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Analysis: Dancing With Those Who Brung Ya

Splitting the majority party in the House of Representatives leaves a potential speaker with two routes to the top. Lawmakers did it one way in Texas and another way in Washington, D.C.

TribFest 2014 Joe Straus interview with Ross Ramsey
Conversation San Antonio event on May12th, 2014 with Speaker of the House John Boehner
Credit: Bob Daemmrich/Marjorie Kamys Cotera

Splitting the majority party in the House of Representatives leaves a potential speaker with two routes to the top.

Lawmakers did it one way in Texas and another way in Washington, D.C. Right now, the Texas way seems to function better.

In the Texas House, Joe Straus, a Republican, built a ruling coalition that included the Democrats and limited the power of the Tea Party Republicans. In the U.S. House, John Boehner, also a Republican, made his coalition out of the Republicans alone, shutting out the Democrats and empowering the Tea Party conservatives.

The 2010 elections were a turning point for both leaders. That election gave Republicans a majority in the U.S. House and Boehner, until then the minority leader, became speaker.

Two years earlier, Straus ascended to the speakership by banding fewer than two dozen Republicans with most of the Democrats in an almost evenly divided House. After the 2010 elections, he could have ditched the Democrats and relied on a large Republican majority to stay in office — that’s what Boehner did — but he stuck with one of the oldest rules in politics: Dance with who brung ya.

Boehner’s coalition has been the much more volatile of the two. U.S. House Democrats are largely shut out — the decisions are made in the Republican Conference, which then attempts to stick together as a ruling bloc. The strength of the most vocal conservatives is increased in the conference.

The Straus coalition, while still conservative, frustrates the loudest and most doctrinaire of the Republicans, giving the Democrats some power and shutting out the far right. Those movement conservatives are just as rambunctious as their federal cousins, but they’re outsiders instead of insiders.

It’s not a perfect comparison. Straus operates in a government with 100 percent Republican leadership. Boehner has to deal with a Democrat in the White House. But Straus has had a longer tenure and had more legislative success than his federal counterpart, in part because he has had more success managing his potential antagonists.

Elections for House speakers, whether they take place in state or the federal Capitols, offer a peek into politics that you can’t get from  regular elections.

Regular elections are business. Speaker elections are personal.

Governors and presidents and legislators are elected mainly by people they do not know: voters. Sure, they know many of them. They know the bigwigs in their various constituencies. They know the money people. But there are too many voters to know each one personally.

Campaigns for those jobs are conducted with advertising and polling, with volunteers willing to knock on doors and talk to voters.

Running for speaker is the grown-up equivalent of running for high school class president. Each candidate knows each voter and probably has a good idea of how each will vote. Candidates and voters have personal histories, having battled face-to-face or side-by-side or both. They have helped or hurt their colleagues in election campaigns. Favors are owed. Grudges are nursed.

Instead of winning votes a group at a time, a speaker candidate has to win them one voter at a time.

The results are often surprising. It’s not hard to tell how a normal election is going or what issues are in play, even if it’s close. And the voters react differently to wins and losses, too, continuing their fights long after Election Day has passed. That’s the process underway in Washington. Straus is in a different part of the cycle — the part where regular voters are choosing the people who will vote on the next speaker.

That can be perilous: It’s what happened to former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat undone by the 2002 elections that resulted in the first Republican majority in the Texas House since Reconstruction.

Straus is in office because his predecessor, Republican Tom Craddick, couldn’t muster a working majority in a House evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. The politics weren’t impossible, but the relationships were strained — a perfect example of the inside politics that separate a race for speaker from other political contests.

These elections are as opaque as the votes for popes. The big themes might be visible, but the real politics are not.

The consequences, on the other hand, quickly become evident. A speaker’s success or failure is built on the coalition of insiders that puts him or her in office.

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