Four makes seven.
As in state Rep. Walter “Four” Price IV, now the seventh announced candidate to become speaker of the Texas House. And before next week is out, the people who get paid to pay attention to these things think Price and his announced opponents will be joined by as many as two more in what has fast become a wide open race to replace outgoing Texas House Speaker Joe Straus.
Price, R-Amarillo, filed his paperwork with the Texas Ethics Commission Thursday; he’s the fourth candidate with ties to Straus, who did not run for reelection to his House seat. Price had long been rumored to covet the job and, according to several political experts, is the candidate Straus favors to succeed him.
Even before Price’s announcement, however, conservative lightning rod Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, posted this tweet, suggesting the number of Straus allies vying for speaker shows a coalition in disarray.
Price’s entry is “a big sign that the Straus faction is disorganized and doing it’s organizing publicly,” Cary Cheshire, vice president of the conservative Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, told The Texas Monitor Friday.
If you accept the theory that Price is Straus’ favorite, you might also interpret the candidacies of the other allies — John Zerwas, R-Richmond, Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, and Drew Darby, R-San Angelo — as part of a coordinated effort to find a candidate who can draw support from Democrats and still be palatable to conservative Republicans, said Mark Jones, a fellow with Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Cheshire and Jones agree that those with ties to Straus will suffer rather than benefit from that relationship. House Republicans of all ideological stripes will be reluctant to be seen by their constituents locally as having supported an ally of Straus, who is seen as divisive within the party.
And to help ensure the election of someone like Straus is not repeated, the Republican caucus in November changed its rules to mandate that a super-majority within the caucus select a preferred candidate.
Unlike the other Straus ally candidates, Price joined King and Parker in signing cards circulated by the Republican caucus pledging fealty to the preferred candidate in the general speaker election on the first day of the 86th Texas Legislature in January.
The likely reason Price signed the pledge card is an understanding that in the new Republican caucus arrangement, the speaker’s race will hinge on convincing what Jones calls the “mushy middle,” a majority that during five Straus terms navigated uncertainly between his allies and the conservative faction, the Freedom Caucus.
“Price represents something in between those two groups,” Jones said. “And I think for the most part those Republicans like him personally.”
Price has provided leadership under Straus, currently chairing the House Public Health Committee and the Select Committee on Opioids & Substance Abuse and serving as co-chairman of the Health & Human Services Transition Legislative Oversight Committee.
None of these is a heavyweight assignment like chairing Ways and Means or State Affairs. Nor has Price, 50, distinguished himself in his four terms by carrying major legislation, although he has been aggressively touting his work on drug abuse.
Price’s voting record, as measured by Cheshire’s conservative Fiscal Responsibility Index, is near the bottom among House Republicans, identical to Zerwas and just slightly higher than Clardy and Darby. Their grades in the low 40s compare to King and Parker in high 50s. By comparison, Stickland’s grade is a perfect 100.
“I think Price has less baggage than Zerwas and Darby, but also less leadership than either of them,” Cheshire said. “Zerwas has a posse. Darby has a posse. Who’s in Price’s posse?”
Price could benefit from a big swing in House seats from Republican to Democrat in the November election, Jones said. He has written extensively about what would have to happen to make that shift, but said that the current 95-55 Republican majority is very unlikely to slip below 90.
Neither is sure who might be next but both said they would not be surprised at more announcements this next week.
The absence of another, more conservative, entrant in all the months since King and Parker jumped in suggests the big bloc of conservatives in the middle are keeping open minds.
Cheshire predicted that, regardless of whoever else enters the race, the preferred candidate will be considerably more conservative than Straus. Republicans, he said, are well aware there is a cost in committee chairmanships and other power considerations for making deals with Democrats.
“After all those years with Straus, Republicans, I think, realize that why on God’s green earth should they have to pay a price for making deals with Democrats,” he said.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].