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House Speaker's Race is Bluffing Game for Now

In the race for speaker of the Texas House, everybody has the votes they need. Or they're well on their way. Or at least that's what they're telling the rest of us.

Rep. David Simpson and Rep. Joe Straus are running for Speaker of the House.

Did you ever play blind man’s bluff when you were a kid? You stumble around with a blindfold, trying to tag others who use your blindness to hide, rather than ducking under beds or breathing the dust in hall closets.

Running for speaker of the House is like that. None of the candidates will reveal who, if anyone, has pledged to vote for them. That makes it difficult for insiders to work the voters — legislators — and even harder for outsiders who would like to lobby those lawmakers on the race.

The candidates know who many of their friends are, but there’s a catch. Ambitious and opportunistic people — you know, lawmakers — change their minds as the situation changes. The worst place to be in a speaker’s race is on the losing side. A change in momentum can scatter supporters quickly.

For instance: Tom Craddick had pledges from more than enough members to hold the speaker’s post right after the 2008 election, but his support dissolved before the beginning of the legislative session in January 2009. Craddick folded, released his voters from their promises to him, and Joe Straus became speaker. Pete Laney had enough votes in 2002 until that year’s elections produced the first Republican majority in the Texas House since Reconstruction. That’s when Craddick took over.

Straus is now being challenged by Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview. Challenges have become a biennial habit in the House. Even people who have not yet sprouted gray hairs can remember when races for speaker were relatively unusual. Every six years, or eight, but not every two. Craddick’s tenure was marked by efforts to unseat him, and that pot finally boiled in 2009.

Straus, who is defending his seat for the second time, appears to be in a strong position. Simpson has been in the House for less than 24 months and hasn’t built the loyal and trusting relationships that come with more time. And if he can muster enough dissent from conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats to concern the Straus camp, he will still need to figure out how to represent those Democrats and those Republicans in a way that doesn’t upset one or the other. Give the Democrats a bone, and the Republicans will bark. Deny it, and the Democrats will bite. That would be a tricky coalition.

Straus knows. He came in with far more Democrats under his banner than Republicans. After the Republicans surged to a supermajority after the 2010 elections, the Democrats felt ignored. That’s the root of the speaker’s political problems with some of those Democrats. The fact that he dealt with them at all is the root of his political problem with some conservatives. Simpson is a new face, but he’d have to build his own version of that same bridge — a daunting task for someone just finishing his first term.

We’re getting way, way ahead of ourselves. We’re still in the stage where the votes are invisible. Simpson says his support is growing. He has two known supporters, including himself — a bit short of the 76 votes needed to win the job. Straus says he’s got this in the bag, but as with Simpson, he won’t make his list of supporters public.

A lot of his supporters don’t want to be made public. Some say privately that they’re going to vote for Straus, that they’ve never wavered and that they’re absolutely locked in. They need to talk to constituents about it before coming out, they say — an acknowledgement that some of their home folk aren’t keen on the speaker. Announcing now would open those members to criticism. It would make them targets for activists trying to lop off his head.

They don’t want to take the heat over the holidays, so they’re letting Straus take the heat for them. He’ll continue to insist he has the votes for a third term. Simpson will continue to say his support is growing. The rest of us will find out the real numbers and names in January, when they vote. Until that revelation, Straus will be on defense, Simpson on offense and most of the lawmakers who will decide this thing will hide behind their Christmas trees.

Put your blindfold on.

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