Texas House Speaker Joe Straus waits for his next photo opportunity as he stands next to an American flag. Photo by Scott Ball.
Former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus has been named as a possible challenger to Gov. Greg Abbott in the 2022 elections. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

For former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, there have been few days since leaving office in 2019 without supporters and friends urging him to run again. That desire is especially keen among moderate Republican voters who lament the party’s hard turn to the right.

Most of the buzz, or call it wishful thinking at this juncture, centers on Straus challenging Gov. Greg Abbott, although the possibility of taking on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick also gets raised for reasons explored below.

State Rep. Lyle Larson (R-San Antonio) added his voice to the chorus in this commentary published last week on the San Antonio Report. Larson, a popular and moderate six-term Republican, easily defeated a 2018 primary candidate backed by Abbott. Now, the Express-News’ Gilbert Garcia reports Larson himself might not seek a seventh term in the Texas House.

Friends say Straus would welcome a return to public service. He’s also a realist, mindful of the ever-shrinking space for moderate voices in the Republican Party. He is patiently weighing his options as Texas legislators, recessed for the Labor Day weekend, await Abbott calling them back to Austin for a third special session to address redistricting this fall.

Only when that session concludes, one Republican political consultant told me, will Straus be able to gain an accurate read of the political landscape. That means a decision before October is highly unlikely.

At least one statewide poll shows Abbott’s approval ratings have slipped as the delta variant of the coronavirus has spiked across the state, with the governor choosing to do little beyond promoting “personal responsibility” even as he was infected with the virus.

With hospitals spilling over with COVID-19 patients, almost all unvaccinated, and infection and mortality rates continuing to rise, Abbott’s position, intended to appease his party’s hard core, seems riskier and riskier. Even so, Abbott has doubled down on his opposition to mandatory vaccines and mask use and continues to oppose any local mandates issued by city, county, and public school officials, or public health officials.

Polls also show that a majority of Texans opposed the restrictive voter law Abbott has signed into law, versions of which passed in multiple red states by Republican-controlled legislatures in the wake of false claims of voter fraud and former President Trump’s claim the November 2020 election was stolen.

The public might be even more opposed to the new law making it all but impossible for women to get a legal abortion in Texas, legislation that drew fierce criticism from the Texas Medical Association. Even gaining access to abortion-inducing medication has been stymied.

It will be interesting to see how voters view Abbott, Patrick, and House Speaker Dade Phelan as the pandemic continues into the fall and people see their utility bills climb even as state officials failed to implement more comprehensive changes to management of the state’s vulnerable energy grid.

Does all of this give Straus an opening? Perhaps, perhaps not. Abbott has a growing war chest that exceeds $55 million; Patrick probably has about half that much and the capacity to raise even more. Straus is an effective fundraiser, but challenging either Abbott or Patrick could easily turn into the most expensive statewide campaign ever waged in Texas.

As governor, Abbott has the bully pulpit and, as local officials learned, considerable emergency executive powers. As lieutenant governor, Patrick wields considerable influence over the budget and what bills get considered in the Legislature.

As a seasoned legislative leader who knows how to build bipartisan consensus, Straus might be more effective as lieutenant governor, making sure the legislative agenda is not hijacked by wedge issues. His presence in the Senate would force Abbott to adapt or lose control of the agenda.

The most intriguing question about a Straus run would be how many crossover Democratic and Independent voters he could attract to vote in the Republican primary. Texas is one of 17 open primary states, meaning primary voters can support candidates in either party, regardless of one’s own political affiliation. Straus would need a substantial crossover vote to overcome hardcore Republican primary voters, who tend to be the most conservative and partisan.

One Democratic political strategist told me he would openly cross over to support Straus, even if it meant alienating Democratic officeholders and party leaders. He believes others would follow in droves. Yet primaries don’t often attract droves. They tend to draw about one-third of the voters who show up for general elections. Animating large numbers to vote in the primaries would be expensive and not guaranteed to succeed.

The BexarFacts pollsters, in partnership with the San Antonio Report and KSAT-TV, will be in the field in the coming month to assess the mood of voters. The poll’s findings will offer a local rather than statewide read on the electorate. Still, it will be closely watched by Straus and his supporters as well as those who would oppose him.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.