Analysis: The Future of the Texas House Could Be Seen in Eight Races

Clockwise, from top left: Republican state Reps. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington, John Frullo of Lubbock, Byron Cook of Corsicana and Matt Rinaldi of Irving.
Clockwise, from top left: Republican state Reps. Tony Tinderholt of Arlington, John Frullo of Lubbock, Byron Cook of Corsicana and Matt Rinaldi of Irving.

Editor's note: If you'd like an email notice whenever we publish Ross Ramsey's column, click here.

Bragging rights in the Republican primaries for seats in the Texas House will go either to the management now in place, to the opponents of the current leaders or to some mix of those things. It’s not complicated to follow — you can keep up by watching eight races.

Republicans, lobbyists and others gauge politics by what happens in the Capitol and by associations of the sort you remember from high school: Who is in which group, which group is strongest, and so on.

In this case, it’s a simple matter of watching races involving a handful of loyalists to House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, and a handful involving his antagonists.

Straus himself will face two other Republicans in his own re-election campaign, including Jeff Judson, former head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Austin.


If Straus loses his re-election bid, you won’t need to watch the eight races on this list. The game could always end there, opening the way for a new speaker of the Texas House.

Say he wins that race, in which he has every advantage. Several of his legislative lieutenants and allies also have primary races against candidates recruited by Republicans who’d like to oust the speaker. That group includes Byron Cook of Corsicana, John Frullo of Lubbock, Charlie Geren of Fort Worth and Jason Villalba of Dallas.

Four of the Republicans who voted against Straus round out the list of eight, facing opponents recruited or favored by allies of the speaker: Matt Rinaldi of Irving, Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Tony Tinderholt of Arlington and Molly White of Belton.

Those outsiders are trying to regain the momentum they lost in last year’s legislative session. In his latest re-election bid for speaker last year, Straus won a lopsided victory over Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco. Turner and his backers blustered their way through the 2014 elections in an attempt to get voters interested in the race for speaker. They won a few races, but when it came time for the 150 members of the Texas House to choose their leader, Turner mustered only 19 votes.

It was one of those Bambi vs. Godzilla moments.

Now that we’re back in an election cycle, Straus opponents within his own Republican Party hope to defeat enough of his House supporters to threaten his leadership before lawmakers return for their 2017 legislative session.

Political analysis is local, meaning you’ll get one version of it where officeholders do their work and play their power games, and another version in the districts where politicians and their constituents live.

The continued reign of Straus — who was elected House speaker in 2009 and plans to seek a fifth term a year from now — is the conversation-starter in Austin.


From that Austin point of view, these eight races could foretell the flow of power in the next Legislature. The math is on Straus’ side; it would be difficult to unseat enough incumbent House members to build an anti-Straus majority.

But the races won’t turn on what’s important in Austin. Voters care more about local concerns (public schools, flood control, roads) and about headline issues (terrorism, police shootings and immigration) than about the personalities in Austin.

In an election year, incumbents of every stripe have to worry more about their votes on legislation than about their procedural votes and their pride or shame over who’s on what committee.

First-term lawmakers have the hardest go — their voters don’t know them as well as longer-tenured incumbents. Rinaldi, Tinderholt and White are in that boat; Rinaldi has the added hurdle of running against Bennett Ratliff — the Republican he upended two years ago. Two years ago, Rinaldi was running against the people in Austin.

That’s harder to do when you’re one of them.

Many other races figure into this, including a few in the general election next November. But watch those eight, and you’ll have a good idea of how things are going in the GOP in Texas, and which kinds of Republicans are winning.

Most folks will ignore all of that and just watch the race for president, but Texans often exhibit split political personalities. They pick one kind of candidate in the top race and another kind as they work their way through the ballot.

That’s how they got state leaders as different as Straus and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick running the two chambers of the state Legislature. Directly or indirectly, the same voters put both men in office.

Disclosure: The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Sign Up for The Brief

Our daily news summary