Two San Antonio-area politicians – one out of office and the other about to be – could form a powerful force in Texas Republican politics – on one condition. We’ll get to the condition below, but first let’s talk about the politicians.
They are former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus and about-to-be former U.S. Rep. Will Hurd of Helotes. Both have established records as conservative, practical elected officials who are determined to make government work.
As House speaker until two years ago, Straus led such efforts as funding Texas’ future water needs and reforming and stabilizing public school finance, while squelching cultural hothouse issues such as bathroom bills.
Hurd, a former CIA officer who managed to get a seat on the House Intelligence Committee, is especially committed to taking on such issues as cybersecurity and the future of artificial intelligence. His stated reason for leaving Washington after three terms is that he feels he can be more effective working on these issues in the private sector than as a relatively powerless member of the House minority in a pathologically partisan Congress.
Both have pleasing, reasonable personalities and are immensely popular among more moderate Republicans, independents, and even moderate Democrats. Straus induced Democrats in the Alamo Heights area to vote in the Republican primary whenever he had a right-wing opponent. Hurd was able to hold onto Texas’s most competitive congressional district in a presidential election year, when Democrats traditionally turn out in much larger numbers than in non-presidential elections. Hurd also has been a master at getting national attention, appearing regularly on Sunday morning talk shows and famously basking in internet buzz during a 2017 road trip to Washington with then-El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke.
Both Hurd and Straus have set up political action committees to help them stay relevant by supporting like-minded candidates and possibly, at some later date, their own campaigns. Hurd’s has a clunky moniker: Having Unwavering Resolve and Determination PAC. HURD PAC, get it? Straus has two political action committees with more than $10 million left over from 10 years in the money magnet office of House speaker.
Hurd, who in August announced his decision not to run for reelection, is anything but coy about getting back into politics in the future. He told Evan Smith of The Texas Tribune that he might consider running for president. But, as his road-trip buddy Beto found out, running for president as a former House member is very much a long shot.
A run for the U.S. Senate – with more power than a congressman in a body likely to still have a Republican majority – would be more attainable for Hurd, especially if U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz decides to repeat his pursuit of the White House in 2024 after the only man who bested him in the 2016 Republican primary is gone.
Meanwhile, Straus is maintaining not only his political action committees but also an active speaking schedule, including appearing Friday on a panel discussing bipartisanship at the Rivard Report‘s San Antonio CityFest. There’s considerable reason to believe he could seek the governor or lieutenant governor’s office if a serious opportunity arose.
Which brings us to The Condition, the event that would make a statewide office possible for the likes of Hurd and Straus.
It’s simple: Donald Trump is not reelected a year from now.
The statewide Republican primary has been hostile to the likes of Straus and Hurd for some time now. Even before Trump was president, Gov. Greg Abbott was so afraid of a challenge from Tea Party darling Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick that he put the bathroom bill on a special session agenda despite strong opposition from some of his most generous donors. Don’t worry, he told them privately, Joe Straus will kill it in the House.
But Trump has made the Republican primary even tougher by driving out independents who find him offensive, most especially college-educated suburban women. This was the major dynamic that led Democrats last year to pick up two Congressional seats and 12 State House seats and to push O’Rourke within less than 3 percent of Cruz at the top of the ticket.
The only path to winning a statewide Republican primary is through those suburbs. But candidates would have to forcefully separate themselves from Trump to motivate this constituency to turn out to vote for them. That strategy would be guaranteed to draw some strident and very effective tweets, and and possibly more, from the White House. In the past 10 days Trump has held rallies in Kentucky and Mississippi to support gubernatorial candidates who have pledged fidelity.
A second Trump term is likely to make the nation even more divided than it is today. On the other hand, a Trump loss could make Republicans more inclined to feel the need to once again expand a party that the president has been shrinking. And a very liberal Democrat could push independents toward the Republican primary and energize anti-Trump Republicans who had lost their political enthusiasm.
Don’t look for Hurd and Straus to back a Democrat next year. But do look for them to be ready to saddle up if one should win. They still wouldn’t necessarily be frontrunners in a party whose base was built before Trump came down the escalator. But they just might have a shot.