State Rep. Senfronia Thompson fielded a question last week that’s been on the minds of many members of the Texas House: If her party wins control of the lower chamber in November, will she be a candidate for speaker?
“Well, if I can get James Frank’s support, I probably will be,” the Houston Democrat said with a chuckle during a Texas Tribune Festival panel, referring to her Republican colleague also on the screen.
Frank responded with a laugh of his own: “I’m pretty sure if Democrats take over in November … that she’ll be a candidate.”
The exchange, though lighthearted, was indicative of how uncertain the 150-member chamber is ahead of a legislative session that lawmakers say will be their toughest in years. With the pending retirement of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, the lower chamber knows someone new will be in charge in January — but not a single member has so far declared their candidacy to seek the gavel.
That’s quite the departure from the last speaker’s race two years ago, when seven candidates were already in the running by the first week of September. What’s different this year is a November election that could put Democrats in charge of the House for the first time in nearly two decades, and a theory among members that being one of the first to declare a speaker bid may not be the best path to victory.
The speaker’s race is a numbers game, a contest to see which member can put together 76 votes in support of their candidacy. And members from both parties have been advising their colleagues to first get through the election to see which party controls how many seats.
“Our focus right now is on getting our members reelected and growing our majority,” state Rep. Stephanie Klick, a Fort Worth Republican who chairs her party’s caucus in the House, told The Texas Tribune this week.
Her Democratic counterpart, state Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, gave a similar assessment, noting that “the time to have a real discussion about who the next speaker will be” after Democrats reelect incumbents and flip the House.
Of course, members could break ranks and file their candidacy for speaker with the Texas Ethics Commission before November. Members will formally elect a new speaker on the first day of the regular session in January — and whoever ends up taking the gavel will be one of the state’s most consequential leaders as the Legislature responds to the coronavirus pandemic, grapples with billions of dollars in shortfalls to the state budget and undergoes a once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle.
Members are already weighing who would be a viable candidate if the margin is more narrow than the 83-67 partisan split from the 2019 legislative session. Some think that’s more likely than the chamber flipping entirely. References to the 2008 elections — and the 76-74 split it produced — came up repeatedly in conversations with members, with many suggesting the chamber’s next speaker will need supporters from both parties to win the gavel.
In the wake of that 2008 election, then-state Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, won the speaker’s race after most of the chamber’s Democrats and some Republicans coalesced around his bid. After Straus announced his retirement in 2017, a more hardline conservative faction of Republicans helped push a change to the groups’s bylaws to select a speaker within the caucus and then vote as a bloc on the floor. Democrats also tried to rally their ranks to commit to voting for a candidate as a bloc, though neither party had an enforcement mechanism.
None of those elements have come up in any sort of tangible way so far this year, which some members chalk up again to the uncertainty surrounding the November election and the possibility that the margin will be more narrow than in 2019.
Jim Dunnam, a former House member from Waco who served in the lower chamber from 1997 to 2011, said it would be presumptuous for members to start committing to speaker candidates before they have even won reelection, especially given predictions that November will yield tight results.
Dunnam, who at one point also chaired the House Democratic Caucus, also waved off the notion of one party exclusively electing a speaker candidate.
“The speaker is supposed to be the speaker of the House,” he said, “not the speaker of one caucus.”
And while members are holding off on speaker announcements for now, conversations have ramped up in recent weeks over who among their ranks could be a candidate.
In conversations with nearly two dozen members, staffers and lobbyists — nearly all of whom declined to be named due to the sensitive nature of internal House politics — several GOP and Democratic names were mentioned repeatedly as members to keep an eye on as the speaker’s race develops.
On the Republican side: Four Price of Amarillo; Trent Ashby of Lufkin; Chris Paddie of Marshall; Dade Phelan of Beaumont; Geanie Morrison of Victoria; Tom Craddick of Midland, the longest-serving House member and a former speaker; Craig Goldman of Fort Worth; Frank of Wichita Falls and Matt Krause of Fort Worth. On the Democratic side: Joe Moody of El Paso, the House speaker pro tempore; Rafael Anchia of Dallas; Trey Martinez Fischer of San Antonio; Thompson; Turner, the caucus chair; Oscar Longoria of Mission and Donna Howard of Austin.
Each candidate’s chances at winning the gavel are influenced by the partisan breakdowns in the House. GOP members have suggested that if Republicans pick up a couple of seats and increase their majority, a more ideological speaker candidate like Frank, Goldman or Krause could be on the table. There’s also a theory that a Democratic candidate like Thompson — the second longest-serving House member and the longest-serving woman and African-American in history at the Legislature — has the experience to navigate the House through the upcoming session.
Most members listed did not respond to a request for comment or declined to comment on the record. Those who did speak indicated they have no speaker-related plans until after the November election.
“I’m not worried about anything other than November 3 at this point — that’s where my focus and energy is,” Krause told the Tribune. “If we’re blessed to get through that and I’m still a member of the Legislature, then that’s when I can start having those speaker conversations.”
And Price, who ran unsuccessfully for speaker in 2018, told the Tribune he has not made plans to file for speaker and is “not currently making any.”
Others have been asked about running at various appearances over the past several months or have chimed in on social media about it.
Howard and Moody, speaking on a TribFest panel earlier this month, both said that members should wait until after the election before anything materializes. Howard has also suggested that she hopes Thompson is the first Black woman speaker of the Texas House. And Anchia, during an event in Dallas in January, said he intends to run for speaker if Democrats flip the chamber.
Democrats are expected to meet in Austin the day after Election Day to discuss the speaker’s race and other session-related issues. Republicans, meanwhile, are set to meet for a golf tournament and reception in Austin later in November.
Of course, the list of potential candidates could change drastically between now and January; in 2018, amid that seven-candidate speaker field, Bonnen emerged as an additional contender and quickly claimed victory soon after he announced a bipartisan list of 109 members supporting his candidacy. Bonnen will retire at the end of his term after a political scandal last summer that, to some degree, has left parts of the GOP caucus fractured.
In the meantime, members are spending their energy helping their party on Election Day — efforts that could pay dividends during the internal race that is expected to start in earnest immediately after.
A number of Republicans are using the emergence of a new political action committee, Leading Texas Forward, as a subtle but early indication of speaker politics. The group, headed by some Republicans associated with the coalition that ultimately pushed for Bonnen’s resignation, announced earlier this month it had made an “initial investment” of $670,000 into GOP incumbent campaigns across the state.
Democrats, for their part, are also maneuvering among a number of groups focused on supporting candidates and members from their party. Moody, for example, recently organized a new group to help freshman Democrats in their reelection bids as well as Democrats running to flip open seats in competitive districts.