May 24, 2018
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The threat of conservative primary challenges could lose its jolt as a prod on conservative issues in the wake of a ballot-box demolition that Texas House Speaker Joe Straus organized, directed and bankrolled in five open races for the lower chamber in the runoff election this week.
Capitol Inside had predicted that the House leadership team would win all five open contests on the overtime ballot. But the crystal ball here did not foresee the huge margins of victory that the five establishment-backed Republicans would post when they beat primary foes who'd run hard to the right by more than 60 percentage points on average in Tuesday's vote. The collective results were all the more amazing in light of the confidence that the outgoing speaker's conservative enemies had expressed about a sweep on their part in the open battles that their candidates thought they would win and lost badly.
But the establishment runoff extravaganza could have long-term implications and consequences beyond initial bragging rights in an ongoing war for control of the west wing. The magnitude of the wins that Steve Allison of San Antonio, Keith Bell of Forney, Cody Harris of Palestine, Ben Leman of Iola and Reggie Smith of Sherman racked up this week could all but ensure that the next speaker will claim the job the way Straus did initially on the strength of a coalition that includes all of the chamber's Democrats and a couple dozen Republicans at least. More significantly - however - the crushing collective blow that Straus' foes sustained in OT could make it much harder for their allies in Austin to pass the bathroom bill and other conservative measures like a private school choice plan and other proposals that died in the House last year after clearing the Senate that's a tea party haven with Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick running the show now.
After nearly 10 years of nonstop pummeling from conservatives who view bipartisanship as political blasphemy, the outgoing House leader saved the best for the last with a parting torpedo that he and his lieutenants fired into the heart of the opposition en route to blowout wins in five runoff bouts for upcoming vacancies in the Capitol's west wing. The speaker made the most of a clear schedule without a hometown re-election race as the conductor and chief financier of a heavily-armed team effort that his camp coordinated and choregraphed with substantial help from his close friends in a business establishment that wanted to send a message to its tea party adversaries at the polls in 2018.
The House leadership team had entered OT with big-league momentum after its best showing to date in the March primary vote with an incumbent protection plan that helped almost two dozen Straus supporters stave off conservative challenges with only a couple of casualties. But House leaders appeared to face a much tougher test on paper in the second round with five open battles that anti-Straus forces had been expecting to win amid their anticipation of a more conservative turnout for the runoffs than the first election more than two months ago.
Three of the GOP contenders who the speaker's team backed - including the candidate who Straus endorsed for the seat that he's not seeking again in the Alamo City - had advanced to runoffs as the March runner-ups who had initial deficits to overcome in bids for seats that incumbents were relinquishing. One of the other Republicans on the leadership team runoff slate would be dueling an overtime opponent who had the largest war chest on the House battlefield in round two after almost unseating one of the speaker's most powerful allies in the 2016 primary election. Only one House hopeful who had House leaders in his corner in an open contest was regarded as a significant favorite against a Republican rival who the speaker's foes had rallied behind.
With House leaders still smarting from the loss of two incumbent Straus loyalists in primary runoffs two years ago, the speaker cast himself in a more hands-on role this time around as the maestro of a collaboration that featured the Texas House Leadership Fund and the Associated Republicans of Texas as the central conduits for the money flow. The Straus team tapped into the same nerve that conservative hardliners like the lieutenant governor had hit with the crusade last year at the Capitol for a bathroom bill that major business leaders saw as a serious threat to a prosperous economy here. Straus' his old friend and political director Gordon Johnson made pitches in private meetings with lobbyists on the need for a record funding effort when the speaker wasn't appealing himself to special interests that had been a fan of his leadership style and the results that it produced. House leaders knew that the Empower Texans PAC would be pumping more money than ever into the primary and runoff battles as a group that had been leading a revolt against Straus and envisioned a lower chamber takeover with him out of the way. Empower Texans teamed with the like-minded Texas Right to Life PAC as the two groups spent more than $7.5 million combined on the primary elections with a hefty chunk of that targeted for conservatives who were attempting to wrestle House seats away from the establishment with little success in the first two rounds.
The speaker who'd never been a trash talker walked the walk instead - pouring almost $1 million into the leadership committee and the PAC called ART that his original mentor John Tower had organized more than 40 years ago at a time when he was a U.S. senator with the distinction of being the first Republican to win statewide in Texas since Reconstruction when he captured the federal post initially in the early 1960s.
With the House gearing for the first open speaker's election in two dozen years, the outcome of the runoffs had the potential to make or break the hopes that Straus' foes have for a united show of support for the Republican nominee that the party caucus will choose for the first time a month before lawmakers return to Austin. That would most likely culminate in the election of a new speaker who'd be substantially more conservative than the current one and prone to shut the Democrats out like they've been in the Senate since Patrick took over there. The relatively moderate House Republicans who've prospered under Straus would expect to kiss much of their influence goodbye. But the conservative opposition that had its greatest expectations on the primary battlefield in 2018 with a record number of candidates for the lower chamber can probably forget about the mutiny that they'd envisioned in the aftermath of the stunning obliteration of their runoff slate in the open contests that the Straus team owned.
The only defeat this week for the leadership team came when a challenger unseated a freshman incumbent who'd been the only House member on the GOP runoff ballot. But the candidate who won that race is expected to be about as establishment-oriented as the lawmaker he defeated in round two. So no harm no foul there.
The Best of the Election selections for 2018 primary runoffs will be unveiled in separate installments.