody keeps their promises and if the elections don't bring a political earthquake.
The proper mix for a genuine challenge includes one or more popular people who want the job, a high level of dissatisfaction with the person currently in the post, and a level of frustration in the rank and file that is sufficient to overcome every member's natural reluctance to get involved in a political knife fight. It helps if the incumbent is weak, either from holding office too long, from losing supporters in elections or from not being in the job long enough to consolidate power.
The first bit is in place, but it is always in place. The room in question — the House chamber — has 150 politicians in it, and almost all of them think they'd make mahvelous residents of the corner office. This time, most of the conversations start with state Reps. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, and Phil King, R-Weatherford. Neither has filed papers declaring himself a candidate, a required step if you're really in, but neither is pushing away members who want to talk about such a race.
"Any member can choose to run for speaker," says state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton. "Any member can have it in their hearts and minds that they could be speaker. That doesn't mean there's a speaker's race."
Chisum said recently that the math in the House would have to change. Straus overthrew Tom Craddick in January 2009 with a relatively small group of Republicans and a relatively large group of Democrats. Unless allegiances change or a number of Straus supporters are upended in November, he appears to be strong. Three of the small group of Republicans who helped Straus win in 2009 are gone. Two, Delwin Jones, of Lubbock, and Tommy Merritt, of Longview, were defeated in the GOP primaries, and one, Brian McCall, of Plano, left the House to become chancellor of the Texas State University System. That shrinks his ranks a bit, but at least that many Republicans joined the Straus team after his victory.
Some of the Democrats, meanwhile, are less happy than they were initially. Two of their leaders, Jim Dunnam, of Waco, and Jessica Farrar, of Houston, were incensed when Straus named Republican Larry Taylor, of Friendswood, to the Sunset Advisory Commission last month. Four of his five appointees to the commisision are from the GOP, and some Democrats, who signed on with Straus to get rid of Craddick, are starting to sour on their champion. Still, as Chisum noted a couple of weeks ago, Straus appears healthy: "Dunnam plus 15 [Republicans] is a winning ticket."
Bonnen says the frustrations haven't gathered enough force. Members don't like leadership fights, and they just ended four years of them with Craddick's defeat. "We would rather have our right foot shot off than have a speaker's race," he says. "I don't think [challengers] could get 10 votes this afternoon."
State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, doesn't take the talk of a race seriously and says the speaker will be fine "if he doesn't implode." Speaker talk always comes from outside the leadership, he notes, and because the House isn't run on a party system like its federal counterpart, it's easier to keep people happy. "In Austin, you can be in the minority and still have a seat at the table," says Keffer, who chairs the House Energy Resources Committee. "In Washington, if you're in the minority, you might as well bring your golf clubs — that's all you're worth."
State Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, has been through these things before; Straus is the third speaker he's served under. Christian, who chairs the Texas Conservative Coalition, was loyal to Craddick and says he and others paid the price for that. "I myself had 37 bills killed last session," he says. "Chicken fighting. That's all [the legislation] I got through last time and it got killed in the Senate." Christian says he got one local bill through the system, but that's it. His unhappiness stems from that treatment, in part, and from his perception — he says he hears it all over the state — that Straus isn't conservative enough. "Two of his leadership team were knocked off by people who wanted them to be more Republican," he says. His main gripe, however, is that Straus' lieutenants have been heavy-handed in their punishment of Craddick's supporters: "It did not exemplify what makes us different from Washington, D.C."
Others are unhappy, too, Christian says, but that's not enough to make a speaker's race. "There's not an official race going on that I'm aware of," he says. "There is, of course, talk. There always is."