Moderate Republicans could temper caucus’ choice for House speaker


Runoff results might keep moderate House Republicans in a position to thwart a more conservative speaker pick.

So far, three Republicans and one Democrat are vying for the position.

The results in key GOP Texas House runoffs last week promise to reverberate later this year, when House Republicans meet to select a preferred candidate for House speaker.

In a handful of Republican runoff contests, moderates prevailed over more conservative candidates, which could favor a choice more in line with retiring Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, who was a bulwark against socially conservative legislation such as bills limiting bathroom use for transgender people.

The runoffs, said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, “kept the balance of power within the House from moving more to the right than where it was.”

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The November general election also will be a test for moderate Republicans, with the party expected to lose as few as one or two seats and as many as 10 seats in the House, Jones said. Moderate Republicans hold most of those competitive seats, including an open one in Williamson County.

Republicans hold a 94-55 edge in the House, so they aren’t in danger of losing their majority.

But the results in those races matter because House Republicans agreed last year to meet this December, before the next regular session starts, to select the party’s pick for speaker. Most members of the Republican caucus have agreed to vote for the lawmaker who receives a supermajority of support for speaker. That process is likely to sideline Democrats when the House convenes in early January to vote for a new speaker.

The House speaker controls the flow of legislation by appointing committee chairs and presiding over House proceedings. Straus clashed frequently with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate and aggressively pushed a more conservative agenda.

The candidates

Three Republicans and one Democrat, so far, are running for speaker:

State Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, announced his candidacy for speaker before Straus announced in October that he wasn’t running for re-election. King, chairman of the Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, has served in the House since 1999.

King’s platform includes limiting speakers to three terms and committee chairs to three consecutive terms, forcing debate on certain bills and making committee assignments known within 15 days of House rules being adopted.

King is an attorney and a former police officer.

• State Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, is chairman of the Appropriations Committee. He’s been a state lawmaker since 2007.

Zerwas, a physician, said as speaker he would foster good relationships with the Senate and Gov. Greg Abbott. In the chamber, he said, he would focus on education funding, repairing the state’s foster care system and promoting a business-friendly environment in the state. Zerwas is most closely aligned with Straus among the speaker candidates.

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• State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, who was first elected to the House in 2006, is chairman of the Investments and Financial Services Committee. He also is a former chairman of the Texas House Republican Caucus.

“I am ready to continue to serve Texas in a new leadership role bringing a unified effort for the betterment of our members and this great state,” Parker, a businessman, said in a statement.

• State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, has been a member of the Texas House since 2010 and is vice chairman of the Redistricting Committee.

“What Texas needs is a strong, pro-growth, progressive leader presiding over the Texas House to act as a counterbalance to a far-right governor and lieutenant governor,” Johnson, an attorney, said in a statement.

Johnson is best known for his public fight with state officials — unsuccessful so far — to have a Confederate plaque removed from the Capitol.

The odds

Zerwas’ path to speaker is narrow. Because of his ties to Straus, Zerwas will have a harder time winning the support of a majority of members of his own party. But if moderate Republicans revolt from supporting the party’s preferred choice, Zerwas could build a Straus-like coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans.

King and Parker are conservative Republicans who also could appeal to moderates, making them likelier choices, Jones said.

Having more moderates in the caucus gives the faction more power in opposing a more conservative candidate who could emerge later, Jones said.

As for Johnson, a liberal Democrat, “there’s no way he becomes speaker,” Jones said.

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