March 9, 2016
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Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and his leadership team were the biggest down-ballot winners in the Texas primary election regardless of how the runoffs shake out this spring.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz owned the spotlight with a home-state presidential primary victory that could have been a critical turning point in his bid to lead the national Republican ticket into battle this fall. But the speaker's team won the fight for control of the Texas political universe with its most impressive performance yet on a state House battlefield where Straus scored an individual knockout as well in a hometown re-election race.
The unofficial ballot-box score shows that House leaders and their establishment allies broke even with anti-Straus forces when the warring factions both lost two Republican incumbents while registering one gain apiece in open races for the lower chamber. The conservative opposition will end up with a net gain of two if all of the first-round leaders on both sides of the ring hold on for victories in spring runoffs in a handful of open contests and two races that feature incumbent Straus allies on defense. The Straus team could emerge from the primary season with a four-seat net loss in the worst case scenario and an overall gain of two by running the table in OT.
But bottom-line win-loss records don't take into account that some victories have more intrinsic value than others while defeats are much easier swallow in contests that hadn't been viewed as top-shelf priorities. The wins that Republican State Reps. Byron Cook, Charlie Geren and Dan Flynn pulled off in races that had been the opposition's top targets had an immeasurable amount of symbolic worth compared to the setbacks that the Straus team suffered when GOP State Reps. Debbie Riddle and Marsha Farney fell short in primary fights with challengers that anti-Straus conservatives backed. The leadership team found the perfect cure for the pain from those losses with establishment challenger victories that made lame ducks out of a pair of freshman House Republicans who'd opposed Straus last year along with 17 other tea party conservatives.
The final tally count is obscured even more when considering that true measure of success in an arena like this is the difference between the collective outcome of an election and the expectations that fueled it. This is why the speaker's team can start popping the champagne corks without having to worry about the eventual body count in overtime.
The conservatives who want to oust Straus had cause for their highest hopes ever after fielding the largest and most competitive group of challengers and candidates in open races that they'd had in the first three election cycles on the current speaker's watch. With Empower Texans chief Michael Quinn Sullivan leading the charge, the conservative opposition had more money and backup support for third-party attacks and other needs than ever. And the speaker's foes had Cruz as a conservative turnout magnet on the ballot above in his bid to stay within striking district of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump in the White House competition.
Anti-Straus conservatives realized that this could well be their final shot at a speaker who'd refused to bow to relentless pressure from the right or to alter a leadership style that made it possible to win support on both sides of the aisle in his first speaker's race in 2009 and three subsequent re-election bids. The worst thing about Straus in the enemy's eyes is the way he'd been able to convert conservative foes into friends and eventual votes in the next leadership race. So the speaker team's foes gave it their best shot this time around - and the prospects for minimal gains if they hold their ground in the runoff election may seem like little consolation in the spirit-crushing first round's aftermath.
The most talented teams tend to play best when the competition gets better - and the Straus machine was at the top of its game on the primary battleground in round one.
With political maestro Gordon Johnson directing the show, the leadership team had its most well-coordinated and evenly distributed fundraising effort yet. The Texas House Leadership Fund that the speaker's team controls raised and spent twice as much as it had in the primary battles two years ago. Lindsey Parham - a former Kay Bailey Hutchison aide in the U.S. Senate - had a major role in the leadership team effort as a senior advisor to Straus. The speaker's press secretary at the Capitol - former Austin American-Statesman reporter Jason Embry - was an instrumental part of the political operation this year as well.
But Johnson had a little help this time around when his old friend who's the House speaker intervened more directly than he'd had in the past with personal fundraising pitches in meetings with high-level establishment donors. The ever-polished and mild-mannered state political leader seemed to have a rare chip on his shoulder when he entered the ring for a fight that could be his last as an elected official. And Straus slammed an exclamation mark on the leadership team's success when he eliminated two conservative challengers with 60 percent of the vote in his own hometown re-election race in a district where his foes thought they could force him into a runoff.