The current position of House Speaker Joe Straus presents a stark contrast with the current crop of GOP candidates who are moving as far to the ideological right as possible in advance of next year’s primaries. This contrast presents a paradox. As the legislative session gives way to primary season, Straus is in the most stable position of the “big three” — a group that includes Gov. Rick Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst — despite the fact that he has resisted the rightward momentum propelling the next generation of Texas Republican leaders epitomized by Senator Ted Cruz.
From the top of the primary ballot to the bottom, candidates seemingly can’t get to the right end of the GOP spectrum fast enough. Attorney General Greg Abbott’s “personal” Twitter feed offers a steady diet of updates on “Obama’s Texas Takeover,” the defense of public prayer, and the problem of illegal voting (to take a recent sampling).
The GOP candidates for lieutenant governor are trying to establish themselves on the right end of the spectrum: See Dewhurst’s re-election ad based on his anti-abortion credentials, and the recent web ad released by State Sen. Dan Patrick which invokes a litany of conservative causes to undermine Dewhurst’s standing with the right wing of his party. Even state Rep. Dan Branch, running for Abbott’s job, is getting in on the act.
These tactics reflect the dramatic success of Cruz’s campaign against Dewhurst in 2012, and Cruz’s subsequent status as the most popular politician among GOP partisans, viewed favorably by 70 percent of Republican identifiers, 77 percent of extreme conservatives, 88 percent of Tea Party members, and even at this very early stage, the plurality choice for the GOP presidential nomination.
And then there’s Straus.
As Speaker, Straus has skillfully played the inside game while defeating efforts to brand his politics — and at times, Straus personally — as ideologically suspect. Straus’ position as speaker makes him a high value target for conservatives but also provides him with the tools for defeating that strategy. All speakers have a distinctive position as figures of statewide importance who are electorally accountable only to the constituents of their legislative districts. Straus has succeeded, so far, in maintaining a relatively low public profile even while solidifying his position in the House.
In the last University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll, Straus’ favorability ratings were 9 percent favorable / 16 percent unfavorable, with a whopping 75 percent expressing no view of him (55 percent said outright that they didn’t know him). Unless and until he decides to run for higher office, the old-school approach says this is exactly how you want it if you’re the speaker of the House, keeping a degree of anonymity in the eyes of the general public so that you can focus on the constituency that elected you speaker, i.e. the other 149 members of the House.