Editor's note: Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith's new podcast, Point of Order, will air routinely during the Texas legislative session, which begins in January. Listen to the pilot episode with outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus or subscribe on your Apple or Android device.
Republicans in the Texas House were dealt a big blow Tuesday night, losing 12 seats to Democrats and two in the Texas Senate.
Joe Straus, the Republican who has presided over the House for nearly a decade, said that's because win-at-all-cost politics may be effective at the state level, but "it creates carnage down-ballot in a changing state where a Republican Party and the state of Texas are moving in opposite directions."
The "small issues" that were popular among Republican primary voters didn't resonate in November, he said.
"Something had to give sooner or later," Straus said Wednesday morning.
In a wide-ranging conversation in his Capitol office with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith for the pilot episode of the Tribune's new podcast, Point of Order, Straus launched jabs at two fellow Republicans: Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and President Donald Trump. Straus, who is leaving the House in January, declined to weigh in on who should succeed him as the leader of the lower chamber.
He lamented that the Texas House and Senate were unable to find common ground on divisive political issues. Patrick, who presides over the Senate, should "listen more and talk less," Straus said. "Include the senators more."
Tuesday's election results might have been a direct reprimand of policies pushed by the Trump administration, he said. The Democratic pick-ups in the House Tuesday marked the biggest shift in the lower chamber since the 2010 midterm elections, when Republicans picked up more than 20 House seats. Straus decried Trump rallies that he said showcased "borderline racism."
"Some of [Trump's] rhetoric is extremely divisive," he added. “It’s dark. It’s not unifying. It’s not factual in many cases, and I think that’s the wrong direction for the leader of any party.”
Straus added that he believes some of Trump's policies have been good for Texas but added, “I don’t think you can look at Trump and put the tweets and the rhetoric aside. That was a big overhang over the national election last night.”
Texas Republicans were ultimately victorious Tuesday evening — the GOP swept all statewide races and still maintain a majority in the Texas House and Senate. Still, Straus credited U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke’s campaign, which he called “energetic” and “positive,” for turning out an unprecedented amount of voters for Democrats.
Straus, a lifelong Republican who worked in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and the first President George Bush, declined to say who he voted for but acknowledged he split his ticket “more than I ever have before.”
“There was an infectious enthusiasm which was brighter than what a lot of his opponents were offering,” Straus said of O’Rourke, who lost his bid to Cruz by nearly 3 percentage points. “I voted for candidates less this time for their positions on issues and more on what I perceive to be their character and their ability to lift up the people they want to represent.”
GOP leaders in the Legislature need to “broaden their agendas and offer a more optimistic vision for the future," he said.
“The results of the election last night showed a level of humility I hadn’t seen from some of our leaders in the past,” Straus later added. “That could lead to a shift in thinking and a more pragmatic approach.”
Looking back on his time in the Legislature, Straus said he had few regrets. He did, however, point to a controversial amendment tacked onto last year’s “sanctuary cities” bill by state Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, that allows local police to ask about immigration status during a detainment.
Straus said that he wished the floor vote would have gone differently.
“That was one of those moments that I wish we could’ve done over,” Straus said. “Could I have inserted myself one more that night? Looking back, I probably should have or I should’ve tried. I did try to bring people together and convene the different viewpoints and encourage people on both sides of the debate to work something out.”
He said he was optimistic that next year’s Legislature would prioritize measures like public education, higher education and workforce development.
But before House members can select the items that will be on their agenda, they have to choose which lawmaker will succeed Straus — who served five terms in the lower chamber. Straus announced in October 2017 that he did not plan to run for re-election. Straus’ departure from the House led to a scramble to decide who will replace him on the dais; and so far, seven lawmakers have filed to fill his slot.
Straus, without commenting on who he thinks will replace him, said he gave this advice to candidates who have reached out to him: “Until yesterday, turn off your phone and disengage with the speaker’s contest because it doesn't really matter until the voters weigh in.”
“Now the real discussion about who the next speaker will be can begin,” he added. “Those who aspire to be the presiding officer need to remember that this isn’t about their aspirations and ambitions — it's about the aspirations and ambitions of the people that are voting for them.”
With his time in the Texas House coming to a close, Straus said he was going to happily re-enter the private sector and would stay engaged, travel and speak candidly.
Will he run for office again?
“I’m getting encouragement from a lot of people around the state that would like to see a future in public service from me, but its not something I’m thinking about right now,” he said.