The Chisum Trail

The route to toppling House Speaker Joe Straus is littered with big obstacles and high hurdles. But it's not completely impassable, which is why state Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, is considering a challenge. "I'm sticking my toe in the water and seeing if there's any temperature there," he told the Tribune on Friday. "Seems to be some temperature."

Warren Chisum didn't actually come out and say he's running for speaker of the Texas House; you have to file papers with the Texas Ethics Commission to do that, and he hasn't. But in recent interviews — first with The Associated Press and more recently with The Texas Tribune — he left open the possibility that he'll run, just to keep the conversation going.

"We're still in the talking process," says Chisum, a Republican from the small Panhandle town of Pampa. "I'm sticking my toe in the water and seeing if there's any temperature there. Seems to be some temperature."

That's an angler's trick: Cast the idea out there, just to see how many and what kind of fish bite.

Speakerships are built on the political and personal needs of the 150 members of the Texas House: All else being equal, they vote for whoever gives them the best deal. Consider how current Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, toppled his predecessor, Tom Craddick, R-Midland, last year. Straus put together a coalition of all the House Democrats and almost a dozen Republicans to come up with the majority he needed to depose Craddick, who had left just enough Republicans out in the cold to get himself unseated. (Speaker votes are always unanimous in the end, but that's because the losers generally drop out when the outcome is apparent — usually well before the actual vote.)

In 2003, Craddick toppled Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, after helping to draw redistricting maps that brought a large cohort of Republican freshmen to Austin in 2003. The GOP won the majority for the first time since Reconstruction, and Craddick — who had crisscrossed the state and raised money to help those Republicans get elected — reaped their loyalty in his bid for speaker. He was the only Republican in the race.

This time, Chisum — like any challenger — doesn't stand a chance unless Straus' base erodes faster than he can add new supporters. Some of the elements are in place. Some of the Democrats who helped elevate Straus now complain that they're being treated like the minority party in a closely divided House where they deserve a stronger hand. In a recent "Monday Memo," Waco Rep. Jim Dunnam, who heads the Democratic Caucus in the House, warned fellow Democrats that Straus is staying out of their races himself but isn't exactly stopping other groups from taking on Democratic incumbents. At the same time, the speaker is helping incumbent Republicans who are defending their seats. And he has said on a number of occasions that he wants to increase the GOP majority in the House. "If his decision is to advance the cause of his political party over the elections of Democrats who have pledged to support him in 2011, then I'll respect that choice," Dunnam wrote. "But as the old saying goes, 'don't pi*s on my leg and tell me it's raining.'" [Asterisk in original.] A spokesperson for Straus declined an invitation to comment for this story.

Republicans on the outs with the Straus team — mainly, the folks who supported Craddick two years ago and those who just don't accept a GOP speaker put into office by Democrats — want their power back. In a strategy that parallels Straus', Chisum hopes to recruit all or almost all of the Republicans and a smattering of Democrats to mount a palace coup.

It's not enough, though, to get 76 House members grousing about management. The grumblers need a candidate to carry their standard. Chisum has in the past managed to win votes for legislation from both sides of the aisle, and although he's on the more-conservative side of the GOP, a lot of Democrats like him personally. Still, to win, he and other Republicans would have to dole out power in a manner that could hold the coalition together.

"If we're not gonna be on the team, we'll just have to make a little noise on the outside," Chisum says. "I don't envision anybody running [with] only conservative Republicans. It's not just a closed shop."

For Straus to fall as Laney did, Republicans would have to win a bunch of seats in November — possible, given the current political climate — with candidates predisposed to turn him out. With less than two months to go before the election, those candidates aren’t focused on the new-boss-old-boss debate — their attention is on getting elected. So helping them win in November would benefit anyone wanting to take or to keep the speaker’s job. Straus has supported candidates in open seat races and in seats where Republican incumbents are fighting challengers. Other groups, like the Associated Republicans of Texas, have backed Republicans challenging incumbent Democrats. Chisum will have to win over some of those candidates by helping them get elected. [UPDATE: George Seay, the president of ART, strongly disputes an earlier version of this story that characterized his group as allied with Straus: "We are emphatically, unequivically agnostic about speaker politics," he says. "It's very, very simple. We are here to elected conservative Republicans to the Texas Legislature. We're a single-purpose organization this year."]

State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, said earlier this year that he plans to run for speaker, too. He doesn't have the deep relationships in the House that Chisum does, but he comes from the same political faction. Chisum jokes that if there's a race, there might be more names in the hat. "You've got me and Leo. There may be some more crazies."

It's always possible to knock off a speaker, but it usually doesn't come together. Members don't like to risk their current situations by grasping for better deals — the price of trying and failing is too steep. Unseating a speaker also requires a rationale that makes sense to the public. When Craddick beat Laney, it occurred as part of a shift of the majority party. When Straus beat Craddick, it ended an eight-year argument over the way Craddick ran the House.

What's the case against Straus? For some Democrats, it's that he hasn't sufficiently rewarded them for helping to overthrow Craddick. For some Republicans, it's that he joined with Democrats to upend a conservative Republican speaker. What's the case for Straus? He’s no Craddick, and many members say they've got more freedom to operate now than during the previous four terms. He put new people in important jobs, building the kind of leadership structure that can keep a speaker in office.

Don't forget the lobby on the pro and con sides. The current in-crowd works to keep its position. The former in-crowd works for a return to the trough. And don't ignore — as an asset — the fact that Straus hasn't been in the job for even two years. Being a speaker is politically equivalent to handling radioactive rocks: It's only after prolonged contact that the poisons build to dangerous levels.

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