AUSTIN, Texas — The unexpected retirement of the leading moderate Republican in Texas politics comes as Democrats struggle to find candidates to fill a statewide ballot for 2018 while unwavering conservatives emboldened by President Donald Trump line up big donors and face few party rivals.
Republican House Speaker Joe Straus made the surprise departure announcement Wednesday just after his national profile soared because he scuttled a North Carolina-style "bathroom bill" targeting transgender people.
Even the ACLU of Texas — usually a combatant with the ruling Texas GOP — tweeted its gratitude as Straus announced his exit.
Powerless Texas Democrats came to rely on the pragmatic five-term speaker as a check on some conservative measures, even as Straus allowed Texas to pass others such as immigration crackdowns, anti-abortion measures and voting restrictions that are among the toughest in the U.S.
The stakes over his successor are high, because, for Democrats and a weakened class of GOP moderates in Texas, the odds of making gains in other elections next year are long.
"Joe Straus saved Texas, and now that he's gone there are no brakes," said Andrew White, a Houston investor exploring a run for governor because no credible Democratic candidate has stepped up.
"We're an out of control 18-wheeler. If we don't do anything about it, it just gets more and more extreme from here," said White, whose father was governor in the 1980s and died earlier this year.
Texas already is the nation's most populous Republican-led state and no Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.
Conservatives who have pushed the Texas GOP to the right in recent years see Straus' departure as an opportunity. They and wealthy donors crave new House leadership that would finally push over the goal line a raft of long-stalled campaign promises, including giving state funds to private and religious schools.
Their wish list under a more conservative House leader also includes repeal a measure that allows in-state college tuition for some immigrants in the U.S. illegally, and passing the bathroom bill targeting transgender people. Conservatives might also tighten spending in a state that critics already say is running so lean that it is fraying the social safety net.
Conservative Gov. Greg Abbott is sitting on more than $40 million in campaign funds even though he has no serious opponent for next year. Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who controls the Senate and was the chairman of Trump's presidential campaign in Texas, is being challenged by a Democrat who lost his 2014 bid for state comptroller by 20 points.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, one of the most conservative members of the Senate, senses opportunity back home. "I think it was unfortunate that we did not have a House in Texas that was leading on strong conservative policies," he told Lubbock radio station KFYO on Thursday.
All 150 Texas House members choose the speaker at the start of the term by a majority vote — meaning chamber Democrats who are outnumbered 95-55 can have a significant say in who wins. One Straus ally who quickly announced his candidacy for speaker is Republican Rep. John Zerwas, who previously pushed unsuccessfully for Texas to expand the Medicaid program for the poor as part of the Obama administration's signature health care law.
Zerwas, who is now the ranking budget-writer in the Texas House, deflected questions about proposals such as the transgender bill and school vouchers that have roiled the Texas GOP in recent years and made Straus a target of deep-pocketed conservative groups. He defended how Straus governed.
"I do think the speaker has been very fair in allowing the House to run and do their business. It would be my ambition to really emulate that philosophy that the House is made up of 149 other capable individuals," Zerwas said.
Straus said he plans to serve the rest of his term ending in December 2018 and will campaign and fundraise for other Republicans. He expressed doubt that he will seek statewide office in 2018 even though he said some might like to see him run for governor.
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