True to his word, House Speaker Joe Straus is spending a lot of money helping Republican incumbents with campaign cash. With some $3 million on hand, and nearly $300,000 disbursed, Mr. Straus is clearly seeking to help sitting Republican officeholders. In an election season in which the GOP is poised to make big gains, Straus also isn’t helping defeat any Democrats. That could spell trouble for him, and makes his lieutenants’ silence on such challenges all the more perplexing.
Mr. Straus, obviously, is in a strange position, partly of his own making. As a Republican officeholder, he certainly wants to see the ranks of Republican members swell. But as the new House Speaker in a thinly divided body last year, he said he wouldn’t work to unseat any incumbent. (I do give Mr. Straus credit for standing by on his word; a sadly rare trait in politics.)
Of course, some pledges should never be made. A political move to appease a party, now clearly on the outs, might be reasonably re-examined in light of current events. Regardless, Mr. Straus unilaterally disarmed in a battle his party is poised to win… And it’s not like the Democratic leaders are keeping distance from challenges to Republican incumbents.
There are as many as 18 truly competitive House races this year. Of those, only two or three are held by Republicans. With the Democrats suffering under a very unpopular president and discouraged political base, opportunity abounds for Texas’ Grand Old Party. It’s likely the GOP will pick up four to six seats, but it could be as many as a dozen. That’s quite a tune to dance to if you are of the Republican persuasion.
Too bad Mr. Straus won’t be dancing. With that $3 million war chest, he could shore up key pick-ups for his party. Instead, he’s chosen to be a wallflower in the dances that will determine the shape of the legislative session – and public policy for a decade to come.
Whether the speaker likes it or not, the statewide perception among the party faithful (and many of those candidates) is that by being silent in these highly competitive races, he’s aiding the opposition. If you ain’t for me you must be against me, the (perhaps flawed) thinking goes.
Frankly, that could have significant consequences for him. With the GOP base already suspicious of Mr. Straus and his team (see former GOP vice-chairman David Barton’s blistering critiques), reticence to contribute to the defeat of Dems only heightens those concerns. In 2011 outside groups will for the first time be able to engage in the speakership decision, including placing public pressure on lawmakers. Speaker Straus could turn back the criticism, build good will and gain allies by being seen, even indirectly, as helping the GOP challengers.
After all, Speaker Straus already lost two of his Republican lieutenants (from the 10 who joined with him and 65 Democrats in toppling former GOP Speaker Tom Craddick) to humiliating primary losses. Meanwhile, a third who resigned this year has been replaced a conservative who was staunchly opposed by Mr. Straus’ allies in the primary.
Even if Mr. Straus wants to keep his hands tied, his Republican lieutenants could be helping GOP candidates beat liberal incumbents. But they aren’t. That’s a mistake.
It’s one thing for Mr. Straus to stand down, but something else entirely for the so-called “Straus cardinals” not to be using their influence and sizeable campaign accounts to do what Straus can’t won’t: build their party’s majority.
According to the latest Ethics Commission filings, neither the cardinals nor their “House Leadership” PAC has yet spent anything to help challengers win in November against incumbent Ds. If the GOP ends up with 82 or more seats, that’s a whole lot of new members with no direct loyalty to the speaker’s team.
(There are a lot of active conservative groups trying to help conservative challengers, such as Associated Republicans of Texas, GOPAC-TX, and our own Empower Texans PAC.)
Speaker Straus is in a unique position to be seen as helping rescue his party, bringing it back from the brink. The electoral band is playing, and a lot of eager candidates are ready to boogie. Only Mr. Straus and his team can decide if they’ll accompany them on what promises to be a victory dance.