Texas Speaker of the House Joe Straus is stepping down, beginning a Lone Star-style showdown that’s sure to shake up the Texas Capitol. Texas governors like George W. Bush and Rick Perry are household names because of what they’ve gone on to do. What many out-of-staters don’t realize, however, is that Texas’s governor isn’t a constitutionally strong position. A governor has a bully pulpit like no one else in the state, but the lieutenant governor and speaker of the House hold more actual power.
Since 2009, the speaker’s power has rested in the hands of Joe Straus, a moderate Republican representative from San Antonio. When he first won the speakership in 2009, he was elected by many of the chamber’s Democrats and only about a dozen Republicans.
Democrats’ support for Straus has long been an issue among conservatives in the Texas House, who have complained that Straus has stymied their agenda to placate his coalition. Many of them never really trusted Straus. They saw him block conservative priorities time and again, most recently the highly controversial “bathroom bill.” Many of those upset conservative representatives will now seek to fill the position Straus is vacating.
Conservative darling Phil King has already announced that he is running to replace Straus, and one Straus’s top lieutenants, Jon Zerwas, has also thrown his hat in the ring. Make no mistake, the race for speaker will be complex and dirty. There hasn’t been upheaval like this in Texas politics since Perry opted not to run for re-election as governor so he could focus on his ultimately failed presidential campaign.
Conservative Leaders Were Sick of Straus
So, after being one of the longest-serving speakers, why did Straus choose now to retire? It may have been a money issue. Last week, just one week before Straus announced his retirement, conservative heavyweights in Texas formed a new political action committee. The New Leadership PAC was founded as “a response to failures of the state’s 85th Legislative Session and subsequent special session.”
To read between the lines, this PAC was formed to challenge Straus and his lieutenants. The PAC has issued a grand total of one press release, but it contained a key quote from none other than Gov. Greg Abbott’s own chief strategist, Dave Carney. A longtime GOP political operative, and architect of Perry’s long and productive reign, Carney is a Goliath of Texas politics.
The PAC’s release quoted him as saying “It’s pretty clear the culture of the House is corrupt, that it’s a non-transparent system, that doesn’t allow [its members] to have an up or down vote.” It was a perhaps not so subtle sign that conservative leadership in Austin was tired of being sidelined by Straus.
Abbott has also been increasingly frustrated with the speaker. His massive war chest and popularity means Abbott can influence enough races to potentially swing the makeup of House leadership. Did Straus see the writing on the wall, and realize that it’s better to “go out on your own terms” instead of facing an embarrassing defeat? Perhaps. He was likely to need to raise a lot of money just to get through his own race and protect those loyal to him next cycle. That’s a lot of effort, particularly for a long-time speaker.
As Straus saw his public profile rise among the more controversial issues of recent sessions, he became a central focus of primary campaigns. Conservative GOP candidates could point to the Abbott agenda and the Austin lobbyist-backed Straus agenda and make a clear argument that they, not their moderate Republican or Democrat opponent, were the ones who could achieve what their voters truly wanted.
The Long-Term Effects Are Big, But Yet to Be Seen
Kevin Lindley, a Texas-based consultant who directed Perry’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, told me that although people will be focused on who among the conservative movement will take Straus’ place, the real question is much larger.
“Most observers will be watching to see which of Straus’ lieutenants decide not to run for re-election, and who is the odds on favorite to succeed him, but the bigger question on my mind is what does the Texas House look like in January 2019? What will the makeup and direction be of this new Republican caucus?”
There is undoubtedly a connection between the Donald Trump-inspired rise of populism in the GOP in this decision. Straus is anything but a populist hero. However, to think this is only a reflection of the larger national picture is to miss the finer point. This is also Abbott flexing his muscle.
Perry, whom Abbott replaced, was one of the most powerful governors in the history of the Lone Star State. He took a constitutionally weak position and used its bully pulpit and power of appointment to remake Texas. As the guy following that, Abbott needs to find a way to make his own mark. This decision by Straus gives him that opportunity.
With the help of Carney and his experienced, talented, and well-connected staff, Abbott can use his purse and popularity to help determine the leadership in the House and give him more influence and power in the Texas Capitol. The groundswell of opposition to Straus among the rank and file of the party, and the high approval of Abbott by Texans of just about every political stripe (particularly after his stellar handling of Hurricane Harvey earlier this year), gives the state party an opening they haven’t had in a long time.
The Key Question: What Kind of People Take Charge Now?
Will Franklin, a strategist for Perry and currently president of Franklin Strategy Group, believes this offers Texas “an opportunity to demonstrate the power and efficacy of conservative ideas to the rest of the nation.” If conservatives can net leadership positions, Franklin believes Texans can look forward to “a new round of pro-life measures, spending caps tied to population growth and inflation, new limits on the whims of petty tyrants that control so many of our local governments, reaffirmation of personal property rights, and various permutations of tax relief that have all been stymied by Speaker Joe Straus.”
It could also lead to a golden age of cooperation between the state’s House and Senate, something that has been lacking for a while.
But a conservative alternative to Straus is not a forgone conclusion. Despite conservatives’ influence in Texas, the Austin lobby will fight hard and dirty to keep their very lucrative status quo. Franklin believes “Liberal special interests will pump enormous sums of money into legislative races over the next year to maintain their favored positions at the Speaker’s table.” If they can elect a Straus-like successor, the balance of power along Congress Avenue—the Texas version of K Street—won’t be upended.
Straus hasn’t closed the door to running for higher office (i.e., governor), but challenging Abbott would be political suicide, and running as an independent is nothing more than a waste of money and time. However “bowing out” now at least saves face so he could attempt another run in the near future if he wanted.
Michael Quinn Sullivan of heavyweight conservative grassroots organization Empower Texans said in an email that “now isn’t the time to celebrate, it’s time to escalate. Now, more than ever, conservatives must be in the fight for every single seat in the Texas House.” That is the attitude you’ll see from many in Texas’ conservative leadership, but for now, much of the party is nothing short of ecstatic.
Franklin perhaps puts it best: “Many Texas conservatives have spent years hibernating through the winter of the Joe Straus speakership, dispirited yet anxious as our ideas have been frozen in place, dormant under a thick layer of frost. Today, though, the sun is shining and the birds are singing– it’s the first day of spring. Let the big thaw commence!”