The Paxton forces will get the vote they wanted at the Republican caucus on Monday. What is the rationale for this caucus? It’s certainly not to pick the speaker. Unless Paxton has turned twenty or more votes under the radar, the result is a foregone conclusion. The only rationale I can think of is to curry favor with the base — to keep them stirred up, which is one of the goals of the organizations that oppose Straus. They need a bogeyman, somebody who will verify their relevance, boost their fundraising, and Straus fits the part. A lot of people are going to spend a lot of money and time on a bus trip to Austin that will accomplish exactly nothing. The speakers race is over. There is no conceivable set of circumstances that can produce a Paxton victory. There never has been the requisite set of circumstances. Paxton doesn’t have the gravitas or the friendships or the record (other than a lot of conservative votes that were matched by a lot of other conservative members) to be elected speaker. He even became enmeshed in a mini-scandal over his investment in a state contract. I never considered it a big deal, until Paxton said that the public didn’t really need to know about every investment a speaker candidate makes involving state contracts. If there was a guiding genius behind the Paxton campaign, it wasn’t apparent. Who cares if Mike Huckabee was for Paxton, or John Bolton, or Dick Armey? Who cares that RedState.com endorsed Paxton? I’m sure all of Georgia was agog. My favorite comment that showed up on the blog was that Queen Elizabeth announced the posthumous endorsement of Paxton by Winston Churchill. Great satire. The organizations who were behind the anti-Straus campaign will come away from this race looking less powerful than they did when it started. They spent bushel baskets of money in an effort to intimidate members into changing sides and almost none did. I suppose they can take credit for scaring Weber, Workman, and Gonzales off the Straus pledge list. Whether that will prove to be a good career move for the defectors remains to be seen. I was surprised that Gonzales cratered. I thought he was a pro. Michael Quinn Sullivan threw eight thousand signatures on a petition for a conservative speaker at Straus. Unfortunately for Paxton, none belonged to legislators. (OK, I confess, I didn’t actually read all 8,000 names. It is possible that a lawmaker or two was on the list.) As ugly as the anti-Straus campaign was, it served a valuable purpose. It revealed that the House Republican caucus is pretty mainsteam, compared to the outside groups. I think the opposition to Straus overlooked that the March primaries had been very good for the speaker. He was able to replace Isett with Frullo, Corte with Larson, Crabb with Huberty, Swinford with Four Price, Betty Brown with Lance Gooden, Gattis with Schwertner (instead of Milton Rister, who will now be practicing his dark arts for Rick Perry), and Hopson (D) with Hopson (R). Todd Smith and Vicki Truitt won tough primary races with surprising ease. Straus’s losses were the Merritt and Jones seats and the Brian McCall seat, all of which were won by extreme conservatives who pledged to Paxton. There’s a case to be made that he is better off without Merritt or Jones, especially the latter. Straus is now free to name a new redistricting chairman. The outside groups that agitated against Straus must have known that they were taking on a hopeless task in trying to defeat him. Straus had an ample number of pledges to win. What the groups couldn’t stand was that he wasn’t one of them–he wasn’t an extreme partisan, he wasn’t a movement conservative, he wasn’t going to exclude Democrats from chairmanships; in short, he wasn’t going to jettison the traditions of the House, which meant that he wasn’t going to do their bidding. The criticism that activists like David Barton level at Straus is that he was elected by 11 Republicans and 65 Democrats. This is one of those statements that can be described as “true but not accurate.” The 2010 speakers race was a continuation of the battle over Tom Craddick’s management of the House in 2009. Conservatives could have held the speakership if Craddick had been willing to acknowledge earlier that he didn’t have the votes to be reelected, giving Smithee or Chisum — more likely the former — the opportunity to put together a coalition with WD40s [white rural Democrats of middle age] and South Texas Hispanics. (Hows quickly we forget: Craddick’s margin of victory in 2007 was the support of fifteen “Craddick D’s.”) But Craddick held on too long, and the eleven ABCs [the “anybody but Craddick” Republicans] were shrewd enough to nominate a candidate who had no enemies and no axes to grind. The Democrats signed on, and Straus won the unlikeliest speakers race ever. Straus became speaker because the Republicans were like an ant colony after the queen had been poisoned. They couldn’t act without their leader. The race had nothing to do with who was conservative or moderate. It had to do with who had had enough