In a stunning announcement with huge repercussions for the future of the Texas House and Republican Party politics in Texas, House speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, announced Wednesday morning that he won’t run for re-election.
In a morning email to supporters, followed by a short press conference in his Capitol office, Straus said that in his fifth term as speaker — as long as anyone has served — it was time to step aside and yield power to others.
“A confident leader knows when it’s time to give it back,” Straus said.
Straus did not rule out a future run for public office, even possibly including challenging Gov. Greg Abbott for re-election next year, though he said, “I don’t think so.”
Of the chance that he would be on the ballot for anything in 2018, Straus said, “I highly doubt it.”
Straus’ departure comes after a legislative session and a special legislative session this year in which fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick attacked the speaker as an obstacle to Patrick’s shared agenda with Abbott. At the conclusion of the special session, Abbott also expressed his frustration with Straus’ leadership, suggesting he needed to get in tune with the administration’s agenda or risk being replaced as speaker by House Republicans when the next session convenes in 2019.
Abbott’s office issued a pro forma statement on Straus’ announcement.
“Joe Straus has served with distinction for both the people in his district and for the Texas House of Representatives,” Abbott said. “I thank Speaker Straus for his service and for his commitment to the State of Texas. Cecilia and I wish Joe and Julie all the best.”
Straus has become a lightning rod for tea party discontent with more moderate elements in the state Republican Party. With great vitriol, Straus’ critics have come to view him as the key obstruction to conservative legislation in Texas, as the ultimate RINO — Republican In Name Only — despite Straus’ superb Texas Republican pedigree.
“Victory!!!!!” tweeted Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a frequent Straus antagonist. Rep. Matt Rinalidi, R-Irving, tweeted a GIF of Will Ferrell pumping his fists in his bathrobe from the movie “Wedding Crashers.” Rep. Matt Schaefer, R-Tyler, head of the Freedom Caucus, tweeted, “It’s morning in Texas Again!”
More than 50 Texas Republican Party county executive committees have passed resolutions expressing a lack of confidence in Straus.
But Straus said he wasn’t being chased out, was in a stronger position than ever and would be involved in Republican Party primaries on behalf of his allies in the House, including fundraising, and that he did not think the Freedom Caucus would grow in the next session with his departure.
The caucus, he said, is “pretty self-limiting,” and their combative approach is not one he thinks would attract many other members or future members to their banner.
“I think that rational Republicans will always survive in primaries just they always have,” Straus said. “It’s a myth that you have to be crazy to win a Republican primary for the Texas House.”
Straus said it would not be his place to express any preference for a successor.
But Rep. John Zerwas, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee under Straus and very much in the Straus mould in terms of his politics and demeanor, announced that he had filed his paperwork Wednesday to run for speaker.
“I appreciate the respectful, pragmatic leadership Speaker Straus has demonstrated the last five sessions and will offer members leadership that allows them to represent their districts and the values of their constituents,” Zerwas said in a statement.
Last month, Rep. Phil King, a 10-term Republican from Weatherford, announced he would challenge Straus for speaker.
Following Straus’ announcement Wednesday, state Rep. Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, and one of Straus’ key lieutenants, told the Quorum Report that he won’t run for re-election either. Cook chairs the powerful House Committee on State Affairs committee.
Straus has been unapologetic about his leadership, which he characterized as “working across party lines.” The House derailed Senate efforts to pass laws banning transgender-friendly bathroom bills and to use state money to support private school tuition.
“But we have accomplished what I had hoped the House would accomplish when I first entered this office, and I am increasingly eager to contribute to our state in new and different ways,” he said in the email.
“Instead of acting on behalf of the entire House, I will now have a greater opportunity to express my own views and priorities. I will also continue to work for a Republican Party that tries to bring Texans together instead of us pulling us apart,” he said in the email. “Our party should be dynamic and forward-thinking, and it should appeal to our diverse population with an optimistic vision that embraces the future. I plan to be a voice for Texans who want a more constructive and unifying approach to our challenges, from the White House on down.”