Despite clamoring by conservative groups for a new Texas House speaker, political pundits doubt any challenge will be backed by enough member votes.
Tea Party and conservative watchdog groups view House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, as a moderate who has shown indifference to or stalled staunch conservative agendas. They view Straus' 2009 election as a sham because it took 64 Democrats and 12 dissident Republican members to oust Tom Craddick.
But pundits and supporters alike say Straus established credibility among a majority of members and allowed conservative agendas, such as a sanctuary city bill and voter ID, to make it to the floor for passage by a GOP dominant House. They say vocal opposition against Straus is based on a conservative movement to remove the Republican Party of lawmakers willing to compromise.
Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who was elected to his sixth term in the House, is the lone challenger in the race for speaker so far. House members will choose their speaker Jan. 8 when the session convenes.
Hughes said he entered the race because members and constituents have expressed frustrations with the leadership's unwillingness to allow discussions on substantial conservative legislation in committees or to clear their path to the House floor for public debate and votes.
The House speaker assigns committee chairmen and can effectively control which bills make it to the chamber floor.
Legislation designed to reform the margins (franchise) tax, property tax appraisals and legislation that would limit the growth of government to population growth, plus inflation, have been filed during the previous sessions but have not made it out of committee, Hughes said.
“There is a lot of frustration about the way the House is being run and the way bills that members want and people back home want are not making it through the process,” he said. “These bills are filed every session but don't see the light of day.”
Hughes said he has received bipartisan support and “encouragement” from members privately. Publicly, much of Hughes' vocal supporter has come from grassroots and Tea Party groups and conservative individuals.
Ashton Oravetz, Smith County Republican chairman, said GOP activists, conservative members and many Democrats are disenchanted with Straus. He blames Straus for “bottling up” bills important to conservatives by placing moderate-to-liberal committee chairmen.
“He's got to be replaced,” he said.
Oravetz also said Straus' family interests in horse tracks and gambling is a conflict of interest for a state leader. Hughes, an attorney, has drawn critics regarding ties to trial lawyer lobby groups.
Straus is in a “weak position” this time around because different bipartisan factions within the House want new leadership, he said. Oravetz said he supports Hughes but said it may be easier for a conservative urban representative to pick up enough votes.
“Conservatives are behind Bryan but if another candidate appears, especially one that has a significant block of support, there might be room for conversation,” he said. “The goal for conservatives is to replace Straus.”
Kronberg said a majority of House members feel Straus was “even handed” in the application of legislative rules and that he allowed legislation to move without obstructing members.
“While there will be much noise and chest pounding by outside groups, even among Democrats who were unhappy with redistricting and voter ID, I don't see a high level of discontent,” he said. “Anything can happen in six weeks but it's hard to see where critical mass for a real anti-Straus contingency appears.”
Hughes said any speaker in touch with the pulse of conservative Texans would not be facing vocal grassroots and Tea Party discontent.
Kronberg said outside groups want guaranteed outcomes for conservative agendas, but the clamor might fall on deaf ears of legislators who understand the nuances of a legislative session and are immune to caustic criticism.
Freshmen lawmakers might be more susceptible to outside pressure because they are not accustomed to criticism and threats, Kronberg said. There are 41 freshmen lawmakers who will make their Austin debuts this January.
This race for speaker is the third time conservative groups and individuals have rallied against Straus. During his first race to return as Speaker in 2011 and during his 2012 GOP primary race, which Straus won 63 percent to 37 percent for a grassroots/Tea Party supported candidate.
Straus' spokesman Jason Embry said the speaker is focusing on legislative items for the upcoming session, including improving education, the economy, addressing the state's water needs and making government open and accountable to the public.
“He enjoys the support of a strong, bipartisan majority of House Members and looks forward to working with all members to address the critical issues facing Texas,” he said.
Jim Henson, Texas Politics Project director and lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin, said rumblings against Straus will continue within the Texas GOP as long as the party's fractured internal politics remain the same.
“They're still rumblings rather than any real threat,” he said.
Henson said Hughes has not drawn public support required to unseat Straus which means members and powerful lobby groups are shying away from a potential lost cause.
Incoming freshman Rep-elect Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, said the speaker's race is a top topic of discussion among freshmen lawmakers who are going through orientation. Schaefer said the speaker's race has not been a top priority among constituents.
“It is on the mind of those paying attention to it but that is the minority,” he said.
Schaefer said he hopes a Republican choice for speaker will be worked out among its caucus.
House Republican Caucus spokesman Matt Welch said the caucus has not taken a position in the race for speaker and is not expected to meet until after the election Jan. 8. Welch would not comment further.
Straus has not released a list of member pledges of support. He released a list of more than 120 pledges in early November 2010 before the last session.
Hughes said the lack of a pledge list is a sign of weakness.
Kronberg said Straus has not released a pledge list to “spare his supporters the incoming vitriol” from fringe groups and individuals.
“Sometimes not showing your cards is a sign of weakness,” he said. “But in this case, everyone in the building is doing the same math.”