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Analysis: Talk of taking on Straus simmering, but nowhere near a full boil

Between a contentious regular session of the Texas Legislature and a special session that starts in less than four weeks, some lawmakers are talking about the people in leadership, starting with the speaker of the House.

House Speaker Joe Straus adjourns the House sine die on May 29, 2017. "Sine die" means without any future date being designated for resumption.

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A real race for speaker of the Texas House starts as a rumor — the same sort of talk that marks a false start. And like a lot of things in the Legislature, it’s hard to know just what’s going on until it’s over.

This part is true, though: Legislators and lobbyists and the other bugs in the corners of the Texas Capitol are whispering about who might succeed five-term Speaker Joe Straus, and when it might happen.

Don’t be surprised by the timing. Nobody has served more than five terms. Straus says he will run again, but he would be saying that — with a special session ahead — whether he will be running in January 2019 or not. Nobody wants to be a lame duck.

The Republican Party is split, and so are the party’s state officeholders. The governor and the lieutenant governor are aligned with social and movement conservatives, some of whom regard the more moderate Straus as an obstacle. A split House, the reasoning goes, could be disruptive to the guy in charge, and as a special session approaches, calls for new management are percolating.

Some aren’t just percolating: Republican activists Steve Hotze and Jared Woodfill of Houston are publicly trying to stir up a challenge in advance of the special session. And the agenda of the session itself dovetails with that, intentionally or not, with a list of hot issues that could slip easily through the Senate on the way to a more deliberative House. Abbott’s camp is making it clear that they want to see where everyone lines up on those issues before the 2018 election cycle.

But for all the talk, potential successors haven’t presented a hard case against Straus, and nobody has announced a candidacy for speaker. Doing so now would be like jumping off the diving board before checking to see if there’s any water in the pool.

It’s hard to take out a sitting speaker. Desire to rule doesn’t cut it; the members of the House have to have a reason for a change.

The field is littered with people who miscalculated. Ken Paxton challenged Straus and fell short. Now he's the attorney general. Bryan Hughes did, too, and he is in the Texas Senate now — a position he won after beating David Simpson, another former House member and another one-time candidate for speaker. Scott Turner ran against Straus two years ago, fell short and then didn't seek another term. It takes timing, luck and skill to win and hold the job. Only three people have held on for five terms, and the current speaker is one of them.

How his predecessors were displaced is instructive — and suggests the murmurings about a challenge are premature.

At a tense moment during this year's regular session when Straus’ grip on the steering wheel was in question, he told the chairmen — the members who run the House's 40 committees — that he'd be back for another term in 2019.

That's one way to quell an insurrection — the sort of open race for speaker that made a mess of the 1991 legislative session, when Gib Lewis, D-Fort Worth, was under fire in his fifth (and final) term and a number of his chairmen began — quietly at first, then less so — collecting chits to try to succeed him.

Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, and the head of the powerful State Affairs Committee, won that race and went on to match Lewis' five terms in the big corner office and apartment on the west end of the Texas Capitol.

Laney lost the job when Republicans won the majority of seats in the House before the 2003 session and installed one of their own — Tom Craddick of Midland, a college classmate of Laney's.

For all the talk, potential successors haven’t presented a hard case against Straus, and nobody has announced a candidacy for speaker. Doing so now would be like jumping off the diving board before checking to see if there’s any water in the pool.

Through a combination of Democratic electoral gains and a top-down management style that angered just enough House members, Craddick was unseated in 2009 by a group that elevated a relatively new state representative to the top seat.

That guy — Joe Straus — remains in power today. And after a regular session that left many legislators angry about everything from immigration to bathrooms to sunset legislation, there is quiet talk of who might be next.

The math is pretty difficult. Straus upset Craddick with a coalition of fewer than two dozen Republicans and almost all of the Democrats. At the time, the Republicans had only a two-vote majority, so a coalition was the only way to pull it off.

The numbers are lopsided now, but coalitions are still the key — and they’re hard to put together. The most conservative faction, a group that includes the self-styled Freedom Caucus, isn’t likely to pick a new speaker satisfactory to liberal Democrats. Moderate Republicans, who are with Straus, aren’t likely to dive into a challenge. Democrats don’t have the votes themselves unless they can stick together — a sometimes thing with them — and can peel away a Republican who would run and who is not too conservative.

That’s how they got Straus. The Democrats, the conservatives, the moderates — everybody in the House — has to figure out how to get 76 votes for someone they’d prefer to the incumbent.

They’re not there yet.

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