AUSTIN (AP) – Republican House Speaker Joe Straus and several of his top lieutenants attempted to beat back challenges from the far right during nominating contests in Texas, the largest of the 12 states that make up Super Tuesday.
Straus has led the Republican-dominated chamber since 2009 and has faced previous primary challenges in his San Antonio district. But this time, he had to wage a very expensive campaign to defend his record on immigration and abortion and confront criticism that he’s too cozy with Democrats.
His main challenger, business consultant Jeff Judson, received significant support from Alice Walton, heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune, and west Texas natural gas entrepreneur Farris Wilks. Judson’s campaign also dipped into sensitive areas of religion, saying that Straus, who is Jewish, didn’t connect with Christian conservative voters. Also in the race was former school teacher Sheila Bean.
And several committee chairmen in Straus’ leadership team also were under attack in a coordinated, well-funded effort to push out Republicans who tea party activists considered not conservative enough for Texas. They include Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, and Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, chairman of the House Administration Committee. Cook is also a key witness in the securities fraud felony indictment against Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Between them, Straus, Cook and Geren have spent more than $7 million on their re-election campaigns.
Tea party-backed conservatives have been pushing Texas further right in recent years and made Straus their main target in efforts to purify party efforts when the Legislature convenes in 2017.
The House speaker is elected by the chamber’s membership. Republicans have held majority control since 2002 and currently have a 98-52 advantage over Democrats. Those numbers are unlikely to change in the general election, making the Republican primary the major sparring ground over policy and ideological purity within the party.
But ultra-conservative lawmakers also had to watch their flanks Tuesday night. Several leading tea party voices faced challenges from more moderate alternatives. Any losses there could strengthen Straus’ grip on the chamber if he wins another term.
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