When Mike Ditka canceled a speaking engagement last month at the annual conference hosted by the Texas Public Policy Foundation, organizers of the sold-out event were fortunate to find someone else from the NFL to fill in on short notice. As it happened, their last-minute substitute ended up giving the most talked-about speech at the multi-day confab in Austin, which featured speakers such as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and Texas senator Ted Cruz.
Ditka’s replacement was Scott Turner, a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives who was elected in 2012 and hails from the Dallas suburb of Richardson. Before becoming a member of the legislature, Turner logged eight seasons in the NFL, playing defensive back for the Denver Broncos, Washington Redskins, and San Diego Chargers. Though not yet known to the national media and Acela-corridor crowd, Representative Turner is one of the nation’s most promising GOP stars.
Turner, age 42, is a skilled public speaker who knows how to captivate an audience. In his Austin speech, Turner’s central message was that Texas “should not be content with just being better than other states.” Turner implored his colleagues in the legislature not to settle for being the best in some rankings, but to strive to make Texas number one in all metrics of economic success and competitiveness.
Most stories written about Texas by Manhattan- and D.C.-based reporters portray the state as a bastion of conservatism, and while the Lone Star State’s legislature is politically to the right of most, the House is run by Straus — a moderate, some would even say liberal. Straus came to power in 2009 by cobbling together a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to topple his much more conservative predecessor, Tom Craddick.
The impact Straus’s speakership has had on policy outcomes in the U.S.’s second largest economy has been real and significant. Take the state’s current biennial budget, which was approved last year. Conservative legislators, organizations, and activists have been highly critical of what Speaker Straus did with the $20 billion of unexpected surplus revenue that lawmakers were confronted with.
“This may be the first time in history that a state experienced a rush of new tax collections and lowered its reserve fund,” wrote the Wall Street Journal editorial board shortly after the current budget was passed in the summer of 2013, adding that the new budget “also allowed an end run around the state’s constitutional spending cap. . . . This is the kind of stunt one would expect from Nancy Pelosi. The budget contains a roughly $1 billion tax cut, but for every $1 of tax relief, $19 in new revenue will be spent.”
Texas is in the middle of the pack on the Mercatus Center’s recently released Fiscal Condition Index, which measures states’ ability to meet their financial obligations based on a number of factors, such as cash solvency, budget solvency, and long-run solvency.
All of this makes Turner’s challenge to Straus, and his message that Texas should not rest on her laurels, even more compelling. Turner has the most conservative voting record in the Texas House of Representatives by most measures. He has top billing on nearly every legislative scorecard put out by right-leaning organizations. For the 2013 legislative session, Turner received a perfect 100 percent on one of the most influential ratings in the state, the Empower Texans Fiscal Responsibility Index.
Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, agrees with Turner that Texas is not living up to its full potential. “Sure we outperform most states, but other states, all of which face serious fiscal challenges, are not the standard by which Texas should judge itself,” says Sullivan. “Just because a guy is the least drunk person at the bar, doesn’t mean he should drive home.”
Much reporting has been done on the concerted and well-funded Democratic effort to turn Texas blue. But since it would take several election cycles for Democrats, even if they were successful, to achieve such an ambitious goal, many Texas Republicans see the upcoming March GOP primaries, in which a number of moderate, Straus-backed candidates are going up against conservatives, as the more immediate fight. As Sullivan sees it, anyone who says the effort to turn Texas blue is strictly a November problem is flat-out wrong: “Liberals and establishment Republicans are at work right now undermining Republican primaries.”
While taking down the Straus machine is a daunting challenge, it’s one that many Austin insiders believe Turner is best suited to take on. Those who spend a lot of time at the Texas capitol note that Turner is a strong conservative who is not abrasive and is skilled at promoting conservative policies and principles in a manner that doesn’t rub people who disagree with him the wrong way. Amongst his colleagues, Turner is well liked by both Republicans and Democrats and is considered thoughtful and hardworking.
Though the race won’t be decided for another year, Turner’s bid for speaker is already having an impact on the upcoming March GOP primaries. As the Texas Tribune recently reported, the “timing is more provocative than the candidacy itself, because it could force candidates in the Republican primary for the House to declare their preference for a sitting speaker perceived as a moderate or for an alternative. . . . It’s not about the speaker’s race. It’s about those primaries.” If a few more Straus acolytes bite the dust in 2014, as happened two years ago, expect Turner’s bid to gain more traction, and expect more legislators to believe that it is safe to go into the water when it comes to lining up against Straus.
One thing is clear: If Turner takes the speaker’s gavel next year, there will be a new and very bright rising star in Texas and national politics.
-— Patrick M. Gleason is director of state affairs at Americans for Tax Reform.
editor’s note: This article has been amended since its initial publication.