With a week until the 85th Legislative Session begins, House Speaker Joe Straus is without something he has had before every session since he first took the helm of the chamber: a challenger for the gavel.
Straus, a perennial target of conservative activists, will likely be unopposed for speaker when the House gavels in Jan. 10 — a point even his fiercest detractors are beginning to concede. It would be a notable departure from the past three sessions, when Straus faced challengers from his right — sometimes multiple — in the lead-up to the session.
While they acknowledge a consensus choice has not emerged to take on Straus, some of the speaker's critics are cautioning that there is still time for a movement to take shape. Straus, a Republican from San Antonio, swiftly rose to the speakership in 2009 as the beneficiary of a campaign by a group of House members to unseat his predecessor, Rep. Tom Craddick, R-Midland.
"I think there’s always an opportunity," said Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. "The Craddick regime fell in a matter of three hours."
Straus, who fended off conservative challengers in the March primaries along with most of his allies, has suggested he is not taking the speakership for granted. “My first priority is to do a good job earning the trust of the members of the Texas House now that I’ve been re-elected by my district back home,” Straus said in a November interview with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith.
As of Tuesday, Straus was the only lawmaker the Texas Ethics Commission had on record as a candidate for speaker. On Monday, the most anti-Straus group in Texas politics — Empower Texans — told supporters it does not appear he will be challenged. And on Tuesday, one of the lawmakers who has previously opposed Straus not only said he does not expect a challenger to emerge but also announced he would vote for Straus if it came to it.
Among some Straus critics, there is frustration that no one has volunteered to challenge the speaker for the upcoming session. GOP Rep.-elect Mike Lang gave voice to that sentiment Tuesday, saying the "speaker's race" had been one of the two biggest issues in his district after he won election.
"I’ve always said that I’ll vote for the most conservative person that’s running, but as of now, we’re a week out and nobody stepped up to run, and you know, really, is it up to a freshman to run?" Lang said in an interview with Empower Texans chief Michael Quinn Sullivan. "I don’t know what’s left to do right now."
"I’m coming down here as a conservative, and there’s a lot of questions and sometimes you look at it and you have to say, 'Somebody’s gotta step up,'" added Lang, whose House run had initially been a challenge to a Straus lieutenant, Republican Rep. Jim Keffer of Eastland. (After Lang announced, Keffer said he would not seek re-election.)
Lang's interview with Sullivan, an influential voice in anti-Straus circles, came a day after the Empower Texans head issued a warning to lawmakers as he nonetheless acknowledged Straus was unlikely to face opposition for the gavel next week.
"No challenge to the status quo appears forthcoming," Sullivan wrote on the group's website. "That means every member will own the results of House leadership this session. There will be no excuses for obstructionism."
Straus easily won the speakership last session, despite opposition from Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco. Turner, who decided against seeking re-election this year, had mounted a formal campaign against Straus, announcing the leadership challenge a year in advance and stumping across the state.
Turner ended up winning the support of just 19 Republican colleagues in the 150-member House. Five of those lawmakers are not returning for the 2017 session: Turner himself; Bryan Hughes, who won a promotion to the Senate; David Simpson, who did not seek re-election and instead ran for the Senate against Hughes; and Molly White and Stuart Spitzer, who lost their respective primaries.
The other 14 who voted against Straus in 2015 have been relatively quiet about House leadership in the run-up to the session that starts next week. Reached over the past several weeks, some said regardless of who the speaker is, there will be intra-party drama this session on a number of issues, especially as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tees up a host of conservative proposals in the Senate.
"We have House membership that’s sharply divided on priorities," said Rep. Matt Rinaldi, R-Irving. "I’m sure it’s going to rear its head up somehow."