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Analysis: These Voters Were Not Looking for Change

The House on Tuesday re-elected Joe Straus to be speaker, easily squelching a rebellion from a noisy but small faction of conservatives who backed Scott Turner. Were the challengers out of sync with Texans, or just with the current management?

State Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, is sworn in as Texas Speaker of the House on January 13th, 2015

The conservatives knew when they put Scott Turner up against House Speaker Joe Straus that they were not going to win that race. Or they should have known.

The challenger, a Republican from Frisco, mustered just 19 votes Tuesday in the 150-member House. He did not win the support of a single Democrat and attracted just under one of every five Republicans.

It was a show of strength for Straus, who first won his job in a challenge to a sitting three-term speaker and who eased his worried Republican supporters recently through the noise and frustrations of a competitive primary in a split political party. But in the future, when conservatives of Straus’ stripe no longer have the advantage of incumbency, Tuesday’s challengers will find out whether they were rejected because they were outnumbered — or because their ideas just don’t match those of the rest of Texas.

The political threats to Straus and his supporters come from Tea Party and anti-establishment conservatives — a tribe that has turned “primaried” into an ultimatum for lawmakers who don’t toe their ideological line. The upstarts only produced 19 votes on Tuesday, but they sent emails into the districts of Republicans who voted for Straus right after the acceptance speeches were over, urging voters to raise their voices against the establishment.

“I am sorry to report that on this first day of the legislative session, your state representative ... voted for the liberal Austin establishment by keeping Joe Straus as Speaker of the Texas House,” began an email to voters from Texans for Fiscal Responsibility/Empower Texans.

That group and others have cautioned lawmakers that their votes will be scored during the session, along with the various groups’ grades on how they performed.

Enough lawmakers are frightened by that sort of threat to make it effective. Straus offered his answer in his acceptance speech, saying, “You cannot govern this House by dividing it,” and getting a standing ovation from members and their families and friends with a line about the people of Texas: “Their scorecard is the only one that matters.”

From the end of the last legislative session to the beginning of this one, the House never exhibited real signs of an impending change in management.

Changes like that are usually triggered by scandal or by party change or by genuine dissatisfaction with the way things are being run. When any of those things are floating, you can be sure that more than one candidate for speaker will turn up. In that way, the House operates like a pride of lions; strong ones kill weak ones, and a weakened leader does not last very long.

Had legislators really been shopping around for new leadership, those of us on the outside would have known it by the number of people talking about change and about who might be the next speaker and maybe even about their own personal leadership qualities.

That was the case, for instance, when Straus beat Tom Craddick. Well before that happened, it was clear that the House was volatile, that Craddick’s majority was wobbly, and that the names of a number of replacements were slipping into normal conversations about the Legislature.

Straus himself was a surprise, but the rebellion against Craddick had been a running story line for some time, in the House, among lobbyists and in the media.

So what do the rebels get this time? A show of weakness, for the moment, and a list of 19 people who probably won’t be getting plum assignments this year.

But Straus has to leave someday. This will be his fourth term. Only three other Texans have made it this far: Billy Clayton, D-Springlake, was a four-term speaker, and Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, and Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, each served five terms. When Straus moves on — however he moves on — there will be another race.

Turner might not even be here by then, but the faction that backed him — a combination of Tea Partiers, Christian conservatives and third-party political organizations like Empower Texans and FreedomWorks — will be here, and will be ready to jump behind a candidate.

That faction is not particularly fearsome now. It lost the election for speaker and could not muster a majority even among the Republicans in the House. It has not proved that Texans or their elected representatives are buying this brand of politics, but the results can partly be attributed to working in opposition to someone in power — the familiar problem for anyone who throws down on an incumbent.

In a future race without Straus in power, theirs might be less of an uphill ride.

If Republican voters are in the mood for something more conservative when that happens, this early spadework might pay off.

But not yet.

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State government 84th Legislative Session Joe Straus Texas Legislature