Joe Straus’s announcement on Oct. 25 that he was dropping plans to seek a record sixth term as House Speaker was a stunning surprise in the Texas capitol.
It also set off immediate speculation about what’s next for him, and for Texas government.
As recently as Sept. 23, at the Texas Tribune festival, Straus had said he would seek another term in his San Antonio House seat, and as speaker.
But at a quickie press conference in his office Wednesday, Straus said that when his term ends a year from January, it’ll be time to pass on the leadership torch.
He said he chose to leave under his own power – several recent speakers haven’t – and will find other ways to promote issues and people he considers important.
Some national news media speculated Straus was prompted by the recent decisions of Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona to not seek re-election – and to broadcast their view that Donald Trump is dangerous as President.
There was evidence that neither senator, after their outspokenness about Trump, could win re-nomination in Republican primaries. Straus, however, expressed confidence he would be re-elected had he chosen to run. He’s probably right.
But, why take the chance? As the late Texas Longhorns coach Darrell Royal cautioned about passing the football, three things can happen – and two of them are bad.
Straus, 58, could have lost re-election to his House seat. Or, he could fail to be re-elected speaker. Either would greatly diminish the impact of anything he said from then on.
Opting out of re-election and going out “hot” avoids those potential pitfalls. He also can concentrate on being speaker, without the distraction of a speaker’s race.
Plus, he’ll get to spend more time with his family – and choose for himself the battles and causes in which to engage.
“Instead of acting on behalf of the entire House, I will now have a greater opportunity to express my own views and priorities,” Straus wrote to his email followers.
He said he plans to promote people and policies aimed at responsible, consensus performance of necessary governmental functions, rather than wasting time and energy on things like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s pet “Bathroom Bill,” to police which restrooms trans-gender people can use.
“I will also continue to work for a Republican Party that tries to bring Texans together instead of pulling us apart,” Straus wrote. “Our party should be dynamic and forward-thinking, and it should appeal to our diverse population with an optimistic vision that embraces the future.”
And not just in Texas, but nationally, Straus said.
“I plan to be a voice for Texans who want a more constructive and unifying approach to our challenges, from the White House on down,” Straus said.
With a $10 million campaign account, Straus can help re-elect Republican House members who share his belief in reach-across-the-aisle bipartisan cooperation.
“I’m going to aggressively work in the ’18 cycle. I have a commitment to other Republicans who I think are responsible and have done a good job and deserve to be re-elected,” Straus said in an interview.
And, he reminded, he is still speaker until January of 2019.
Straus also could use some of those funds for a head start should he decide to run for something else – a door he left open.
When asked if he might run for governor in 2018, he said it was unlikely. But he didn’t rule it out.
It’s way too early to reliably speculate about who will succeed Straus as speaker.
Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, announced his candidacy Sept. 22, when Straus was still presumed to be running.
Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, a Straus lieutenant, announced shortly after Straus’s announcement that he’s filed the papers necessary to run.
Rep. Eric Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, also announced that he is considering the race. And there will undoubtedly be more.
Keep in mind that between now and the actual speaker election in January of 2019, there will be dozens of contested primary races – plus, the general election.
Democrats currently hold 55 of the 150 House seats, to the Republicans’ 95. In the 2016 election, Democrat Hillary Clinton carried 10 districts represented by Republicans. She topped 45 percent in 10 more districts with Republican representatives.
If Democrats added those 20 Republican districts, they would have an even 75 – exactly half the House. One more vote elects a speaker.
Straus’s first speaker’s race began with a group of 11 maverick Republicans, including him, choosing one of their number to join with 64 Democrats to elect a speaker.
It may sound unlikely – it did then – but something like that could happen again.
– Contact McNeely at firstname.lastname@example.org.