After a string of election victories by conservative Republicans, Tea Party activists are making it clear that the first crucial vote of the next legislative session will come on day one.
When the 150-member House picks its speaker, state Rep. Scott Turner of Frisco says he will challenge fellow Republican and incumbent Joe Straus of San Antonio.
Challenges to Straus were also launched before the 2011 and 2013 sessions, but abandoned when it became clear they couldn’t succeed, saving members from casting a politically awkward vote.
In private conversations and public speeches, Turner is telling supporters he will not withdraw, no matter the shape of the race on Jan. 13, the session's first day.
“I do understand obviously what happened the last two sessions,” Turner said in an interview Tuesday. “But on the 13th we’re going to take it to the vote.”
The outcome of that vote could serve as fodder for Republican primaries in 2016. Conservative groups like Texans for Fiscal Responsibility are likely to score House members who back Straus negatively on voting report cards they release following each session.
State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, a top Straus lieutenant, said it isn't just Turner supporters who are looking forward to a public vote.
“I think people are fed up with a lot of this stuff, and I think people need to stand up and be counted,” Keffer said.
The race is widely viewed as Straus’ to lose, but Turner supporters remain engaged, arguing that Straus is too moderate to properly represent a state as conservative as Texas.
Their level of commitment became clear this week, when news spread that state Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Tea Party-backed Republican from Southlake, had announced Monday evening that he was backing Straus. Four other Republican House members at the same meeting said they were backing Turner.
“There is no race because over 80 percent of Republicans won’t support Scott Turner,” Capriglione said at the meeting of the NE Tarrant Tea Party, according to video posted online. “Scott Turner doesn’t have a chance.”
Capriglione added that, while he considers Turner a friend, he does not think he is qualified to be speaker.
“I just noticed that he doesn’t have the depth when it comes to policy and analysis,” Capriglione said. “This is someone who we’re going to ask to be our leader, to be able to push policy and agenda.”
His remarks drew sharp rebukes from Capriglione supporters who backed him for office because they were unhappy with former state Rep. Vicki Truitt's support of Straus. Capriglione lost to Truitt in 2010, but beat her in 2012. Truitt’s support of Straus was a unifying issue for a coalition of conservative groups interested in seeing her replaced.
“The meeting was very respectful, and no one lost their cool or was rude, but lemme tell ya, there were tears. Real tears. By patriots who are being run over, yet again, by someone they trusted to have their backs,” said NE Tarrant Tea Party President Julie McCarty in a statement on Facebook.
Some Turner supporters suggested that pressure or promises from Straus secured Capriglione's support.
“I did not feel any pressure,” Capriglione said Tuesday. “I didn’t speak to the speaker about this race. I made this decision based on an independent analysis of the qualifications of both candidates.”
Asked to respond to Capriglione’s remarks, Turner said, “A lot of people are going to say a lot of stuff between now and then. Our concentration has to be getting to work for Texas.”
Turner has reported raising more than $370,000 in his campaign for speaker, including $100,000 from Jeff Sandefer, a businessman and unofficial adviser to Gov. Rick Perry on higher education issues. He also reported more than $14,128 in in-kind support from Midland oilman Tim Dunn, the main financial backer of Empower Texans, a conservative group that has vigorously opposed Straus since he became speaker in 2009.
Earlier this month, the Texas House Leadership Fund, a political action committee aligned with Straus, sent mailers to voters across the state touting some recent conservative victories in the Legislature.
“Speaker Straus is happy to support members of the House by helping them highlight their record,” Straus spokesman Jason Embry said.
State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, who was at the Tea Party meeting where Capriglione announced his support for Straus, said he is not “anti-Straus” but believes Turner will do a better job. He described conservatives as unhappy with the lack of movement in the House under Straus on bills related to a handful of issues, including tightening the state’s spending cap and school choice.
Asked if he was telling members that the House would be more conservative with him in charge, Turner said his conversations with members are “private.” He then added, “We’ve concentrated so much on the politics of the speaker, but this is a relational deal. They understand that though we may differ politically, they can trust me.”