For the second week in a row, a titan of San Antonio Republican politics has decided to step down.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith officially declared Thursday that he would leave Congress after more than 30 years in office. Last week, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus announced he wouldn’t seek another term.
The two men have deep connections. Back in the days when Republicans in Bexar County practically had to roam the streets searching for GOP candidates for any office, Smith and Straus’s mom, Joci, cut a path through the political wilderness.
When Smith made his first, modest run for political office — seeking the Olmos Park precinct chairmanship for the Bexar County Republican Party — the person he turned to for political advice was Joci Straus. A decade later, when Smith ran for Congress, Joci’s boy Joe served as his campaign manager.
Given that there are no accidents and few coincidences in politics, it’s natural to assume the resignation announcements of Straus and Smith are connected. Many local Democrats, who loathe Smith for his antagonistic attitude toward climate science (not to mention his hawkish views on immigration), briefly hoped that Joe Straus — with his pragmatic, bipartisan mindset — might make a move on Smith’s U.S. District 21.
Well, it’s not happening. Straus quickly made it clear he’s not running for Smith’s seat and it’s hard to blame him. After all, going from the most powerful person in the Texas House to one of 435 U.S. representatives is a demotion, any way you slice it.
State Sen. Donna Campbell, a scriptural warrior who once actually attempted to carry a bill prohibiting the Alamo from being sold to a foreign government, sounds more amenable.
Allen Blakemore, Campbell’s campaign spokesman, said: “Any list of serious candidates would have to include Sen. Campbell at this point. Open congressional seats don’t come along often and she’s prayerfully considering what’s best for her and the district.”
One snag for Campbell is that she’s up for re-election in 2018, so she would have to give up her Senate seat to run for Congress
Blakemore said he expected a quick decision from Campbell.
“She’s not one to play Hamlet,” he said.
Jeff Wentworth, a Bexar County justice of the peace and former state senator, has known Smith since they were kids attending the First Church of Christ, Scientist. Wentworth lost his Senate seat to Campbell in 2012, and he’s not enthused about the prospect of her running in District 21.
“I certainly hope not,” Wentworth said. “Only if she were to run and lose in the primary, and we would be rid of her and her inane statements.”
Lyle Larson, a four-term North Side state representative, has eyed Smith’s office over the years. He’s a folksy Straus ally who probably would command support from pragmatic, moderate Republicans, but like Straus he tends to get attacked by the Empower Texans crowd on the hard right.
Larson said he needs time to think about District 21, but added: “My inclination is to stay (in the Texas House) and keep working on water issues. I need to talk to some people about it.”
Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff, another Strausian Republican, will face some recruiting pitches from his supporters, but his interest in Congress (which once was pretty high) seems to have cooled in recent years.
Progressive Democrats will tell themselves that they successfully drove Smith out of Congress, in the same way that hard-core conservatives told themselves last week that they pushed Straus out of the Texas House.
Neither claim is correct.
Straus faced noisy but ineffectual opposition from the GOP’s right flank and his position was secure. He left on his own terms. As for Smith, he never won a general election by less than a 20 percent margin, and never faced a serious primary challenge.
Love him or hate him, