Joe Straus hoists the gavel during a ridiculously long debate over budget amendments last spring.
Joe Straus hoists the gavel during a ridiculously long debate over budget amendments last spring.
Screenshot/Texas Legislature livestream

What the Texas Legislature Loses with Exit of Speaker Joe Straus

Moderates may not have been particularly alive in the Texas political landscape as it is — but after House Speaker Joe Straus announced Wednesday that he will not seek re-election in 2018, they may have just died a little more.

Straus, who, in his words, never made any apologies for reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats, who emerged as the Texas GOP's loudest voice against the bathroom bill this year and who has long been a staunch pro-business fiscal conservative, says that it is time to give the power back after a long five terms as speaker. He is giving it up before he has to, he says, and deciding to walk out on his own terms instead of someone else's.

"There comes a time when someone ought to come to the conclusion that it's enough time to spend in one place. Five terms is a long time, and I'm really proud that for the first time in decades that a speaker has been able to leave this office on his own terms," Straus said. "I feel really good about the last year or so when I've been able to speak for myself about issues that I care about that aren't necessarily every member of the Legislature's priority, and the reception I've gotten as I've been more outspoken has been really strong and really positive. And so I want to do more of that."

The announcement rocked the Texas political landscape, as though the bridge that had for so long connected the two major political parties as well as, at least sometimes, Straus's own Republican Party, had collapsed while a bunch of people were walking on it. Other times, members of Straus's own party — such as the notorious Freedom Caucus, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and even Governor Greg Abbott — outwardly criticized him for being a buffer against ultra-conservative measures that had passed the Senate but weren't getting traction in Straus's chamber (such as the bathroom bill). Some have suggested that this political discord, particularly during the special session, may have led Straus to leave.

As Brandon Rottinghuas, a political science professor at the University of Houston, put it: "He was someone who could build consensus across the partisan divide as well as in his own party. That’s hard to do in a state that has traditionally had a lot of inter-party friction as well as intra-party friction. But the last couple of years, his viewpoint ended up creeping into his decision making, and his party was so divided on some of these issues that it was difficult to see a way forward and for him to stay as speaker if he couldn’t maintain that consensus. He stepped aside, in some ways, for the good of the party, because the party needs to find equilibrium around these political issues."

Still, if anything Wednesday, Straus made clear that he was not planning on fading off into the golf courses of retired life, that he was still planning on being in politics — somehow. Beyond saying he was finishing his term through 2018, he didn't really elaborate on what, exactly, he would do next.

Asked point blank about a run for governor against Abbott, Straus surely did not give a point blank answer, seeming to dance around the possibility without addressing it by name. Here was his response when pressed about whether he is considering challenging Abbott:

"I don't have a plan today beyond helping other responsible Republicans in 2018. I don't think so. But today is an announcement of what I won't be continuing more than it is an announcement of what I will be doing in the future. I look forward to having the time to talk to people who have been supportive of me across the state to see what they think I should do. Whether I plan to run for public office again or whether I can be a constructive voice and somebody who's an influence — hopefully earned over the years — I think I can make an impact and that's what I'll try to do."

Rottinghuas said he believed that if Straus really were seeking the governor's seat, now wouldn't be the time, that it would work to his benefit to at least wait one more term given the heightened partisan divide. The key, Rottinghaus said, is for Straus not to allow more right-wing conservatives to take credit, per se, for pushing Straus out of his seat — an idea Straus certainly did not allude to Wednesday — because all it would do is potentially subdue other moderates looking to take Straus's place.

"I think he would have trouble in today’s political environment getting elected [governor]," Rottinghaus said. "That said, if there continues to be pushback on the conservative vision in the Texas Legislature, then he may be primed to be the perfect sort of dealmaker in between the wings of the party. Now is not the time for him politically. But if things move in a more pragmatic direction, then he could be somebody who is a frontrunner for governor."

Hours after Straus's announcement, one of his right-hand men, Representative John Zerwas (R-Richmond), announced that he would run for speaker. Representative Phil King (R-Weatherford) had previously announced his bid.

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