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Democrat wins will shift the race for Texas House Speaker

November 7, 2018

AUSTIN — Republicans lost a dozen seats in Tuesday’s election, putting Democrats in a stronger position to sway the next most important election in Texas — choosing the next state House speaker who can wield influence to control what laws legislators will pass next year.

Members of the House elect a speaker every two years at the beginning of the legislative session. Republicans looking to replace outgoing GOP Speaker Joe Straus of San Antonio have put up five candidates for the chamber’s top job to set the pace, tone and agenda for the 2019 session that begins in January.

However, the election Tuesday dropped the GOP majority to 83 - 67 in the House, giving the minority party leverage to bargain for a centrist speaker of their liking or cut deals on legislation, political analysts say. Republicans held 95 out of 150 seats prior to Tuesday election, which would have made way for a more conservative speaker candidate.

“The Democrats are shopping. They’re buyers in this market and they’re going to be empowered to find somebody who’s going to give them a good deal,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor and analyst from the University of Houston.

The longer Republicans wait to coalesce around their choice for the next speaker, the more influence the Democrats are going to have, Rottinghaus said. It will now take just nine Republicans who disagree with the caucus’ choice and team up with Democrats to elect the speaker of their liking.

While it is unlikely Republicans would defect, it’s not impossible. In 2009, Straus defeated then-speaker and fellow Republican Tom Craddick, of Midland, with the help of a “gang of 11” Republicans who secretly met with the Democrats and joined them in backing Straus. The 150-member House was home to 76 Republicans and 74 Democrats at the time.

The next House speaker needs 76 votes to win.

The dynamics this year come amid a civil war within the Republican Party which was on full display in the Texas House during the 2017 Legislative Session. Tea party Republicans were regularly at odds with House Speaker Straus, constantly working to undermine him as he stood in the way of some conservative legislation including a much-debated elements of a property tax reform bill.

“Many [Republicans] realize they’re likely to have a significant battle on their hands in 2020,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. After losing 12 seats and watching other Republicans winning by narrow margins, GOP members will want to elect a speaker that best positions them to win in the next election cycle.

“Now it’s easier for the Straus wing to convince the large middle of the GOP caucus that they provide the best pathway for Republicans remaining in control of the House,” he said.

Current candidates in the running include Republican Reps. Dennis Bonnen of Angleton, Travis Clardy of Nachodoches, Drew Darby of San Angelo, Phil King of Weatherford and Tan Parker of Flower Mound, along with Democrat Rep. Eric Johnson of Dallas.

Republicans are expected to meet at the end of the month to decide who they will support. The House Speaker will be elected in January.

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