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Analysis: In the Texas House, winning eclipses party

Voting as a partisan bloc might let a majority party pick the next Texas Speaker of the House, but something like it has been tried before. It didn't work.

House Speaker Joe Straus emerges from a House Republican caucus meeting at the Reagan building in Austin on Aug. 15, 2017.

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Voting as a Republican bloc is not a new idea in the Texas House of Representatives. The problem is that there’s no way to enforce it.

A bloc doesn’t work unless everyone sticks together, and House Republicans have been known to ditch their own caucus.

GOP lawmakers have a rolling discussion underway about how to conduct the next election for speaker of the House. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, has held that position since 2009, and has had an opponent in all but one of those contests. Earlier this year, he was unanimously elected to a record-tying fifth term.

But there are rumblings from the most conservative wing of the GOP, where some complain that a governing coalition that includes Democrats thwarts legislation that would otherwise pass. Phil King, R-Weatherford, has filed the paperwork required of speaker candidates and says he’ll be exploring a challenge against Straus between now and the next scheduled legislative session in January 2019.

His chances — or anyone else’s, for that matter — could hinge on that conversation about how to conduct a vote. One proposal is to vote for a speaker in a Republican caucus and then to take that result to the floor with the support of all of the Republicans in the House.

Straus won the top job in 2009, unseating House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, by pulling together most of the Democrats and a minority of the Republicans. Many don’t remember this detail, but Craddick withdrew before the vote went to the full House; Straus was elected that first time by acclamation.

The Republicans caucused in January 2011 and voted on three speaker candidates: Straus, Ken Paxton of McKinney and Warren Chisum of Pampa. Straus won. Paxton moved on to the Texas Senate and is now the state’s attorney general. Chisum, who’d been in the House for more than two decades, made that his last term.

The Republicans weren’t as formal about the bloc vote then as they are now, but some of the motivations were similar. The 2011 vote was more of a straw vote and members didn’t agree that what happened in the caucus should stay in the caucus; they didn’t come out of it as a unified herd either.

Conservatives had hoped and believed that Straus’ support would evaporate without the Democrats in attendance. Short of that, they hoped to put names on their friends and foes.

That they did. When it came time to vote in the open, Paxton and Chisum withdrew their names. Paxton said the caucus vote decided it: “As many of you know, we had a caucus yesterday in the Republican Party and I lost. As a result, I will not be putting my name into nomination today...”

Even without another opponent to vote for, Paxton and 14 members of the House — all Republicans — voted against Straus. Several of them are still around: Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale, Dan Flynn of Canton, Jodie Laubenberg of Parker, Tan Parker of Flower Mound, James White of Hillister and Bill Zedler of Arlington. Three members didn't vote for or against Straus. Two are still in the House: Yvonne Davis of Dallas and Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs. Chisum, the other speaker candidate, withdrew and voted for Straus.

The naysayers were lionized as “The Texas 15” by outside conservative groups like “Women on the Wall,” several of the state’s local and regional tea parties and a number of conservative individuals in the GOP.

The name-your-foes game, however, is still en vogue in the Texas House — that’s a mark of a split party and the Republicans are, in fact, a split party. But the conservatives in the GOP haven’t been able to build a coalition that competes with the one that put Straus in power: House Democrats, given a choice between two Republicans, will almost always choose a centrist over a hard-liner. It’s the same political arithmetic that kept conservative Democrats in the speaker’s office instead of liberals when that party was in power.

Straus has won a majority of Republican votes in each of his five elections for speaker, but some conservatives want to upend the math by shutting out the Democrats, voting in caucus, and then getting both the winners and losers in the caucus to band together against the other party.

The strategy now, as in 2011, is that more Republicans want a new face instead of the incumbent. The assumption is that all of the Republicans on the losing side of a caucus vote will stick with the winners when the full vote of the Texas House is taken in public.

Those losers would only have two reasons to break from the pack. Like the Texas 15, they’d be voting on principle. Or, like legislators throughout history, they’d break for a better deal. Enough dissenting Republicans could join all the Democrats and elect a coalition speaker. That’s been done before. 

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82nd Legislative Session Joe Straus Phil King