Texas Legislature 2019

Analysis: So far, there’s not much to handicap in the race for Texas House speaker

State Rep. Travis Clardy has this in common with every other candidate for speaker of the Texas House at this point: His is the only sure vote he's got for that contest.

State Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, on the House floor on May 9, 2017

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*Correction appended.

Clardy, party of one.

That’s not a shot at state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, who filed to run for speaker of the House earlier this week. He’s the latest to leave the unofficial herd of candidates to join the official herd, which now numbers five.

So it’s not just Clardy who thinks he’s seeing the next speaker in the mirror when he shaves every morning. The “party of one” business is more about the state of play.

Put anyone’s name in the blank and it still works.

Nobody has the momentum in the race to replace Joe Straus, the current speaker, or even any certain pledges of support (at least publicly). The field of candidates isn’t complete. Heck, we don’t even know who all the voters will be; the composition of the House will be set by voters in November.

One of the loose questions about the race to replace Straus is, “What do you want?”

It’s a question that usually has a clear answer. Straus was elected by legislators who thought then-Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, was ruling with too strong a hand. The problem they were trying to solve was to find someone who would lead — protecting them from politically dangerous votes most members wanted to duck — without telling them what to do. Straus, a relative neophyte at the time, fit the bill.

Craddick won when Republicans won their first majority in the chamber since Reconstruction. The question that time was simple: Which Republican? And the answer, since Craddick was the architect of the GOP advances that finally led to a majority, was easy.

That Republican majority ousted Pete Laney, D-Hale Center, the winner of the last open-seat race for speaker before the current one. That 1993 race was all about the ethics scandal that ended with Gib Lewis, a Fort Worth Democrat who held the top job for five terms, not seeking another term.

That’s all preface to this: The question they’re answering this time — the problem the members of the House are trying to solve — is ill defined.

The seat is empty, and someone has to fill it.

Straus isn’t leaving in a cloud of scandal. This isn’t a party switch. The bickering and bitching about his management style over the years has been unremarkable — meaning the number of people unhappy about the general direction of the House has remained small enough to make no big difference in Straus’ ability to keep his job. (Moments of unanimous harmony in the Texas Legislature are as rare as Chupacabra sightings.)

That puts armchair pundits at a disadvantage. Without widespread agreement on recent mistakes and future direction, it’s hard to analyze what kind of person House members are looking for.

Maybe it’s age. Clardy is part of a large group of House members — two-thirds of them, in fact — who’ve been in that 150-member body for fewer than six years. Straus and many of his top lieutenants and committee chairs are in that older contingent and younger members who don’t want to wait in line for management positions outnumber their elders.

Maybe it’s geography. Straus and Lewis were elected in big cities, but most Texas speakers have come from small towns and rural parts of the state. The five official candidates — Clardy, Eric Johnson, Phil King, Tan Parker and John Zerwas — are a mix: Nacogdoches, Dallas, Weatherford, Flower Mound and Richmond.

Maybe it’s gender. Texas has never had a female speaker. That’s not as surprising as this: In the history of the House, 140 women have served; 4,870 men have served, according to the Legislative Reference Library. Females account for less than 3 percent of all representatives.

It could come down to institutional loyalties. The House, the Senate and the governor often behave like siblings behave, in ever-changing alliances of two against one. Lately, the House has been the one on that equation. Some members want to play better with others. Some like the power than comes from going alone — particularly when the differences are ideological and not just institutional. They’ll all be asking prospective candidates where they stand vis-à-vis the governor and the Senate.

Maybe it’s party. Republicans had a 95-55 edge in the House last session, and November’s elections have the majority in a defensive position, while Democrats see opportunities for gains. The Democrats won’t get a majority — not with the current redistricting maps — but they could change the mathematics of the race for speaker.

There’s another huge variable that Clardy’s filing helped address. Who’s running, anyway?

Correction: An earlier version of this said Speaker Gib Lewis resigned; in fact, he decided not to seek another term.