I didn’t start this post until several hours after the Pitts-McCall press conference. It was such a letdown that I didn’t have any inspiration. There was nothing to analyze, just a weak performance that did nothing to bolster Pitts’ candidacy, not because they are weak people– quite to the contrary, they are outstanding legislators–but because, by the very act of calling the press conference, they raised the level of expectations at what appeared to be the crucial moment of the race and then failed to meet them. The expectation was that they would adhere to the first rule of how to win a speakers race, which is that the way these races are won is to put forward a credible list of enough supporters to assure victory. What I wanted to think about was whether I was falling into the trap of setting those expectations in my own mind and then judging people by them.

Readers had been commenting on the blog, or telling me in person, that I’m out of touch, that there are new rules in this speakers race, because everybody is so afraid of Tom Craddick, but my view is that there are no new rules, that fortunes change but rules do not, and that it has been ever thus since Thucydides first made his observations about the nature of democracy. One of those rules is that perceptions become reality, and if you are perceived to be playing a strong hand–not by me, not by the media, but by the players in the game–and then turn out to be bluffing, you are going to lose your credibility. That’s what I think happened to Jim Pitts yesterday when he failed to produce a list of supporters.

Furthermore, the ending was really weird. Pitts and McCall walked out, having claimed victory but without answering any questions. They didn’t offer an explanation. The assembled members of the media were too stunned to shout out questions. Instead, they made jokes: “Do we have body odor?” one inquired of the departing McCall. “Bad breath?” asked another. “What did we wrong?” said a third. I don’t think that you can win a speakers race by being timid. Now, I’m sure I’ll get comments that I’m one of those members of the media who thinks that politics is all about us. (You mean it isn’t?) In fact, politics is just another form of competition, like a football game or a pole vault, and we have all learned how to recognize decisive moments when the game is on the line. You can’t fumble at the goal line.

As for what they said prior to the departure, everything was predictable. McCall’s best line came in the beginning (“Jim Pitts is not my first choice for speaker”). Then he talked about changing the way the House has been run under Craddick: The lobby should pass their bills by lobbying a majority of the members, not just the speakers office … Legislation should not be determined from suites on the second floor … We believe the speaker’s job is to do more than direct traffic, but not a lot more … The speaker should allow members to vote in touch with their own districts … If the ideas in bills are good, the speaker shouldn’t have to break arms to pass them … Every member should have a full and equal voice.

He addressed the issue of whether they should lay out their votes, which is the traditional way that speakers’ races are won: Some say if we were not just chasing a falling star, we would lay out a list of names … Some of the people are not ready to be out in the open … Last Saturday there was a barrage of 8 to 10 to members … The [decision] is supposed to be member to member … There have been roto phone banks, individuals who are threatening to raise money to beat members … This is unheard of in a speaker’s race … Once this is done, we want to talk about what’s appropriate in the election of the speaker … We can’t lay out names, the pressure and arm twisting are too great in this particular case.

This was all true, but it was old news. Then McCall yielded to Pitts (no match for McCall in gravitas, which may explain why he has a better chance to win, this being the Texas Legislature), who began with, “Today it’s first and goal, and I’m almost ready to score the winning touchdown.” He went on to distinguish himself from Craddick: I’ll be fair in making committee assignments … I will not shut out members because of party affiliations or different ideas … I will understand when members want to vote their own districts … I will work to uphold the highest standards of ethical requirements.

And then the claim of victory: I have more than enough votes to bring a change in leadership to this House … Members do not feel that they can openly announce their support for me and that is the best reason for a change … I guarantee you the race is over … The tally next Tuesday on the floor is the only one that matters … This is history in the making.

But is it? What about the produce-your-list rule? Bill Miller, a Craddick friend and sometimes spokesperson, said earlier in the race that the only thing that mattered in a speaker’s race was a list of names with enough votes to win and making it public. Craddick followed that rule when he laid out a list of 109 names on November 8, the day after the election. But then McCall announced for speaker, and the next list Craddick laid out, on December 28, had only 83 names, just 8 more than is necessary to win and a huge erosion from his previous list. This turned out to be a major blunder that revealed his own vulnerability. But the closer we get to election day, the larger those 83 names loom.

I think Craddick is now the odds-on favorite, which is a huge turnaround from the time, about a week ago, when McCall had the 75 votes necessary to win. The only thing I feel certain about is that we are headed for a vote on the floor on Tuesday. If Pitts can regroup and win over some votes, Craddick will fight to the end. If he loses votes and decides to give up, Senfronia Thompson will presumably challenge Craddick. The ABCs have gone far enough that there is no turning back.

