Candidates for speaker of the Texas House — other than the incumbents themselves — are ordinarily invisible this early in the campaign season.
Unseasonal sightings mean either that the sitting speaker has announced plans to leave the job, or that some faction or another is so frustrated with current management that it has overcome its fear of retribution for challenging the boss. It can also be a measure of frustration by a faction outside of the Legislature.
State Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, declared his candidacy months ago and has been campaigning among Republican activists he hopes will persuade other state legislators to abandon Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and to back him.
With Straus’s own re-election all but assured — his only opponent in November is Jeff Carruthers, a Libertarian — he is hoping to follow that with a fourth term at the helm of the House. No matter who wins the races for governor and lieutenant governor, inexperienced newcomers will occupy both offices. Straus has the advantage of job experience.
A victory over Turner could help Straus set the agenda for the next legislative session: Not only would he be the most experienced of the state’s top three officeholders, but the vote for speaker would be read as the House’s verdict on the ideologies proposed by the governor and lieutenant governor.
Straus has been an eat-your-vegetables leader, trying to keep the House away from red-meat partisan issues and concentrating on the budget, infrastructure and education. In its endorsement of Turner, FreedomWorks, a Washington conservative advocacy group, complained that Straus “was put into office by Democrats and he has voted with the Democrats to raise taxes and increase spending.” The majority of the state’s Republican Legislature voted the same way Straus did, and the choice between the two men could provide a referendum on that and similar questions.
Straus got here on a challenge to a sitting speaker and was elected by a coalition that included most of the House’s Democrats and a minority of its Republicans that rebelled against the leadership of Tom Craddick, R-Midland.
Since then, the mix of Republicans and Democrats in the House — and in Straus’ coalition — has changed. He fended off a 2011 challenge from Ken Paxton, who moved on to the Texas Senate and is now the Republican nominee for attorney general. And Straus won easily again in 2013, amid continued complaints from a conservative faction in the Republican Party, both inside and outside the Capitol.
The right wing of the Republican Party provides Straus with a kind of political cover. No matter how conservative his proposals or policies, they always judge him as too close to the Democrats. The Democrats know a liberal when they see one, and they do not count Straus as one of theirs.
That said, he operates closer to the center than some of the loudest Republicans, and that makes him tolerable to Democrats. So they stick. Because there are not enough of those anti-Straus conservatives in the House to outvote their less conservative colleagues (from both parties), they cannot take away his gavel without help.
That is fortunate political arithmetic for the speaker.
Straus has successfully divided the two groups that, for their different reasons, would probably be happy to replace him. But the Democrats would not vote for someone more conservative than him, and the populists would not vote for another Republican who, like Straus, they consider insufficiently conservative.
Even if a majority of members wanted Straus out — and there is not yet any real evidence of that — it is hard to picture an alternative candidate who could get 75 of his or her colleagues to agree on his replacement.
Of course, that is always the way of things in races for speaker: It is a lot easier to piece together how a coup worked than it is to put it together in the first place.
When those attempts fail, the leaders often emerge stronger. They know who their foes are, who their friends are and what their voters — in this case, the members of the House — really want them to do. In a state with a new governor and a new lieutenant governor just settling in, that could give the sitting speaker a strong hand.