Texas House Speaker Joe Straus may be putting his own lieutenants at risk by violating an unwritten rule of Capitol politics.
In a speech to the Texas Association of School Boards, Straus grabbed headlines when he bemoaned Gov. Abbott’s robust conservative agenda for the upcoming special session, comparing it to “a room full of horse manure.”
But it was Straus’ attacks on the work ethic of his legislative colleagues and a comment inciting challengers to run for the Senate that may have a more long-term impact.
Straus began his speech by criticizing the sincerity and work ethic of his colleagues in the Capitol. He praised TASB members in the room, saying he had been looking forward to the speech because it was an opportunity to be around elected officials who were “sincere, hard-working and committed to education.”
“It’s quite a change for me,” Straus added.
He closed the speech by crossing the chamber divide and violating a deep-rooted custom of Capitol politics. He urged the room full of school board members from across the state to not only make their voices heard at the Capitol, but also to “run for Senate.”
There is an unwritten rule of politics in the Texas Capitol: The members of the upper chamber don’t directly meddle in the lower chamber’s internal affairs, or directly challenge incumbent state representatives, and vice-versa.
For example, State Sen. Bob Hall (R–Canton) was attacked by the Austin media when he merely attended a grassroots event supporting State Rep. Scott Turner for speaker prior to the 2015 legislative session. His presence at the event was seen as a tacit endorsement of Turner, who was running against Straus.
Straus and his coalition of liberal Republicans and Democrats in the House have chosen a scorched earth policy of killing popular conservative reforms coming out of the Texas Senate. Lately this has prompted criticism from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, but Patrick has yet to call for Straus or any of his key backers to be replaced.
The only reason for Patrick and the senators to not openly campaign against representatives who have obstructed their agenda is the unwritten rule. And now Straus has been the first one to break it.
With the speaker openly whipping school board members to challenge incumbent senators, there really is no reason for senators to hold back in supporting conservative challengers to incumbent representatives.
Why would State Sen. Brian Birdwell (R–Granbury) not endorse Thomas McNutt in his campaign against State Rep. Byron Cook (R–Corsicana), a chief Straus lieutenant? Similarly, if Bo French runs again against Straus’ right-hand man, State Rep. Charlie Geren (R–Fort Worth), what reason would local State Sen. Kelly Hancock (R–North Richland Hills) have not to endorse the challenger?
Straus may be playing with fire in soliciting others to run for the upper chamber. Although defeating an incumbent is always a challenge, it is many times easier to unseat an incumbent representative who has to run for re-election every two years than an incumbent senator who has to run every four. And given the way the legislative session has transpired, it is the senators who have aligned their agenda with the will of the people, and the representatives who have worked to thwart it.
If Patrick and the Senators respond to Straus’ provocations in kind, it may very well be Straus and his key allies who end up facing consequences as a result of his comments.