So, what are their chances? Let’s start with Pitts. McCall’s abandonment of the race in favor of Pitts took the Democrats by surprise. There were some bruised feelings among the Ds. They were more comfortable with McCall, even though McCall is more conservative than Pitts. This race is not about ideology. It is about Tom Craddick, and McCall’s bona fides as someone who regards Craddick as deplorable are much stronger than those of Pitts, who has come to that conclusion so recently that many Democrats were not immediately ready to embrace him. Let’s assume that in the end they come to their senses and they can produce the same 57 or so votes that were pledged to McCall. They can also count on a number of Republicans who were not pledged to Craddick in the list of December 28, in which Craddick himself listed only 66 of the 80 Rs in his fold. One of the missing was Tommy Merritt, the only Republican who was never pledged to Craddick. The rest were defectors:

Charlie Geren
Bryan Hughes
Delwin Jones
Edmund Kuempel
Thomas Latham
Jody Laubenberg
Brian McCall
Pat Haggerty
Patricia Harless
Ken Paxton
Jim Pitts
Debbie Riddle
Todd Smith
Robert Talton
(Tommy Merritt)

Laubenberg, Paxton, and Riddle repledged to Craddick after McCall bowed out of the race. That leaves 12 Rs who are presumably with Pitts. Together with the 57 or so Ds, Pitts should be sitting on 69 known votes–six short of winning. I then went through the list of Rs pledged to Craddick and came up with the names of seven members who, in the past, have vented their displeasure about Craddick in my presence. (I’m sure the list of venters is much longer; the venting just hasn’t been done in my presence.) In the spirit of the times, I’m not going to make my list public. That’s 76 votes, enough to win. The trick is whether Pitts can peel them away from Craddick and hold the remaining Republicans, or Democrats, for that matter. As I write, Craddick and allies like Jim Keffer are calling Ds, sounding supremely confident, and urging them to sign on with him.

Now, let’s look at Craddick. With the return of Laubenberg, Paxton, and Riddle (who have managed to make both sides mad), Craddick has 69 Rs. He needs only six Ds to win, and, as of December 28, he was claiming 17. Here is the list of Democrats Craddick was counting on as of December 28:

Kevin Bailey
Norma Chavez
Joe Deshotel
Dawnna Dukes
Harold Dutton
Kino Flores
Helen Giddings
Ryan Guillen
Chuck Hopson
Tracy King
Armando Martinez
Ruth Jones McClendon
Aaron Pena
Robert Puente
Richard Raymond
Patrick Rose
Sylvester Turner

Bailey, Chavez, Dutton, Flores, Giddings, and Puente are Craddick committee chairs. There is no incentive for them to come over to Pitts; if Pitts wins, they will have to go to the end of the line behind the Ds who stayed loyal. The Craddick chairs do have to be concerned about being defeated in the Democratic primary for supporting Craddick, as has been the fate of several Craddick Ds over the past two election cycles–most recently Al Edwards. But Bailey and Chavez easily fended off primary challenges last session. Dukes, Guillen, Hopson, King, Martinez, McClendon, Pena, and Turner (who is also Speaker Pro Tem) all enjoy plum appointments to the Appropriation Committee under Craddick. But here is where Pitts is better placed than McCall to get Democratic votes. He was their chairman, and they have a relationship with him. They might not have to go to the end of the line if they defect to Pitts.

In short, this list might not be as solid in a Craddick-Pitts race as it was in a Craddick-McCall race. If the Democrats can deliver 57 of their 69 votes for Pitts (which was not certain yesterday), that means that 12 of these 17 are still for Craddick. My feeling is that the committee chairs stick with Craddick; longtime Craddick ally Sylvester Turner sticks; Patrick Rose–a talented legislator whom Democrats sent to the penalty box for his support of tort reform in 2003 and still remains there–sticks; and Tracy King, who got in a brawl with the Ds enforcer, Pete Gallego, over Gallego’s meddling in King’s politics back home, sticks. (It would serve the Democrats right if Rose and King provided the decisive votes for Craddick.) Aaron Pena wrote in his blog yesterday, “Yesterday, my good friend Brian McCall, withdrew from the race. This left one challenger to the current speaker of the house. Will he succeed where other challengers did not? Knowing history to be the final arbiter, based on observable evidence, including the majority of recent converts, it is my opinion that he will not.” Pena sticks. Dwanna Dukes explained in the American Statesman why she was voting for Craddick; she sticks. We’re up to 11 of the 17, and Craddick, with his 69 Rs, is up to 80 votes, a five-vote cushion (and I think at least four of the remaining six Craddick Democrats will stick).

There is still the matter of McCall’s earlier statement that 16 of Craddick’s supporters were also pledged to McCall. If that is still true, the race is still alive. But it looks to me as if Pitts’ own metaphor was the most apt: “It’s first and goal, and I’m almost ready to score the winning touchdown.” Now it’s fourth and long.