On March 4, Texans will cast their votes in party primaries for offices from, as the saying goes, the courthouse to the White House. For the first time in more than thirty years, Texas is situated to play a pivotal role in selecting the next president. The primaries are going to generate a level of excitement in politics that most Texans have never experienced. But another office, one that is not even officially on the ballot, will be in play that day: Speaker of the House. In a way, the speaker’s race works like a mini—electoral college. Voters don’t choose the leader of the Texas House of Representatives, but they do choose the people who choose the leader: the 150 House members. Normally, speaker’s races take place out of public view, but not this time. From the moment last May that Tom Craddick claimed the absolute power to refuse to recognize a motion to remove him from the chair, it was foreordained that the up or down vote on his reelection would take place at the ballot box.

Inside the bubble that surrounds the Texas political world, the speaker’s race looms larger than the presidential race. At stake is not just the speakership but also partisan control of the House and, for some veteran lawmakers, the fleeting possibility of a return to the days when a tradition of civil debate prevailed in the chamber instead of an atmosphere that crackles each day with hostility. After three tumultuous sessions, no one can doubt that the rancor will continue for as long as Craddick is speaker. He embodies the observation once made of the Bourbon kings of France: He has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

It would serve little purpose here to try to assign blame for the current situation. Yes, the Democratic leadership has resisted Craddick every step of the way—sometimes out of pique, sometimes out of principle. Still, the presiding officer has the power to set the tone, and the tone he has set is to fight every battle, large and small, to the finish, never yielding, never giving in. And it isn’t only the D’s who are Craddick’s problem; it’s also a handful of Republicans—enough of them that he can’t be sure of getting the 76 votes he needs to keep his job from his own party.

If the embattled speaker doesn’t have enough R’s with him and the D’s are against him, how has he managed to cling to power? The answer is that not all the D’s are against him. Craddick has been able to woo enough of them to provide a governing margin, thus proving for the umpteenth time that he is a relentless, redoubtable politician whose wiles and ambitions have been honed over a forty-year career and who should never be underestimated.

The Craddick D’s hold the balance of power in the House. In exchange for backing him as speaker, they are rewarded with chairmanships, plum committee assignments, and goodies for their districts. On the Sunday night before the Eightieth Legislature convened, in January 2007, Craddick hosted a gathering for his supporters at the Austin Club, a venerable downtown watering hole. Someone was videotaping the arrivals, and many of the Crad-dick D’s, tipped off, tried approaching through an alleyway and slipping in through a side door, to no avail: Their antics were preserved forever on YouTube anyway. When the crucial vote for speaker—on a procedural point—was taken on the first day of the session, 15 of 69 Democrats sided with Craddick.

This support for Craddick is not without peril. In the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, Democratic leaders targeted several Craddick D’s for defeat in Democratic primaries. Four lost in ’04 and a fifth went down in ’06. Now it is 2008, and the scorecard looks like this: One Craddick D, Robert Puente, of San Antonio has retired. His successor is not for Craddick. Four Craddick D’s—Norma Chávez, of El Paso; Joe Deshotel, of Beaumont; Eddie Lucio III, of Brownsville; and Patrick Rose, of Dripping Springs—have confessed their apostasy and returned to the fold. Four more face tough primary races: Kevin Bailey, of Houston; Dawnna Dukes, of Austin; Ismael “Kino” Flores, of Palmview; and Aaron Peña, of Edinburg. This represents a worst-case scenario of nine lost votes for the speaker.

The Craddick D’s defend themselves by saying that they would vote for a Democratic speaker if the D’s had a majority in the House, but since the R’s are in the majority, they can do more for their constituents by supporting Craddick than by opposing him. The flaw in this argument is not hard to detect. So long as Craddick is speaker, all but the most senior Democrats who oppose him are banished to insignificant committees where they can have little effect on major legislation. It is the Craddick D’s who keep him in power and the other D’s on the bench. If the Craddick D’s were to withdraw their support, Craddick would not have the votes to be elected speaker. In his stead, the House would turn to a Republican who was less partisan and less vindictive, and talented Democrats would once again be allowed to participate in the legislative process. And what would become of the Craddick D’s? Unless a deal was cut beforehand, they would be the ones ostracized in the new regime. They can’t go home again.

