I have been a holdout against the prevailing belief that Tom Craddick does not have the votes to be reelected as speaker and can’t get them. The outcome of the special election in District 97 has caused me to change my mind. Craddick has himself become an issue, and that is something he couldn’t afford. Dan Barrett’s victory isn’t as significant as Mark Shelton’s loss. With Shelton tainted by Craddick’s support and the robo-call controversy, Bob Leonard becomes the favorite to win the primary. He has said he intends to make Craddick the issue in the race. If Leonard is the Republican nominee against Bartlett, whoever wins the general election will be an anti-Craddick vote. I’m not writing Craddick off, but I think the tide has turned against him. I think the conversation about a Republican future beyond Tom Craddick has begun.

How did Craddick’s speakership deteriorate to this point? After all, he has had a lot of success as speaker on subjects near and dear to Republicans’ hearts. Many speakers can point to significant legislation that passed WHILE they were speaker. Craddick can point to legislation that passed BECAUSE he was speaker: tort reform, congressional redistricting, tuition deregulation, the property tax cut, restrictions on abortions, billions of dollars worth of budget cuts, mammoth overhauls of the state’s approach to human services and transportation policy. He played a central role in all of these. So why is he in such trouble?

I believe that the problems for Craddick really started in the 2006 Republican primary. Six Republican members who had opposed school vouchers found themselves with lavishly funded primary opponents: Roy Blake, Carter Casteel, Charlie Geren, Delwin Jones, and Tommy Merritt. Craddick said that he supported all Republican incumbents, but no one believed him, because the money to finance the challengers of the targeted members came from longtime Craddick ally James Leininger, the principal advocate for vouchers, who put around $3 million into these races. (Pat Haggerty, another targeted member, faced a smaller infusion of Leininger cash; his opponent’s race was primarily funded by another Craddick ally, Bob Perry.) Perception is reality in politics, and the perception was that Craddick had put the bull’s eye on his own members. Blake and Casteel lost.

Blake’s loss was not a surprise. He was a freshman. His opponent, Wayne Christian, was a former member who had lef the House to run a losing race for Congress in 2004 and was seeking his old seat. Even without Leininger’s money, Christian would have been favored to win. But Casteel’s loss was a different story. She was a solid, well respected member, albeit a bit on the crusty and theatrical side. A former teacher who was a strong defender of public education, she had friends on both sides of the aisle. But her opponent, a political unknown, had so much money available that on election day, aircraft were circling over polling places with anti-Casteel banners. She lost by 46 votes.

The consequence of these races was to scare the hell out of Republican members who might entertain the idea that they were entitled to vote in a way that represented their districts. The message was clear: Tom Craddick cares more about his supporters outside the Capitol than he cares about his supporters inside the Capitol. If you don’t toe the line on issues that matter to Craddick, this could happen to you.

Fear alone does not make a rebellion. It has to be accompanied by a sign of weakness. When the Republicans lost five House seats to Democrats on election day 2006, to go with a seat in Austin that had been lost in a special election earlier in the year, the scent of blood was in the water. Craddick had to fight to hold onto the speakership, and it was Democrats who provided him with his margin of victory.

But the speaker’s race did not end with Craddick’s election on the first day of the session. Republican members who entertained thoughts of independence still faced the same threat. They knew that Craddick’s ties to Republican donors enabled him to amass a huge warchest to be used against Republican members. They knew that Craddick would not hestitate to use that money, even against talented members like Casteel. They knew that Republican donors and friendly PACs would be afraid of contributing to Craddick targets, for fear of retribution. And so, they realized that they couldn’t afford to wait until the next election of the speaker, in January 2009, to unseat Craddick. They had to do it during the session, before the 2008 primary elections, before Craddick could bring his nuclear arsenal of big money into their races. The closer it got to the end of the session, the more imperative it became to make the move, and that is why, on that amazing night in late May, they sought to move to vacate the chair, only to have Craddick flee from the podium and return three hours later, with new parliamentarians and his claim to absolute power. But at a price: By turning on his own members, Tom Craddick has become THE issue. This is the revenge of Carter Casteel.