SAN ANTONIO — House Speaker Joe Straus easily quelled the Tea Party rebellion that threatened his reign in early 2011.
But opponents of Straus, convinced that the San Antonio Republican is too moderate for Texas, have not given up.
Last year, they urged Straus’ fellow House members to eject him from the powerful speaker’s job and pick a more conservative leader. This time, they are trying to defeat him the old-fashioned way — at the ballot box.
Tea Party-backed organizations and conservative activists, led in part by Dick Armey, the former Congressional House majority leader, are throwing in with Straus’ primary challenger, Matt Beebe, a San Antonio businessman.
It is an uphill climb. At the beginning of 2012, Straus had $4 million in the bank, enough to spend about $280 per voter in his district, assuming turnout is the same as in 2010. Beebe had $52,000 at the beginning of the year, roughly the same amount he had loaned to himself.
But Beebe, an Air Force veteran, said he would raise enough to stay competitive in the May 29 Republican primary. And the groups supporting him are promising to make Straus’ House District 121, a wealthy enclave north of downtown San Antonio, the focal point in their drive to purge the Republican Party of any politician who does not toe the conservative line as they see it.
“This is probably the most important race in the state,” said Michael Kinzie, an East Texas Tea Party leader and supporter of Beebe. “The fate of Texas may well be determined by the voters of HD-121, not only for the next two years but for generations.”
Critics say that Straus, who was first elected speaker in 2009, has been too cozy with Democrats and that he is out of step with his own party on hot-button issues like abortion, taxes, government spending and illegal immigration.
Straus, a lifelong Republican who worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, says the attacks are hogwash, and he has the record to prove his conservative credentials.
He presided over some of the steepest spending cuts ever enacted by the Legislature, which sliced $15 billion from the budget in 2011, and held the line on taxes despite protests from Democrats, educators and advocates for the needy and disabled.
One of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion measures — requiring women to get sonograms before undergoing the procedure — was also passed on Straus’ watch. So was a law requiring voters to show photo identification before voting.
At a meet-and-greet in his district early this week, Straus, 52, chafed at the attacks from within his party, and he noted that his opponent — his first primary challenger since he was elected to the House in 2005 — has never held political office.
“I’m running on my record, and it’s a lot easier when you don’t have one to tell people what you aspire to be,” Straus said. “I’m very confident that my record of conservative accomplishments will continue to appeal to the voters of this district.”
The way Beebe sees it, though, Straus’ conservative credentials are lacking. He said the budget that lawmakers produced was balanced with smoke and mirrors — accounting tricks like fee increases and delayed payments.
Beebe has also jumped on Straus’ comments, made last year to the El Paso Times, about taking a new approach toward the state’s budget woes in the 2013 session. Straus said that lawmakers could no longer delay fixing the ailing business tax, which has not produced nearly the amount of revenue that experts projected it would.
“I think at some point you can’t cut your way to prosperity,” Straus told the paper. The comment, borrowing a phrase used by President Obama, underscored a perception among conservatives that Straus is not one of them.
“Conservatives don’t believe in looking for new sources of revenue,” Beebe said. “Conservatives don’t believe in playing gimmicks and shell games with the budget.”
Many of the outside groups supporting Beebe are strongly motivated by social issues, abortion in particular. Though Straus said he opposes abortion, past ties to Planned Parenthood — including a $1,000 donation he got from the group in 2008 — have provoked anger from anti-abortion leaders. Many of them now support Beebe.
But in an interview, Beebe did not bring up social issues until prodded, and he said abortion is not the most important concern in his district.
“I don’t hear a lot of voters necessarily bring those issues to the front,” he said. “I certainly would consider myself a pro-life candidate, but that is not something that I see as the driving force of the candidacy or the campaign whatsoever.”
Stressing fiscal issues and pro-business themes may have something to do with the nature of the district, which is home to the exclusive San Antonio Country Club (where Straus is a third-generation member) and the wealthy Alamo Heights neighborhood, where he grew up. The district is more of an old-money bedroom community than a hotbed of socially conservative activism.
Though about a third of the district is new this year as a result of the redistricting process, Bill Siebert, who once held the Republican seat, said Straus is a perfect fit for it.
“There are a lot of executives, business owners, that type of people,” said Siebert, who is now a lobbyist. “They are conservative, but they’re not extremely conservative. They’re more moderate in their thinking.”
Beebe is realistic about his chances. Straus is one of the state’s most powerful leaders, which allows him to pile up financial resources and project a “stage presence” with which Beebe cannot compete.
But the challenger, a Michigan native who stayed in San Antonio after being stationed here by the Air Force, said the target audience is small enough in the district — where about 14,000 voted in the Republican primary two years ago — that he can get out his message with traditional campaign techniques like block-walking and stump speeches.
Unlike last year’s clubby speaker’s race, an insider game that turned on personal loyalties among fellow House members, Straus’ re-election battle is being waged door to door, street by street.
That suits Straus just fine. On a recent afternoon, he was knocking on doors in some of the new neighborhoods of his district, walking with a clipboard showing the voting histories of the residents as he offered campaign signs for their yards.
“I think my opponents misunderstand the way I feel about campaigning,” Straus said. “I like campaigning. I’ve been campaigning all my life. I grew up around it.”