Tea Party fave Turner challenging more moderate incumbent Straus for speaker’s seat


Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco, left, Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, right


JAMES RUSSELL  |  Staff Writer

At the opening of the 84th legislative session Tuesday, Jan. 13, legislators’ first vote will be on the record. That wouldn’t be unusual were it any other vote on legislation. But the first vote is a contested race between two very different Republicans for speaker of the Texas House.

Running for a fourth term is Rep. Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. He faces a challenge from Tea Party favorite sophomore Rep. Scott Turner, R-Frisco.

Speakers’ races are usually conducted by voice vote, which leaves dissenting legislators immune to criticism. But because their vote will be in the legislative record, a bevy of special interest groups, Republican leaders and others will be watching closely.

Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, an associate professor of political science at the University of North Texas, said the contested race is ultimately less about leadership and more about symbolism.

“The speaker is the most important bureaucrat in the House. Straus is the kind of guy you’d call a ‘governance speaker.’ He knows you can’t be ideological because you have to build coalitions,” including with Democrats. Turner’s campaign is an ideological campaign that says, ‘Let’s make a statement.’ It’s also the Tea Party trying to let Straus know, ‘We can be a thorn in your side.’”

He added Turner’s challenge is similar to the ultimately unsuccessful Tea Party challenge to U.S. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Tuesday, Jan. 6.

It only takes 76 votes to elect a speaker in the statehouse. Turner doesn’t have nearly that many votes. As of press time, Straus had received the backing of the majority of his caucus.

But the GOP’s votes aren’t the only votes that matter; the Democrats, despite losing two seats in the past election, still play a key role in the speaker’s race. Which is why Eshbaugh-Soha said he doesn’t anticipate any Democratic defections.

Indeed, Straus’ willingness to work with and appoint Democrats to lead committees is among the biggest gripes among his detractors. They argue Straus works too closely with Democrats and has blocked key priorities, including school choice and border security legislation.

The record vote will also matter for more than historical reasons. Numerous organizations, including the anti-LGBT Texas Eagle Forum, back Turner. They’re keeping their own records, too, with plans to deduct points from their scorecards.

Straus has always taken heat from the Tea Party. He ousted incumbent Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland in 2009 with the help of 11 Republicans and 65 Democrats. Among them was Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.

When asked about the race, Geren dismissed Turner’s candidacy. “There is no speaker’s race. A race is a competition and there’s no competition,” Geren said.

Eshbaugh-Soha compared Turner’s candidacy to Fort Worth Democratic Sen. Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster against new regulations on abortion, which jettisoned her to national acclaim.

“When you make a stand, you get noticed. It’s an effective strategy to get out the news,” he said.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 9, 2015.