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Analysis: In the House, a Dose of Moderation

As the numbers mount in favor of House Speaker Joe Straus' reelection, the establishment wing of the Republican Party in Texas appears to be prevailing over activists who insist the state is more conservative than its Legislature.

House Speaker Joe Straus (l) faces a challenge from Frisco state Rep. Scott Turner

The rapidly fizzling challenge to House Speaker Joe Straus undercuts a noisy populist wing of the Republican Party in favor of an establishment hoping to quell what it regards as an unnecessary storm of temper tantrums and manufactured drama.

In this provincial version of the divisions that the new Republican Congress could face, the establishment appears to be winning.

The lawmaker seeking to replace Straus, state Rep. Scott Turner, has promised to force a public vote when the legislative session begins in January. But it looks as if that election would do more to flush out Turner’s supporters than to shame the Republicans supporting the incumbent.

A few dozen Republicans have declared support for Straus. Combined with Democrats who have backed him in the past — and would be unlikely to switch to someone more conservative — more than half of the members of the House are accounted for.

That would be a disappointment to the Tea Party and other Republican factions that believe Straus and other Republicans like him are too liberal. Straus and his supporters contend that the Legislature has been reliably and remarkably conservative during his three terms at the helm. They also warn against outside groups supporting the effort to push aside Straus, portraying them as hijackers eager to put one of their own in charge.

If that sounds like the argument in Washington, then it sounds the way Straus’ team wants it to sound. Who wants to import that style of debate?

The numbers, for the moment, are going the speaker’s way.

A Straus win could turn the House — ordinarily the hot-tempered, rambunctious state chamber — into the cooler, more measured partner. The typically staid Senate looks like the home of firebrands, an energetic hive of freshman and sophomore conservatives led by Lt. Gov.-elect Dan Patrick, a radio talk show host who plays hero to movement conservatives and bane to liberals.

He is so conservative that many Democrats believed he would spook moderate voters over to their side in the general election. But the Democrat who ran against him, Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, lost by almost 20 percentage points.

And other Republicans — Straus, for instance — have said that, despite Patrick’s facility with the kind of rhetoric that makes for a successful radio talk show host, he has learned quickly as a legislator and can be a skilled negotiator. It is all a matter of which Dan Patrick shows up.

At some point between January and June, Gov.-elect Greg Abbott will be thrown into this, refereeing some inevitable difference between the House and the Senate, probably with a deadline looming, and possibly on a question that pits one wing of the Republican Party against another.

He is in a position to put his thumb on the scale, to signal the two legislative leaders which way he might go on an issue, or to talk them around bringing fights to his desk. With a new governor and lieutenant governor, it will be a new balancing act.

You can see why leadership of the House is an attractive target for those on the right end of the Republican seesaw. Democrats are out of power when it comes to many issues in the Legislature. They prevail only when they can attract moderate Republicans. If the House and Senate were both led and populated by more conservative Republicans, the state might adopt more conservative laws than it has now.

First, however, the populist wing has to convince members of the House that the wrong guy has the gavel. They have to believe that they are unable to get their priorities accomplished, that another speaker would put them in positions of greater power or improve the chances of their dearest legislation, and that a new speaker would favorably alter the balance among the top three officials in government.

The activists pushing for a new speaker obviously believe that is true. Judging by their public support of Straus, the state’s legislators apparently disagree.

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State government Dan Patrick Greg Abbott Joe Straus Texas House of Representatives Texas Legislature Texas Senate