GOP Right Flexes Muscles in State Legislative Maneuvering

Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal
Photo by John Hanna, the Associated Press
Kansas House Speaker Mike O'Neal

For the past two years, Mike O'Neal has served as speaker of the Kansas House of Representatives. Now he'll actually be in charge.

O'Neal is a conservative Republican. A coalition of Democrats and GOP moderates teamed up to cut him out of the budget-writing process for two years running. Earlier this year, they moved through the House a temporary 1 cent sales tax increase — something that conservatives like O'Neal reviled.

Today, that coalition is dead. Republicans netted 16 seats in the Kansas House on Nov. 2, expanding their advantage over Democrats to a margin of 92-to-33. Even with roughly the same number of moderate Republicans returning, there won't be enough of them to come close to cobbling out a majority with Democrats. For many years, moderate and conservative Republicans have fought with each other in Kansas. In the 2010 election, the conservatives won a clear victory. "We will have a working majority," O'Neal declares.

In the Kansas House, the shift towards conservatives is subtle. It doesn't involve a change in leadership. Elsewhere, it's more dramatic. Conservative insurgents are challenging establishment Republicans for Senate presidencies and House speakerships in state after state, trying to move legislative power to the right. During Republican primaries this year, GOP legislators perceived as moderate were challenged from the right by candidates who claimed Tea Party loyalties. Now that the election is over, those battles have moved to statehouse chambers. 

Conservatives aren't winning all of these fights. They are winning enough of them, though, to make it clear that this month's elections didn't just shift power from Democrats to Republicans. They also shifted power to the right within the Republican caucuses. 

Brawl in Texas

Even before Republicans had finished celebrating their victories on Election Day, it was clear that a new contest had begun for the direction of the GOP at the state level. The day after the election, Nevada state Senator Mike McGinness signaled that he was challenging Minority Leader Bill Raggio to lead the Senate's Republican caucus. It didn't matter that Raggio had served as Republican leader in the Senate since 1982, or that he was commonly agreed to be the state's most powerful legislator, or that there was a statue of him in Reno-Tahoe International Airport. He'd strayed from the party line by working with Democrats on tax increases and endorsing U.S. Senator Harry Reid's reelection as a Democrat over Tea Party challenger Sharron Angle. By the end of the week, Raggio was out.

The story was much the same in the New Hampshire House, where Republicans denied the speakership to a 15-term representative who had previously held the office, and elected a new speaker best known for his conservative stands on social issues. It was similar in the Missouri Senate, where conservatives withheld the Senate presidency from the majority floor leader, who's typically next in line.

There are some chambers, such as the Tennessee House and the Montana House, where establishment leadership candidates have held on. And some of the contests have ended amicably enough — Raggio even voted for McGinness for minority leader to make the GOP decision in Nevada unanimous. But others have gotten ugly, with perhaps none uglier than the race for speaker of the House in Texas.

There, Speaker Joe Straus faces an odd problem: His caucus just got bigger. After the 2008 elections, Republicans' majority fell to a slim majority of 76-to-74. Now it will be 99-to-51. That's a problem for Straus because it has emboldened conservative activists in the state to believe that it's time for all of their wishes to be fulfilled. Getting rid of Straus is one of their wishes.

Straus became speaker two years ago by deposing Tom Craddick, whom many members of his own party considered an autocrat. To defeat Craddick, Straus secured the votes of some Democrats. He also appointed Democrats as committee chairs. The more conservative faction of House Republicans felt he didn't give much attention to their top priorities: tougher immigration restrictions, a bill to require voters to show their IDs at the polls and a bill to require women to view sonograms before having an abortion.

Straus's defenders say that the death of conservative legislation wasn't the speaker's fault, and note that bipartisan committee leadership is a longstanding tradition in Texas. Still, to his critics, Straus is an accommodationist, at a time when Republicans' expanded majority makes accommodation unnecessary.

As a result, conservative groups are waging a grassroots pressure campaign against Straus, bombarding lawmakers with calls asking them to reject him for one of his more conservative opponents, either Warren Chisum or Bill Paxton. The opponents are calling Straus a RINO — a "Republican in name only." They're pointing out that his wife has served as a board member of the pro-choice organization Planned Parenthood. An influential conservative activist wrote a message that some saw as a pointed reminder of Straus' Jewish faith, saying that "Chisum and Paxton, who are Christians and true conservatives, have risen to the occasion to challenge Joe Straus for leadership." Both Chisum and Paxton have condemned any anti-Semitism in the campaign.

Straus hasn't been gentle with his opponents. He began a letter earlier this month to Chisum by asking, "Have you no shame?" He is expected to survive. Still, the schism within the House GOP won't end quickly.  "It's a battle for the soul of the state Republican Party between the social conservatives and the mainstream conservatives," says Paul Burka, senior executive editor of Texas Monthly .

High hopes

In Kansas, the same circumstance that is causing Straus trouble in Texas — a larger Republican caucus — is a boon to Speaker O'Neal. Coupled with the election of a Republican governor, outgoing U.S. Senator Sam Brownback, O'Neal's growing authority gives him a chance to enact a long list of bills that he and other conservatives favor. At least, that's what he hopes.

O'Neal's list includes a crackdown on illegal immigration, new late-term abortion restrictions, a challenge to the individual mandates in the federal health insurance law, a voter ID requirement, and approval of a new "Office of the Repealer," an idea conceived by Brownback to eliminate government regulations. The most intriguing question, though, may be what the state decides to do on taxes.

On the campaign trail, Brownback criticized the sales tax increase. So did the Republican House candidates whose victories have bulged O'Neal's caucus. To some conservatives, the message is simple. "I ran on repealing the sales tax increase because I didn't think it was necessary," says state Representative Owen Donohoe. "We said it was bad. We said it was a job killer. We should get rid of this. That's what we told the people at the time."

Yet there's a strong possibility the sales tax increase won't be repealed. The Kansas Senate is one reason. It didn't hold regular elections this year, so it will have roughly the same membership that approved the tax in the 2010 session, including the same moderate Republican Senate president, Stephen Morris. 

But that isn't the only reason why. Despite his opposition, the new governor has said he's not interested in undoing the tax. Brownback, known as a strong conservative during his years in Washington, has appointed notable moderates to his transition team. "He has told me and others that he's very concerned about jobs, but he's also very concerned about education," Morris says. "I see him as being fairly progressive in those areas." The sales tax hike was approved as a means of limiting budget cuts to education, which represents two-thirds of Kansas' general fund spending.

The situation in Kansas reflects the challenge, at least on fiscal issues, that newly empowered conservatives will have living up to the expectations of their most dedicated supporters. Leaders such as Brownback face a difficult task in keeping faith with conservative supporters without cutting government so far as to endanger services that most of the public cherishes. Even if conservatives win most of the internal fights going on right now in GOP legislative caucuses, the policy implications won't be clear cut.

Still, O'Neal is sanguine. He says that even if the sales tax isn't repealed, the House will be looking at cuts to personal and corporate income taxes. Even if there are some disappointments, he says, conservatives will still be relieved that the moderate coalition in the House is gone and the state has a Republican governor after eight years of Democrats. " Heavens, they would much rather have Sam Brownback," O'Neal says. "Will he satisfy every pent-up expectation or demand of the conservatives? No."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said that the letter in the Texas speaker's contest was written by an operative for Empower Texans. The author of the letter didn't write it in behalf of Empower Texans. 


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