Reporting from Austin, Texas
The direct mail has been sent, the commercials have zipped about the Internet, and the robocalls have clogged answering machines, all with the same message: Joe Straus is yet another incumbent who must go.
Straus hopes fellow Texas lawmakers will reelect him Tuesday as speaker of the House of Representatives, one of the most powerful posts in the state. But the election of the speaker, normally inside baseball, has become an usually public, and sometimes nasty, affair.
“Tea party” groups here say there’s a RINO — Republican in Name Only — in the speaker’s seat in Austin and he needs to be replaced.
Most political observers expect Straus, who comes from a wealthy and prominent San Antonio family, to survive the challenge. About 120 of the 150 members of the House have publicly pledged to support him.
But the grass-roots groups campaigning against him are raising eyebrows, and concerns, by reaching into the playbook that tea party candidates used in Texas and elsewhere in November.
“The conservative voters and activists who worked so hard for that victory want a speaker who better reflects their values,” said Peter Morrison, a tea party activist and author of a newsletter prominent among Texas conservatives. “Since Joe Straus is not a conservative, he needs to go.”
These groups have offered an alternative view of Straus, an otherwise well-liked and low-profile lawmaker: He’s in the pocket of Democrats, they say, and supports abortion. He’s not, as one mailer said, the kind of “true Christian conservative” who should hold such an important post. (Straus is also Jewish, causing critics to say such comments are within a hair of anti-Semitism.)
In Texas, the speaker is particularly powerful. He directs legislation and floor debate, and the state constitution requires that the speaker sign all passed legislation.
In ads that have circulated among conservative blogs and message boards, in addition to limited airplay, voters are urged to call and write their representatives to “Say no to Joe!” and “Demand a conservative speaker” who’s not a “best friend of socialists.”
Straus wasn’t available to comment, though he and his representatives have emphasized that he holds mainstream conservative views on abortion, opposing it in most cases.
His staff also posted a rather staid video to YouTube that points out his deep Republican roots and his bona fides as a budget-balancing fiscal conservative.
Texas has essentially become a one-party state, with Republicans holding the governor’s mansion as well as majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
“We have a conservative House of Representatives — and a liberal speaker,” said Rep. Leo Berman, a veteran Republican lawmaker from east Texas.
A mutiny against a sitting speaker is not without precedent. It’s how Straus was able to angle his way into becoming speaker two years ago.
He was a relatively unknown junior lawmaker when a group of Republicans conspired before the 2009 session to overthrow his predecessor, Tom Craddick, a conservative known for his heavy-handed rule over the House. But to win the post, Straus had to rely on the votes of Democrats to carry him over the threshold.
That’s what made him the target of conservatives. “He sold out and was elected by Democrats,” Berman said.
But Straus’ supporters call him a breath of fresh air.
“Joe Straus was elected not because of his political philosophy,” said Rep. Todd Smith, a Republican from the Dallas area. “He was elected primarily to bring power back to the individual members of the House of Representatives.”
Straus also took the position with sterling Republican credentials, Smith said.
“The suggestion that he’s not conservative is asinine,” he said.
When Straus emerged from his first session as speaker, he was widely considered to have had a successful run, said Harvey Kornberg, a longtime observer of Texas politics and editor of the Quorum Report, a political news service. “The only people ticked off were some of the Democratic leaders,” he said.
Straus’ reelection as speaker promised to be routine affair, he said, “until the tsunami hit.”
That tsunami is, of course, the grass-roots movement against him. That uprising, however, also highlights the loosely structured nature of tea party groups.
“I don’t feel we project the power we really have,” said Claver Kamau-Imani, executive director and chairman of Raging Elephants, a conservative group that has produced ads challenging Straus. The ads have spread on the Internet, he said, but groups — his included — have been unable to “find the copious sums of money” needed for a widespread campaign on television.
In addition, the sub rosa strains of anti-Semitism that have crept into the campaign tainted the credibility of conservative groups in what they see as a legitimate ideological disagreement.
The Houston Chronicle, in a scathing editorial last month, said such comments may not be blatantly anti-Semitic but implicitly send the message: “Don’t support Straus. He’s a Jew.”
Straus’ Republican opponents in the speakers race, Ken Paxton from the suburbs of Dallas and Warren Chisum of the small panhandle town of Pampa, have condemned attacks based on religion.
The tea party groups counter that it’s not a religious argument; it’s a matter of values.
“The issue is his liberal policy positions, not his religion,” Morrison said, “and this whole controversy stems from certain members of the media taking quotes out of context and trying to sensationalize what is a sincere effort by conservatives to elect one of their own as speaker.”