In the final months of his third term as speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus appears to be in pretty decent shape politically. He will probably keep his job; whether he will be able to control the legislative agenda next year is another question.
He is not without opposition, most of it from inside his own party. State Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, says he wants to be speaker. And the resentments that formed in 2009, when Straus unseated a fellow Republican, Tom Craddick of Midland, still bubble under the surface.
Replacing a speaker requires either a change in the makeup of the House, like the 2002 election that put a Republican majority in place, or enough dissent and conflict within the House to undermine the leadership, which is what got Craddick after three terms.
This election season has not led to significant changes in the makeup of the House. The opposition to Straus is evident among some Tea Party members as well as other conservatives, but there are also representatives in those ranks who do not fault his leadership or are not worked up enough to risk taking part in a failed coup. A candidate looking for 76 votes — the number needed to win the job in the 150-member House — has to either find that many unhappy Republicans, or enough Democrats to help make up the winning majority.
Straus won the speakership in a House that was split almost evenly between the parties. Nearly all of the Democrats and fewer than two dozen Republicans formed the majority that unseated Craddick. The coalition blew up in the 2010 elections, when Republicans won a supermajority.
Straus, however, successfully pivoted, won a majority from Republicans and kept the backing of Democrats in spite of a challenge from the conservative wing of his party.
Now, Republicans maintain an overwhelming majority in the House — enough to make it clear that a Democratic takeover is next to impossible. Since it is unlikely that Democrats, outnumbered 95 to 55, can elect one of their own as speaker, they are left to vote for the Republican who will do them the least amount of damage or who will let them get some things done despite their minority status.
If this were a purely partisan decision, that would be asking Democrats to choose a more conservative Republican. Many of the conservatives hoping to replace Straus want to do so because they think he is insufficiently conservative. That might be popular in some political circles, but probably not in Democratic ones.
The Texas House is not run purely along partisan lines. It is common for Democrats to join with Republicans when there is a mutual benefit. When Craddick came into power, it was with the help of a dozen or so “Craddick D’s” — Democrats who voted for him in return for positions they had been denied under previous Democratic leaders. With enough turnover among his committee chairmen and other leaders, Straus has been able to promote lawmakers who might otherwise join an opposition candidate.
The biggest risk to the speaker and his cohort comes from outside the brass rail that separates the House from the rest of us — if not to his job, then to his agenda.
The conservatives, the Tea Partyers, the insurgents — whatever you want to call them — are the loudest and most vibrant wing of the Republican Party. They are well financed, but their representatives do not make up a majority of the House.
They will probably make up the majority of the state Senate in 2015, however, and the legislation sent from that body to the House could force votes on issues that currently split Republicans, requiring members and their leaders to line up on one side or the other.
Barring an upset, Straus will get a fourth term. His political challenges will flow from the dance with a conservative Republican Senate that might be under new leadership, and with a new governor.
His political risk is not that he might lose his post, but that the sectarian fights from this year’s Republican primaries might dominate the next session.