No one doubts that Joe Straus is the Democrats’ favorite Republican. He has spent his tenure in office obstructing conservative reforms, so some in Austin are thinking he might now want to challenge Greg Abbott in 2018. And maybe not as a Republican.
Straus was elected Speaker of the Texas House in 2009 by a coalition of 11 Republicans and 65 Democrats and has held on to power since then by maintaining that governing coalition. He has used his position to box conservative representatives out of the legislative process and obstruct popular conservative reforms.
Because of this, Straus has absolutely no pathway for victory in a Republican primary for anything except re-election to his gerrymandered Bexar County seat. He cannot get elected to the Texas Senate, the US House or the US Senate by running in the GOP primary; everyone knows that.
In fact, 52 percent of Texas voters live in a county where the local Republican executive committee has voted to condemn, censure, or call for the ouster of Straus as speaker. As a Republican, he is effectively stuck in the Texas House.
And he won’t be the speaker in the next legislative session. The House Republican Caucus is finally moving forward with rules designed to block Straus or his cronies from continuing to conspire with Democrats to hold power.
To reiterate: Joe Straus won’t be Speaker of the Texas House in 2019. He knows it, his pals know it. The existing coalition that controls the Texas House is on its way out.
But he isn’t going away. Straus told a room full of liberals this weekend, when asked if he’d run for governor, that “I am interested in serving in any capacity to solve the issues of Texas.”
Notice he didn’t say he wasn’t running for governor. In fact, he refused to even give a soft ‘no’ to a direct question on that subject.
Meanwhile, Texas Democrats don’t have credible candidate for governor, and haven’t in a long time. In the 21st Century, their “high water mark” in a gubernatorial race was the 43 percent Houston Mayor Bill White got against Rick Perry in 2010.
Nationally, Democrats have lost a majority of the legislatures, governorships, both chambers of Congress, and the presidency. In Texas, they haven’t won a statewide election in more than two decades. They desperately need a high-profile win, or at least a credible candidate.
While national Democrat donors would love to target Texas, they need someone who doesn’t look like the next contestant on “World’s Biggest Political Loser.”
Enter Joe Straus.
Despite ostensibly belonging to the same political party as the governor, Straus has been the highest profile critic of Greg Abbott, calling the incumbent governor’s conservative legislative agenda “horse manure.”
Indeed, liberal Democrat State Rep. Donna Howard of Austin was recently spotted sporting a wrist-band labeled “TGFJS” – Thank God for Joe Straus – because of his opposition to Abbott’s push. Other Democrat state representatives have worn the wristband, or shared the statement on social media as well.
In fact, as Straus doubled and tripled down on killing Abbott’s agenda during the special session, it was only Democrats that were publicly cheering him on.
Should he decide to run against Abbott, Straus could easily give an impassioned “the party left me” speech. He and his family have been patrician, Rockefeller Republicans – big-government, social liberals – for decades. He can talk about hating the rise of the religious, social and fiscal conservatives in the party. He can cite his work in the Bush White House and bemoan the rise of Donald Trump as the GOP standard-bearer.
And for all intents and purposes, county Republican committees have been pushing essentially to kick him out of the party, anyway.
The Democrats would eat it up. They could brag around the country about a high-profile “Republican” speaker switching parties as evidence that the GOP has become far too “extreme,” knowing full well that no one outside Texas knows that Straus has been serving the Democrats’ liberal agenda for a decade while wearing an elephant lapel pin.
Straus cleans up nice, wears a perfectly tied tie, and speaks in the elitist language favored by Democrats. To the Democrats’ national donor base, he looks and sounds credible as a candidate.
National left-wing publications, like the New Yorker and the New York Times, have been fluffing up Straus for months with out-of-state Democrat donors by highlighting his strident opposition to conservatives.
With a reported campaign fund balance of nearly $10 million already, Democrats could make Straus financially competitive with Abbott using out-of-state money. National Democrats burned more than $20 million on Democrat Wendy Davis’ gubernatorial campaign in 2014. Why wouldn’t they double down on a more intriguing challenge to Greg Abbott in 2018?
Three months ago they spent $30 million losing a special congressional election race, and turning Texas blue is a far greater prize. Assuming George Soros and other big Democrat spenders chipped in a similar amount, Straus could match Abbott’s current $40 million war chest dollar for dollar.
This plan may already be in the works. In addition to Straus’s refusal to rule out a gubernatorial campaign, the race for the Democrat nomination for governor is noticeably vacant. As it stands right now, Texas Democrats would be left with Jeffrey Payne (the owner of a gay night club in Dallas with a focus on leather fetishes) as their standard bearer.
One would think the Democrat machine is at least organized enough to avoid that.
Electorally, a Straus campaign starts with a base of Davis’ 38.9 percent of the vote. Whether he can attract 13 percent by appealing to the country club crowds of Dallas’s Highland Park and Houston’s River Oaks would be a function of how hard Straus and the party are willing to lean into a “party switcher” myth.
Collateral damage will be the Republican House members who have provided ongoing aid and comfort to Straus in his months long pre-campaign against Abbott. Republican lawmakers who have been loud apologists for Straus are already nervous about their words coming back to haunt them.
Defending the same Joe Straus who has been vocally attacking Abbott and the GOP platform is already bad look at home. It’ll be worse if he runs for governor, and doubly so if he is running on the other ticket.
Joe Straus is already the least-popular Republican among the conservative base, and the Democrats’ favorite nominal Republican. Whether he’ll leave the party that doesn’t want him remains to be seen.
The bottom line is this: Joe Straus has spent eight years attacking conservatives, and much of 2017 opposing Greg Abbott. The only question is what form Straus’ continuing opposition will take in 2018.