AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Texas' moderate Republican House speaker abruptly announced his retirement Wednesday, clearing the way for the ruling GOP in the nation's largest conservative state to lurch further to the right.
The departure of Joe Straus, 58, sent shockwaves through the Texas Capitol and removes a check on conservative Republicans such as Gov. Greg Abbott, who had grown publicly critical of the House leader. Straus was best-known for thwarting a bathroom bill this year targeting transgender people that had been championed by groups on the far right. He also slowed Abbott's proposed tax cuts, immigration crackdown and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private and religious schools.
Straus bemoaned politics growing more "tribal and divisive" in a parting shot that echoed the forceful condemnation Republican U.S. Sen Jeff Flake of Arizona gave the GOP in announcing his retirement Tuesday. Without him, Texas Republicans could embrace many policies that gave rise to President Donald Trump.
"Bread and butter issues that are important to people is what I want to continue to be talking about," Straus told reporters in his Capitol office. "Some of the other ideas that I didn't think were the best, if I played a role in keeping them from happening, some people appreciate that."
Straus is a friend of the Bush family who has remained a traditional business-friendly Republican while the Texas GOP has embraced social issues. One telling sign of his place in Texas Republican politics: Straus announced his retirement in Austin as Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick were set to appear with Trump at a Dallas fundraiser.
Straus served a record-tying five terms as Texas speaker. But mounting pressure from the GOP's ascendant social conservative wing made his prospects of leading the House again in 2019 far from certain. The Republican Party in Bexar County, which includes Straus' hometown of San Antonio, this summer approved a resolution calling for a "change of leadership in the Texas House" while conservative groups promised to spend big to defeat Straus and his allies during the upcoming Republican primary in March.
Some of the sharpest criticism came from Patrick, who oversees the Texas Senate, and repeatedly called Straus a closet Democrat. Patrick even said that if Straus had been at the Battle of the Alamo he would have chickened out.
"Thank goodness Travis didn't have the speaker at the Alamo," Patrick said in August, meaning Col. William Barrett Travis, the leader of the Texas forces during the doomed battle against the Mexican army in 1836. "He might have been the first one over the wall."
A defining moment for Straus as House speaker came this year when he twice scuttled a North Carolina-style proposal that would have required transgender Texans to use public restrooms according to the gender on their birth certificates. Straus was forceful in denouncing the bill on moral grounds and predicting economic blowback if it passed. Major corporations such as Apple, Amazon and Google opposed the bill.
Texas conservatives immediately seized on Straus' departure to issue a call for action.
"Now isn't the time to celebrate, it's time to escalate," activist Michael Quinn Sullivan said in an email to supporters.
Jockeying to succeed Straus began immediately, even though the Texas Legislature is not scheduled to meet again until January 2019.
Republican Rep. John Zerwas, a Straus lieutenant who previously pushed unsuccessfully for Texas to expand Medicaid as part of the Obama administration's signature health care law, announced that that he plans to run for speaker. Others are expected to eventually jump into the race.
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.
Democrats haven't won a statewide office in Texas since 1994 — the nation's longest losing streak — and had grown reliant on Straus to stop legislation that they viewed as the most extreme.
"Compassionate conservatism is no more and Trumpism has infected every corner of the Grand Ole Party," said Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party.
Straus said he plans to serve the rest of his term ending in December 2018 and will campaign and fundraise for "responsible Republicans." He said that it was doubtful he will seek statewide office in 2018 even though some might like to see him run for governor.
"It's been decades since someone has left the Speaker's office on his own terms," Straus said. "But we have accomplished what I had hoped the House would accomplish when I first entered this office, and I am increasingly eager to contribute to our state in new and different ways."
This story has been corrected to show his term is due to expire December 2018, not 2019.