Drew Darby’s long-expected announcement of candidacy for speaker of the Texas House will test the resolve of conservative House Republicans in the coming legislative session.
Darby, the five-term Republican from San Angelo, is considered by friend and foe to be the most viable of the announced speaker candidates who are politically allied with outgoing Speaker Joe Straus.
Hard-line conservatives, of course, want a Republican speaker who more closely reflects the rightward shift of the House during the five sessions when Straus ruled. Darby’s ascension would be a failure for them.
The rest of the members — the majority of Republicans who have been caught between the conservative Freedom Caucus on one side and the Straus coalition and the Democratic minority on the other — are waiting to see the outcome of the November elections.
“If the Republicans end up losing a decent number of seats, say 5 to 10 or so, a smaller majority also increases the likelihood of GOP speaker candidates making deals with the Democrats,” said Jon Taylor, chair of the Political Science Department at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. “If that happens, could we see an open revolt among [Freedom Caucus] members and rank-and-file Republicans? Perhaps.”
Even in the unlikely event that Republicans lose 10 seats, it would not significantly threaten a majority that currently stands at 95-55. But every new Democrat elected in November increases Darby’s chances of putting together a new coalition like those Straus, Darby and their allies have worked with in the past several sessions.
Conservatives have been worrying about that since at least last fall, when Straus announced he would not run for reelection. As The Texas Monitor first reported last November, the Republican Caucus changed its internal rules to require that its members select a preferred candidate for speaker to nominate in the general speaker election on the first day of the new session.
Because Republicans are not bound to that nominee in the general election, the caucus circulated cards for members to sign pledging them to the preferred candidate. More than 20 Republicans have declined to sign the pledge cards, including John Zerwas, R-Richmond, a Straus ally who announced for speaker last fall; Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, who announced for speaker two weeks ago; and Darby, who announced late last week.
The conservative activist group Empower Texans has been following Darby’s behind-the-scenes speaker campaign for months. With his announcement on Friday, Brandon Waltens wrote, “Darby appears to be attempting to create a coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans to take the speakership. Although new House Republican Caucus rules were passed so that Republican members could unite around a candidate for speaker instead of allowing the Democrats to dictate their leader, Darby has refused to pledge to support the Republican caucus process.”
Those Republicans in what Mark Jones calls the “squishy middle” are all too aware of the dealmaking and the potential for a Drew Darby to emerge in the race. They are also aware there could be a political price to pay in their conservative districts for joining a coalition of Democrats, Jones, a fellow with Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said.
“Two things have changed since 2009,” Jones said. “Texas politics is more polarized. There will be a cost exacted for voting with the Democrats. And Republicans don’t have the excuse that they had with a slim majority, of voting against [former speaker] Tom Craddick’s authoritarianism, which is how Joe Straus was elected. Being a member of Team Straus weighs Darby down.”
Jones has said for months he believes House Republicans will do whatever is necessary to remain united and to elect a more conservative speaker. The Texas Monitor has previously profiled conservatives Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, as well as Dallas Democrat Eric Johnson, who have also formally joined the speaker’s race.
King and Parker are representative of the kind of Republican who might come out of the caucus as the preferred candidate — conservative, but not enough to alienate those at both ends of the political spectrum in the House.
However, Jones said he would not be surprised if four or five more candidates announce, several as close to the election as a week out. Not would it be unexpected for the House to choose someone whose name thus far has been mentioned only in private conversations, he said.
Which is not to say that Jones or Taylor think Darby should not be taken seriously as a candidate for speaker. In his emailed announcement of his candidacy, Darby said, “In the coming weeks, I plan to visit with every House member to discuss the priorities of their district and how the Texas House of Representatives can work together to put forward good policies to keep Texas the number one state to live, work and raise a family.”
Darby started those meetings months ago. With the help of Straus, he has been able to demonstrate leadership in committee chairmanships, heading the Energy Resources Committee and the Select Committee on State & Federal Power & Responsibility in the last session.
And while he has been consistently criticized by conservatives for failing to press for property tax reform and for tapping the state’s “Rainy Day Fund” to balance the budget, those same stances are seen by moderate Republicans and Democrats as standing up to the Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and, in particular, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate.
“This isn’t only about ideology. There is an institutional component,” Jones said. “During the Straus years, there were some Republicans who were grateful to him for standing up to Abbott and Patrick, to protect them from having to take difficult votes. There will be Republicans who want a leader who won’t let Dan Patrick walk all over them.”
Darby has the advantage over the two other perceived Straus allies. Clardy might be less tied to Straus, but is also less accomplished. Zerwas, a Straus insider, is not likely to be forgiven by the Republican majority for years of leading a failed fight to expand Medicaid in Texas, Jones said.
“In a contentious race with five Republicans or more jockeying for the GOP caucus’ support, there’s nothing to stop Darby or any other Republican candidate from quietly negotiating deals with the Democrats in order to ensure their election by the full chamber,” Taylor said.
The measure for the caucus will be how it responds to all of this chaos when, unlike 2009, it isn’t any surprise.
“Darby’s thrown down the challenge,” Jones said. “He’s saying, ‘I’m running, and if you are going to block me it’s up to you to get behind a more conservative candidate – maybe a Tan Parker or a Phil King – and do it.’ ”
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].