of Craddick and who stuck with him. Clearly, the activist groups have been plotting to defeat Straus at least since the Republican state convention last summer. It was there that Barton blanketed the room with anti-Straus fliers listing his grievances against the speaker. Straus was booed during his speech at the convention. The main rap on Straus, of course, has been that he is not a conservative. I would readily agree that he is not as conservative as other elements of the Republican party–the tea parties, the SREC, and the ideological groups that are opposing him. He is not a dyed-in-the-wool social conservative, not even close, but he is a staunch fiscal conservative, judging from his pronouncements about new taxes (no) and cutting the budget (yes). He is not a movement conservative who thinks Democrats are the devil. What Straus is, above all, is a Republican. In the first interview I had with him following his election (I was accompanying Evan Smith, then the editor of Texas Monthly), Straus said, “I’m Republican to the core.” Coming from one of the founding families of the Texas Republican party, he must find it supremely ironic to be accused of being a “Republican in Name Only” by people who are conservatives first and Republicans second. Most readers know by now the litany of conservative complaints about Straus: * He made Rene Oliveira chairman of Ways & Means and put him in charge of tax policy. True, but Straus appointed seven Republicans and two Democrats to the committee, giving Republicans a voting majority that could block anything Oliveira wanted to do. * He allowed Todd Smith to hold the Voter I.D. bill in the Elections committee. Nonsense to that. Betty Brown insisted that her version of the bill shoule be the vehicle for Voter I.D., and the Republicans on the committee split. The bill never had the votes to get out of committee, and in a 76-74 House, and it was going to have a hard time getting the 76 votes necessary for passage. * He killed (insert bill description here–sonogram, for instance) by appointing Democratic committee chairs. Also true but not accurate, and requiring an explanation. Just as was the case for Voter I.D., any controversial bill was going to have a hard time getting the 76 votes necessary for passage. I don’t think there was a chance the sonogram bill would have passed in an evenly divided House. In fact, Straus (and others) tried to strenghthen the permissive bill that came over from the Senate by making it mandatory. As I heard the story from a veteran member today, the bill didn’t have the votes to get out of committee because Craddick didn’t attend the meeting. But Straus’s critics nonetheless blame him for the failure of this or any any of their pet legislation that died. These kinds of charges are easy to make and hard to rebut. The story of any controversial bill is infinitely complex. No one, least of all grass roots groups hundreds of miles from the Capitol, can say what really happened. Watching the Legislature and trying to figure it out reminds me of the telling exchange in em>Chinatown, when Noah Cross, played by John Huston, says to Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, “”You may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.” That’s what the Legislature is like. You are always peeling back the layers of the onion in an effort to find out what is really going on. The groups who are trying to defeat Straus as speaker want to divide the Legislature along partisan lines. All this talk that Straus is not a conservative is just a smokescreen for their real objective, which is reducing the importance and independence of the average House member to rubber-stamp status and elevating the influence of the organized groups in the Republican party. We got a glimpse of what that would be like in the Craddick years. Tom Craddick’s strength lay outside the House, not inside it — in the lobby and the SREC and the organized groups. I heard it said many times by his own committee chairs: “He thinks that we’re here to serve him, not that he’s here to serve us.” Ultimately, that is why he lost the speakership. He wasn’t loyal to the members who elected him. The eleven Republicans who defeated Craddick, with the help of the Democrats, took on Craddick with the goal of returning the House to the members, where it belongs. That is what the outside groups can’t stand. They can’t stand that members are independent, that they are willing to stand up to the ideological organizations. This isn’t really about Joe Straus at all. It is about who controls the Republican party, the elected officials or the pressure groups? This is the latter’s opportunity to control. And once they get it, the Texas House will forever be an extension of the ideological groups, and they will be able to dictate who the speaker is, as they are trying to do now. This ought to be every member’s fight, because their independence and their power and their ability to serve their constituents are at stake.
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