To get a sense of how the Craddick D’s were faring under the pressure of competitive races, I went to the Rio Grande Valley, where one of the most fiercely contested primaries is taking place in central and western Hidalgo County. This is the bailiwick of Kino Flores, who faces a challenge from Sandra Rodriguez, a former Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school board member and the wife of a well-known former district judge, Fernando Mancias. In late January, I spent several days in McAllen observing not only the race but also the changes that have transformed this part of Texas. Along U.S. 83, the farms that once were the backbone of the economy have been replaced by sprawling subdivisions with large homes, chain hotels, and the big-box stores you see throughout American suburbia. In the western part of the district, though, the affluence recedes and the rural character of the county reasserts itself.

I chose this race for two reasons. First, it looks like a fair fight. Second, the candidates have entirely different styles. Kino (he is one of those politicians who is never referred to by his last name) is old-school all the way, unashamed that he is, as he described himself to me, “rough.” He doesn’t have a campaign consultant. He raises prodigious amounts of money, thanks to his chairmanship of a committee that oversees the liquor and gambling industries, and spends his campaign funds to buy turkeys that he hands out to area churches and flowers that he sends to funeral homes. He writes his own TV spots. He earns a living in ways that raise eyebrows, such as consulting for the City of McAllen. “There is no other rep like me,” he said, as we stood by the bed of his pickup. He reached in and pulled out a posthole digger. “I put up my own signs,” he said. Of course he does. They read, simply, “Kino Contigo”: Kino With You.

Rodriguez is new-school. She is backed by Annie’s List, a fund-raising group that supports Democratic women candidates. She uses a campaign consultant, James Aldrete, of Austin, who masterminded Carlos Uresti’s upset of state senator Frank Madla, of San Antonio, in the 2006 Democratic primary. One of the big issues in that race was Madla’s votes to effectively remove 180,000 kids from the Children’s Health Insurance Program; Rodriguez’s campaign literature makes the point that Kino voted against CHIP seven times. She told me she decided to run when the voter ID bill was being debated in the House and she saw Kino back in the district, trying to get his allies elected to the La Joya school board. “I’ve been involved in the community for twenty-five years, promoting the importance of voting,” she said. “Then to see him walk away from such an important bill that’s going to affect his constituents, the poor and the elderly, I took it personally.” (Kino arranged to pair his vote against the bill with an absent Republican who was for the bill; the bill passed by one vote in his absence but later died in the Senate.) “Kino is for Kino and no one else,” she told me. “Every day I get calls: ‘He’s bullying people.’ They tell me, ‘We have to have his signs—we work for the school district—but we’re with you.’”

When I talked to Kino about being a Craddick D, he said, “You don’t remember South Texas being at the table when [Pete] Laney was speaker, do you?” Then he ticked off what he has been able to do for his district in the eleven years he has served: roads, health care, education. “Kids can graduate from high school with up to sixty hours of community college credit. [South Texas College] grew from a few hundred students to more than nineteen thousand. Students can get a four-year degree. Unemployment is down from double digits to less than seven percent. To me, Craddick D means ‘Delivery.’ All I have to do is give him one vote.

“This is all about who had it, who has it, and who wants it back,” Kino said of the split inside the Democratic caucus. “You know what ‘it’ is? It’s power.” True enough. The Laney Democrats had it, the Craddick D’s have it, and the opposition leaders of the Democratic caucus want it back.

Kino knows he’s a dinosaur. “I integrate the new stuff with the old stuff,” he says. “I still press the flesh. I’m at the elementary school on Veterans Day. I’m at Career Day.”

“I’m not saying he hasn’t done anything,” Rod-riguez told me, “but when it comes to important issues, he votes like the R’s do. He should run as a Republican.” And you thought the Democratic presidential primary was hard-fought.

When Texans watch the election returns on the night of March 4, they will not hear Tom Craddick’s name. He isn’t even on the ballot in 249 of the state’s 254 counties. But what happens to the Craddick D’s is likely to have more of an impact on the average Texan, and on public education, children’s health insurance, and the state budget, than the races higher up the ballot. Even the highest one of all.