Raising the stakes for next year’s Republican state House primaries, a new political action committee aims to pick off Speaker Joe Straus’ soldiers and lieutenants in a proxy war.
Conservative, free-market, and pro-life groups across Texas are praising the effort as the Nov. 11 candidate filing date approaches.
“The New Leadership PAC is but one more indicator that the growing masses of Texans are ready to oust Straus. Now big money is backing the movement,” said Julie McCarty, president of the Northeast Tarrant County Tea Party.
Brendan Steinhauser, a conservative Republican strategist, says Straus is probably safe in his “country club Republican district but he doesn’t represent Republicans statewide. He’s out of step.”
Mark Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, said NLP could erode the speaker’s base by “spreading the money around” to challengers in selected House districts held by Straus loyalists.
“Primaries favor more conservative Republicans, and runoffs even more so,” Jones noted.
Straus-ites considered ripe for primary challenges from the right include Byron Cook, R-Corsicana; Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood; Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth; Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches; J.D. Sheffield, R-Gatesville; Giovanni Capriglione, R-Keller; Ken King, R-Canadian; Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd; Wayne Faircloth, R-Galveston; and Sarah Davis, R-West University Place.
“They all have big targets on their backs,” said McCarty.
Bring it on, Davis told The Texas Monitor.
“For many cycles I have faced challengers funded by outsiders, extremists and people who don’t share the values of my district,” the four-term lawmaker said in an email.
Davis noted that “Speaker Straus’ trust in me led to rooting out a scandal” at the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. “Following hearings I held on TABC’s abuses, top agency heads resigned and Governor Abbott applauded. I will stand on that record.”
Cook Feels the Heat
Alongside Straus, Byron Cook, the speaker’s chief lieutenant, is the “biggest target,” Jones said.
Thomas McNutt narrowly lost to Cook in the 2016 primary. Endorsed by a wide array of conservative organizations, McNutt will receive financial backing from NLP for a 2018 rematch.
As a condition of campaign funding, NLP treasurer Don Dyer said candidates must pledge to support the Republican platform in the vote for speaker. That means supporting the Republican caucus selection, and not throwing in with minority Democrats who have unanimously backed Straus.
“We’ll support good [Republican] incumbents, too,” said Dyer, noting that the Straus-controlled House Leadership Fund could bankroll opponents of conservative lawmakers, such as the 12 who sit on the Texas Freedom Caucus. Dyer said NLP is in the process of compiling a full list of recipients.
Contributions from the PAC could range up to $50,000 per race, he said.
While strategically crafted district boundaries ensure that most of the 150 House seats are safely Republican or Democrat, Jones says two-dozen districts could see contested GOP primaries next year.
“It’s just a question of how far down the list [NLP] wants to go,” Jones said.
McCarty supports the shotgun approach. “Straus can throw his lobby money around to protect some members, but he cannot protect them all,” she said.
Dogged by legal and ethical issues, Cook may already be out. With barely three weeks before the candidate-filing period opens, he reportedly has yet to establish a 2018 campaign committee. He did not respond to The Texas Monitor’s request for comment.
‘The Big Lie’
As for Straus, NLP hailed Rep. Phil King’s announced bid to unseat the speaker. The Weatherford Republican last week called for term limits on the speaker and committee chairmen.
“We applaud him for coming out of the gate first, and we welcome others to get in the competition and be part of the mix,” said Dyer.
“The biggest lie ever told is that Joe Straus facilitates the will of the House. We want the House to reflect the electorate of Texas,” he said.
To illustrate what he calls the House’s “dysfunction,” Dyer cited Straus’ killing of paycheck protection legislation. “Seventy percent of Republican primary voters wanted to stop the state from taking money out of people’s paychecks. The bill doesn’t even get a hearing in the House during the regular or special session.”
Rep. Faircloth, who faces a primary challenge from Mayes Middleton, noted that Straus was unanimously re-elected as speaker last session. “We have a bicameral legislature. We don’t always agree on the path going forward. Like the governor and the lieutenant governor, the speaker has a role to play.”
While saying he has not committed to voting for Straus next session, Faircloth called the campaign against the speaker “cyber-bullying.” “This is a level of activism I’ve never seen before.”
Jones figures that the PAC can’t hope to defeat Straus in his tailor-made San Antonio district, “but it can weaken him in the House.”
“Before, he had a balancing act with Democrats. Now’s it’s with Republicans. Conservatives are going to get steamrolled less.”
Straus’ office did not respond to The Texas Monitor’s request for comment.