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Analysis: Sitting Pretty, Even Without Old Friends

Many of the legislators who originally elevated Joe Straus into the House speaker's chair four legislative sessions ago are gone. But as he enters another election cycle with his eye on another term, Straus is in remarkably good political shape.

Speaker Joe Straus during June 9, 2015 Tribune Conversation

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus may have lost most of his original besties, but his political perch appears as secure as it’s ever been.

Straus and 10 other Republicans started the coalition that elected him speaker in 2009 — after the results of the 2008 elections made it impossible for then-Speaker Tom Craddick to hold on for a fourth term in the corner office.

With this week’s announcement that state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, won’t seek another term, only Straus and two others remain. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth and Byron Cook of Corsicana are the only others from the original 11 still in the House.  Both are expected to seek re-election next year, though potentially well-financed challengers have already been recruited to run against them.

But Straus, who filed papers this month indicating he will run for a fifth term as speaker in 2017, has done an estimable job of replacing top hands with converts and newbies who support his leadership.

That’s a natural turn of the wheel in political life. At this point two years ago, state Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, had already announced that he was challenging Straus for the speaker’s chair. He was well financed. He generated a lot of news coverage. He stirred many activists around the state.

And when lawmakers came to Austin in January, he got just 19 votes in the 150-member House.

For Straus, turnover hasn’t been as dangerous as some might have suspected. In some ways, it’s been helpful. The top committee chairmanships are not in the hands of the same people who held them during his earlier terms. What that means, in the political idiom, is that Straus has had room to promote new talent; if he didn’t, that new talent would be out shopping for a speaker who had chairmanships to pass around.

“People have to remember there is a natural progression,” Cook said in an interview. “People are going to be retiring and moving on. It’s not unusual the number has changed since we originally ushered in this leadership.”

Cook expects some of the primary elections to be noisy, possibly including his own, pitting groups he describes as Republican (his) and libertarian (the other guys): “I don’t view this as Republican vs. Republican,” he said. “This is more of a libertarian absolutist flank over there that is not all that Republican.”

In spite of the noise within his own party, the membership of the House has stabilized since Straus took office. He was elected when the ratio of Republicans to Democrats was 76-to-74. He was tested two years later, when Texas voters put a Republican supermajority in power. In his first election, Straus had to depend on Republicans and Democrats to win; some opponents believed he would falter with Republicans firmly in charge.

In the current House, Republicans are a handful of seats short of the 100 that constitutes a supermajority, but they are firmly in charge. Straus won another term with all but 19 votes. That also means he won enough votes from Republicans that he didn’t need any votes at all from the Democrats — though he got their votes, too — to hold on to his spot.

His supporters think, and hope, that that will be the case when the House convenes in 2017. Cook, for instance, discounts the opposition’s strength — especially in a presidential election year that could inflate voter turnout.

“People for the most part are good about separating the wheat from the chaff. I don’t see momentum there,” he said. A fraction of Texans voted against highway funding in 2014 and against a water program in the middle of a statewide drought in 2013; Cook suggests they — “a baseline of people that are against everything” — are the nucleus of the opposition and don’t amount to much. 

If he’s correct, the tiny and exclusive electorate that elects the speaker — the members of the Texas House of Representatives — won’t change significantly as a result of next year’s elections, and Straus remains in good shape whether his original co-conspirators are in the Legislature or not.

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