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Turner's Declaration Could Impact Republican Primaries

Bob Daemmrich, Texas Tribune
Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, after he filed for House Speaker on Jan. 10, 2014

State Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, recently announced his candidacy for speaker of the House, an election for which will not be held until 2015.

His timing is more provocative than the candidacy itself, because it could force candidates in the Republican primary for the House to declare their preference for a sitting speaker perceived as a moderate or for an alternative — Turner or someone else — thought to be more conservative. It’s not about the speaker’s race. It’s about those primaries.

At this point on the election and governance calendar, everything is about the primary elections on March 4. And a challenge to a sitting speaker — like the one Turner has initiated — is likely to play out in the primaries before it even gets to the members of the House in January.

The freshman lawmaker is at best a long shot to defeat Speaker Joe Straus. But Turner’s announcement offers candidates in the 2014 Republican primary a way to show voters which part of the party they represent. Straus is unpopular with some of the party’s populists, and candidates who do not openly support Turner risk their wrath.

One of Straus’ chief allies — Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland — faces Cullen Crisp in the primary this year. Crisp has not made any declarations but is campaigning to “restore conservative values” to the district. Turner’s fledgling campaign has not made a ripple in the HD-60 race, but it could.

Keffer calls Turner “an eloquent public speaker and a good guy” and says he has every right to run for the top job (as Keffer himself did several years ago). He thinks this could become an issue, but he is sticking with the current speaker.

“It will be the fourth time I’ve voted for Joe Straus,” he said. “The world has not imploded. We’re still in orbit.”

Most voters do not know anything about Straus, R-San Antonio, or about what his politics are. The leadership of a legislative body is an inside game, mostly; Texas speakers generally do not become household names unless they are in deep legal or political trouble.

Straus is no household name. His face has not appeared on the wanted posters on the bulletin board at the post office, and his actions in office have not provoked the sorts of news coverage that sank some of his predecessors.

He is, however, known to many Republican activists, favorably and otherwise, because of the way he won the job in 2009. Straus, then beginning his third term in the House, combined the support of most of the body’s Democrats and about two dozen of his fellow Republicans to unseat Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican whose supporters included the most conservative members of the Legislature.

That left some scars and a lasting impression with some Republicans that the new leader might be a closet moderate. The House at the time was almost evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and the session that followed reflected that.

The next election year put a Republican supermajority in charge. Straus survived a challenge from the right, and the session that followed reflected the new numbers. It was the Democrats’ turn to grumble. By 2013, Straus had consolidated his control and the Republicans had a stout majority, though not a supermajority. Straus managed to keep highly partisan issues on the back burner until special sessions in the summer on redistricting and abortion, and last year’s regular session was relatively peaceful.

House conservatives remain wary of Straus but have not found a champion who looks like a giant-killer. And they do not have the numbers it would take to knock him out of office even if Turner is the right candidate. Getting there will require a majority of the House’s Republicans, and probably a sprinkling of Democrats.

This time, Straus is safe unless his foes can swap some populist Republicans for some of the establishment Republicans currently in office.

This stuff does not matter with most voters, but it does matter to some activists and groups. Turner might or might not be a candidate when the members of the House elect a speaker. But by putting his name in the mix so early, he might change the membership of the House — or rattle current members enough — to make a challenge to Straus possible.

Ross Ramsey is managing editor of The Texas Tribune and continues as editor of Texas Weekly, the premier newsletter on government and politics in the Lone Star State, a role he's had since September 1998. Texas Weekly was a print-only journal when he took the reins in 1998; he switched it to a subscription-based, internet-only journal by the end of 2004 without a significant loss in subscribers. As Texas Weekly's primary writer for 11 years, he turned out roughly 2 million words in more than 500 editions, added an online library of resources and documents and items of interest to insiders, and a daily news clipping service that links to stories from papers across Texas. Before joining Texas Weekly in September 1998, Ramsey was associate deputy comptroller for policy with the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, also working as the agency's director of communications. Prior to that 28-month stint in government, Ramsey spent 17 years in journalism, reporting for the Houston Chronicle from its Austin bureau and for the Dallas Times Herald, first on the business desk in Dallas and later as the paper's Austin bureau chief. Prior to that, as a Dallas-based freelance business writer, he wrote for regional and national magazines and newspapers. Ramsey got his start in journalism in broadcasting, working for almost seven years covering news for radio stations in Denton and Dallas.