Recent developments:

1. Thursday: Pitts announces for speaker. Timing is everything in politics, and Pitts waited too long to make his move. The moment to act was immediately after the November elections, when the Republicans lost six seats on Craddick’s watch. Pitts didn’t have to file right away, but he needed to be approaching members early. Pitts had the stature and the credibility to mount a successful challenge, and he had nothing to lose, since he believed that Craddick would replace him as chair of Appropriations in January, Pitts’ sin having been that he tried to be a real chairman instead of a toady to the speaker. Stories have circulated for weeks that Craddick would replace Pitts with Warren Chisum in the 80th Legislature.

By the time Pitts actually entered the race, the anti-Craddick faction was already committed to McCall. The scenario Pitts described at his press conference made sense on paper but not in practice: that he offers a refuge for members who don’t feel that they have a home, those who are have already abandoned Craddick or are thinking seriously of doing so, but, if they are Republicans, are nervous about being part of McCall’s coalition in which Rs are heavily outnumbered by Ds; and, if they are Democrats, aren’t thrilled about being bossed around by Dunnam and Gallego. The fallacy is that by the time of Pitts’ announcement, McCall had momentum and credibility as a challenger, and Pitts had neither. In fact, his entry into the race seemed so odd and so unplanned that some speculated–wrongly–that he was a stalking horse for Craddick to divide McCall’s vote. (Pitts told me that some members said his remarks sounded as if they were written by Bill Miller, which they did not). It’s sad, because Pitts did a great job as Appropriations chairman (he was a Ten Best legislator in 2005), but unless his fortunes undergo a sudden change, I would not be surprised if this session turns out to be his last. Which is even sadder.

2. Friday: McCall says he has the votes to win. “Craddick rival claims victory” proclaimed a front page headline in Saturday’s American-Statesman. Assuming that McCall does have at least the bare minimum of 75 votes, the game is far from over. The challenger now faces the difficult decision of whether to release his pledge list. This is the typical end game play when a speaker candidate has more than enough pledges to win. Not this time. Even if McCall has the numbers, Craddick is such a relentless, formidable, and, let’s face it, unscrupulous foe that to go public with a pledge list more than a week before the vote is to paint a target on his supporters’ backs. At the very least, going public with the list will enable Craddick to identify the members on his own list who have double pledged to McCall (although a politician as wily and shrewd as Craddick undoubtedly has a pretty good idea of who they are anyway). But to remain silent is to risk losing the perceptions game: giving the appearance that he has topped out, lost his momentum.

I think McCall will choose to remain silent for now, if for no other reason than Craddick’s release of his pledge list–first, on the day after the general election, and again in December– turned out to be a huge mistake, because the second list showed an erosion of 26 names from the first list, from 109 to 83. McCall was able to claim that 16 of the 83 were pledged to him. (The survival instinct being strong and human flesh being weak, double pledging is all too common in speakers races, as members hedge their bets, figuring that if they turn out to be on the winning side, the winner may not find out that they double-pledged, and the loser won’t be in a position to do anything about it.) In their individual decisions, the double pledgers will ultimately decide the race.

3. Saturday: Craddick’s remaining chairs endorse him. While this was not an earth-moving development, it did mean that Jim Keffer, the Ways and Means chair whose support has been sought after by all sides, has apparently cast his lot with Craddick. Had he gone with McCall, I think the race would have been over, so what is important about the chairs’ letter is not what happened, but what didn’t happen.

So, where does the race go from here?

I’m not going to call the speaker’s race. To bet on McCall would be to have faith in the members’ willingness to put respect for the House as an institution, and their desire to allow public policy to be determined by the members as a whole rather than by the intimidation tactics of one man, ahead of their own fear of Craddick’s wrath–and I have no such faith. And yet, the Craddick years have been so unpleasant for the members of both parties, and so disastrous for his party and his candidates at the polls, it’s a wonder he’s viable at all. Perhaps the best thing that McCall has going for him, other than his reputation for fairness and integrity, is the members’ awareness that, if Craddick wins, the session is going to be dreadful–full of payback and pettiness. How can a wounded Craddick get the votes for anything important, such as lifting the spending cap, which has to be done if the promised property tax cuts are to be realized? The Democrats will be only too happy to see a train wreck–indeed, Ds outside the Capitol think that they will do better in the 2008 elections if Craddick remains as speaker–and fiscal conservatives won’t want to vote for lifting the cap either, which means that their arms will have to be twisted. Only fear can get Craddick reelected, but that may be enough.

Some interesting scenarios have been the subject of speculation. One is that the next speaker has not even announced yet–that someone will be nominated on January 9 who could be a consensus candidate. Keffer would fit the role perfectly, but if he wanted to be speaker, he could have entered the race earlier with a better likelihood of success than McCall or Pitts had at the time. Another scenario is that Craddick, if he thinks he is going to lose, will bargain for one more session with the proviso that he will step down in June in favor of his chosen successor, who would likely be Phil King. Craddick, as King-maker, would also, in this scenario, turn over his PAC money to King, who could dole it out to cement the loyalty of Republicans. It’s hard to imagine myself writing this, but I think King would be worse than Craddick. Craddick is not an ideologue. He’s a business conservative (and in particular, HIS businesses), but his main loyalties are not to ideas but to his friends. On the other hand, if Craddick were to try to make the same deal with Keffer or Chisum as the heir-apparent, I think the ABCs would buy it. The weak point of this scenario is that Craddick is not the sort to give up. He’s going to make the members cast that vote.

One last scenario involves the day of the vote. The vote for speaker is a record vote–but what if a motion is made for a secret ballot, so that Craddick would never know who voted against him? No, that won’t work, because the vote on the secret ballot would be a record vote; those for a secret ballot (that is, those who are opposed to Craddick) would have to go on the record anyway.

The next couple of days should be pretty quiet, but in the last week before the vote, this race is really going to heat up: high stakes, high drama, high emotions, and too close to call.