There’s one thing political observers agree on after Tuesday’s midterm elections: The dynamics of the Texas House speaker’s race have shifted.
Democrats picked up 12 state House seats and are now confident they’ll have a stronger hand in electing the next leader. It's an outlook even some Republicans agree with, although they'll only say so privately. But while the GOP's 95-55 stronghold shrank, they still appear to hold 83 seats — comfortably above the 76 votes a candidate needs to succeed retiring House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio.
“Election night strengthened the Democratic caucus and a renewed commitment to taking our time," said state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin. "We have time to be thoughtful. We mattered at 55, and we matter even more now at 67.”
But of the six declared Republican speaker candidates, two told The Texas Tribune that the state of the race hasn’t changed much — despite the fact that their party lost a considerable number of seats.
Republican Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, who launched his bid in August, said he didn’t think Tuesday’s results will impact his party’s role in determining who will replace Straus on the dais — and that he still has a "viable path forward" after Tuesday.
"I didn’t lose any supporters [Tuesday] night, by my calculus," he told the Tribune. "I think it is going to prove to be helpful to me not because we lost Republican seats, but because we're bringing in a new energy."
Phil King of Weatherford, who filed to run for speaker before Straus announced his retirement, said the race will still be settled exclusively within the 150-member lower chamber even if it does have a new balance of political power. And King pointed to an upcoming GOP caucus meeting scheduled for Dec. 1, when members are set to rally around their preferred speaker candidate ahead of the full floor vote in January.
Democrats are still working behind the scenes to see how they can leverage Tuesday night's success in the speaker selection process. On Wednesday, almost 60 of the soon-to-be 67-member House Democratic Caucus met in Austin to introduce new members and discuss the declared speaker candidates. Hours beforehand, a smaller group of the minority party met with the last of the seven declared candidates: Bonnen, who was thrust into speaker discussions earlier this month and filed to run soon after.
For all the talk among Democrats that they’re poised to have an increased role in the speaker selection process, it’s unclear when – or if – a majority of the caucus will rally behind a candidate. Some members have privately suggested the smarter strategy would be to back a candidate ahead of that Republican meeting. Others would rather keep their powder dry for the time being.
Yet state Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas, the only Democrat to throw his hat in the ring to replace Straus, is bullish that his party’s 12-member gain means that a lawmaker from the minority party can win the speakership.
“My perspective on this is pretty straight-forward: Democrats should stop being defeatist in their mentality and start thinking about the speaker's race in terms of us sticking together — we have 67 votes and are nine away from the majority,” Johnson said. “If we start thinking in terms of finding nine Republicans who will join with us, we can change the conversation from ‘which Republican is it going to be’ to whether we can elect one of our own as speaker. And there’s no reason we shouldn’t be thinking that way.”
On the Republican side, all eyes are on that Dec. 1 caucus meeting. Some members are pushing behind the scenes for a majority of the group to informally settle on a speaker candidate ahead of the gathering. There is still uncertainty over who that would be.
Also, Republicans’ losses on Tuesday mean there’s now a lower threshold needed to win support from within the GOP caucus. With Republicans now at 83 seats, a speaker candidate would only need support from 55 of those members — or two-thirds — on the first ballot at that meeting. That two-thirds threshold stems from a bylaws change the caucus unanimously approved last year. If a candidate doesn’t meet that threshold, additional rounds of voting will be held.
Whoever the GOP caucus backs will still need to win election among a majority of the lower chamber come January, when the Texas Legislature convenes for its 86th legislative session. And when that happens, there's no guarantee the caucus pick will prevail when the full chamber votes on its next leader because there’s no mechanism that forces Republican members to stick with the vote they cast at that Dec. 1 meeting.
As for Straus, who's leaving his post in January, he wouldn’t comment on who he thinks should replace him in an interview with the Tribune the morning after Election Day. But he gave a bit of advice to declared candidates who have already reached out to him.
“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," he said.