Straus’ departure leaves Texas Republicans without a balance
The first words Texas Speaker Joe Straus said on the phone Friday underscored everything about the feedback he’s gotten since he shocked the state days earlier, announcing his departure from the powerful post.
“Did I let you down?” the San Antonio Republican asked, with only a tinge of humor. I laughed, but I knew plenty of his supporters felt let down, disappointed, disillusioned and any number of other depressing adjectives. They are in mourning at the loss of the only counterbalance to archconservatives Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. Rep. Sarah Davis, Straus’ close Republican ally who represents University Place, could describe herself only as “shell-shocked,” trying to stay positive but “nervous about the future.”
When I asked whether she thought the longtime speaker’s exit amounted to a “death knell,” as one political scientist called it, for moderate Republicans like her and Straus, her response was telling as well:
“Don’t call me that! I’m up for re-election. I gotta win a primary,” she said, again with only a tinge of humor.
One laughs so that one doesn’t cry. That’s the state of Texas politics today.
Straus says his abrupt announcement to leave the post he has held for five terms, as long as anybody in Texas history, wasn’t the result of one event — not even a brutal legislative session and special session devoted to the urgent social issue of bathrooms.
He’d accomplished much of what he set out to do, he said. He didn’t want to be the old guy holding on to office past his time, and although he’s confident his colleagues would have elected him to a sixth term to lead the House, he wanted to leave on his own terms.
He said the decision came after deep reflection. His departure should prompt the same among Texans, especially those who feel let down.
It takes more than one brave person to make change.
Just how long did those folks expect Straus to keep his finger in the dike? In the legend, even the little Dutch boy eventually got reinforcements who came to fix the leak. In Texas politics these days, the reinforcements are scarce, slow and scared.
To many Texans alarmed by growing prominence of extremist ideology in the state we love, it was a great comfort to have Straus at the helm — fighting off the frothing Jade Helm types in the House. He kept swinging at challengers while staving off the torrent of divisive social legislation hastening in from the far-right. Bathroom bills. Vouchers. Bans on so-called sanctuary cities that don’t exist. Hiding moderates
Straus and his lieutenants prioritized the issues average Texans actually care about: education, mental health, the Texas economy. Even those who sharply disagreed with him on issues such as abortion restrictions appreciated his Sisyphean attempts to build consensus.
“We never thought of compromise as a dirty word,” Straus told me.
He pushed the boulder while the zealots in his own party cast their stones — for nearly a decade.
We took it for granted that Straus would just keep at it.
Now that he’s on the way out, many Texans are in despair, with some talking of dropping out for a while. As one Republican businesswoman, Kathryn Connelly in Round Rock, told my colleague Mike Ward, “Attila the Hun and friends will be in total control, at least until Texans get sick of this brand of politics.”
What will it take to make us sick enough? What will it take for those who plead privately with people like Straus to fight divisive legislation to stop bankrolling the politicians who file it? What will it take for influential Republicans who are truly repulsed by the direction of their party to speak out?
I asked Straus what message he had, if any, for those who engage in political doublespeak in this state.
“My message to them is, listen to the voices that were raised this summer in our unnecessary special session. We had the business community stepping up in an overdue but strong way,” he said. “We had faith leaders who don’t normally participate in the process who emerged this summer to be a voice of reason and compassion. We had first responders. We had educators, and judging from my mail … a lot of Republicans who were telling me, were thanking me for standing up for views that they hold.”
And that’s the thing that makes the decline of Republican moderates so frustrating. There are still so many of them — check a closet near you. It would be one thing if they’d earned their endangered species status by failing to adapt to their environment, by losing touch with the attitudes and opinions of average Texans.
But that’s not the case. Straus’ thinking is still mainstream. Polls show most Texans didn’t think the bathroom bill was all that important. Most do not think immigration status should be checked in routine traffic stops. They don’t want the border wall. Few feel strongly about vouchers, and most believe we should better fund education.
Moderate Republicans are losing ground not because they failed to adapt, but because they failed to give in to the small but loud fringe groups. And because of a sad electoral reality: Around 1.5 million voters, just 5 percent of the votingage population, who show up for the Texas Republican primary, speak for all 26 million of the rest of us Texans — men, women and children.
“Until the November voter begins to vote in March, we are in a pattern that’s troubling,” he said. Potential comeback?
He stresses that he’s leaving his position, not politics entirely. He won’t rule out a future statewide run but says for the time being, he wants to help other responsible Republicans in any way he can. Sitting on a $10 million war chest, he can still have plenty of influence without the speaker’s gavel in hand. I asked if he had any plans to start a foil to the far-right conservative group, Empower Texans, a nonprofit led by lobbyist Michael Quinn Sullivan and known for its ruthless attacks on moderates.
“I would never try to emulate them in any way,” he said, with a wry laugh. “I do think there’s a hunger — I’ve seen it myself, traveling the state — for Republican voices who speak for most people and not for a small, angry few.”
With Straus’ exit, that hunger will get worse. Moderates will be left with a choice: Get brave or starve.