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Former Speaker Strauss Says “Ineffectual Democratic Party” Partially to Blame for Extreme Rightward Drift in Texas

No one denies that Texas state politics have moved sharply to the right in the last several election cycles, partially driven by an increased appetite for Christian nationalism in the state and funding from oil and gas billionaires to pay for it. However, former Speaker of the Texas House Joe Straus says that an “ineffectual Democratic Party” is also to blame.

The former speaker, who served in that role from 2009 to 2019, sat down with Evan Smith at the LBJ School for Public Affairs this week for an interview. He told Smith that some big Democratic wins on the state level would “get the attention” of Republicans, such as when major offices were flipped in 2018 and 2019.

Those were the years Beto O’Rourke came within a few points of toppling Sen. Ted Cruz, Lina Hidalgo assumed leadership of Harris County (the most populous in the state), Houston’s 7th District flipped Democratic, and an unprecedented number of Black women won judgeships.

While Democrats ultimately failed to capture any major statewide offices, it was a modest blue wave that had many Republicans running scared. They would spend the next several years cracking down hard on voting rights and access to stave off any further loss of electoral power.

It has largely worked. O’Rourke failed against Governor Greg Abbott, a senate challenge to John Cornyn fizzled without fanfare, and hard right Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sailed to an easy re-election despite being under indictment and federal investigation. Democrats in the state clearly could not capitalize on the momentum and ceased to be a check on Republican power.

This led to widespread intra-party fighting on the right, which Straus has observed from afar with dismay.

“It’s too bad the governor took on all these members who are 99 percent with him,” says Straus.

He was referring to Abbott’s infamous revenge actions against rural Republicans who opposed his plan to use public money for private school tuitions. His school voucher scheme would have funneled millions of dollars from public schools into the coffers of mostly urban and suburban wealthy Christian schools. Rural Republicans joined Democrats in opposition, fearful of what would happen to their local schools if vouchers passed.

Abbott responded to this perceived betrayal by attempting to primary those who had opposed him. Results were mixed-to-poor, but the damage to party unity was done. Without Democrats to unite them, Republican leadership has become entirely a fight between moderates and extremists.

Straus points specifically to anti-LGBT bills that have become a favorite tool for pushing extreme right-wing agendas. According to him, it’s left LGBT Texans “borderline persecuted,” and it harms Republicans in the long run.

“Where’s the humanity in that?” he says. “And why is it such an obsession? Time  and time again, they try to find some niche thing they think will play well in the primary when…it’s rooted in plain indecency.”

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.

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