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A Longshot for Speaker, With Money to Spend

Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, has not been in the Texas House for two years, but the freshman lawmaker and former California congressional candidate has his eye on the top job there: speaker.

Scott Turner at the Texas GOP state convention in Fort Worth, Texas, June 5, 2014

The Republican lawmaker from North Texas who wants to be the next speaker of the Texas House wanted — just a few years ago — to be the next congressman from San Diego.

The lawmaker, Scott Turner, a former defensive back whose NFL career included a stint with the San Diego Chargers, started his political career in a special election to succeed Randy Cunningham, a Republican who resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to accepting millions in bribes.

Turner, who had done off-season work as a congressional aide to another California lawmaker, Duncan Hunter, barely registered in that 2006 race, finishing eighth among 14 Republican candidates after mustering 1.5 percent of the votes. He moved back to the Dallas suburbs where he grew up, and when the opening presented itself, he won a seat in the Texas House in 2012.

Although he is still in his first term, Turner has set his sights on the top spot in the House and has raised — in cash and in-kind donations — nearly $350,000 for that contest. That is a lot of money for a race that only requires 76 votes to win.

Challenges to speakers often find their beginnings in the complaints and grumblings of shut-out politicians. Threats to those at the top of the pecking order come either from outside — in the form of elections or challenges from other branches of government — or from the bottom of the pecking order. It is a game of king of the hill, conducted in business attire in historic buildings.

Most of the complaining goes nowhere, and the constant drone becomes part of the background noise of government, so much so that real threats can seem to come from nowhere.

The current speaker, Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, came into power after only four years in the House by unseating Tom Craddick, of Midland, a Republican who is still in the House.

Craddick succeeded a Democrat, Pete Laney, of Hale Center, who was undone by an election that replaced the Democratic majority that elected him with a Republican one that wanted one of its own.

Laney became speaker after his predecessor, Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, was charged with failing to report a gift from a law firm and agreed not to seek another term in a plea-bargain deal.

The ways to become a speaker are described in that short history: Catch the incumbent in an indiscretion, change the membership that elects a leader or undermine the incumbent from within.

Turner, who did not respond to inquiries about his candidacy, has turned to a combination of the second and third strategies, relying on conservatives elected in Republican primaries to build the numbers he would need to overcome Straus’s majority.

By one account — that of Tony Tinderholt of Arlington, a Republican candidate for the House— about three dozen Republicans are meeting regularly to talk about issues of common concern, including their wish to replace Straus with a speaker more in tune with the Tea Party and social conservatives.

“We’re meeting every month to talk about the agendas — and the important conservative agenda — to take care of you,” he told supporters in July. “We’re going to elect the right speaker of the House, and we are going to make change for you. It’s going to happen. It’s not a maybe. It’s going to happen. I promise you.”

The numbers, however, are daunting. Democrats make up a third of the House and seem unlikely to vote for a more conservative Republican. Without Democrats in his coalition — and the presence of Democrats in the Straus coalition is a crucial point of attack against the incumbent — Turner would need all but about two dozen of the Republicans in the House to conduct a successful revolt.

Turner lacks votes, but he has resources. Since January, he has raised $342,000 in cash and in-kind contributions of things like airplane travel. He has contributed to other conservatives in a way that only speaker candidates care to contribute, writing $7,500 checks to seven Republican hopefuls, three of whom won their primaries.

Any challenge to Straus is a long shot right now. Turner’s effort could raise his profile even if he loses, and who knows where that might lead?

Maybe he could run for Congress.

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Congress Politics State government Joe Straus Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Tom Craddick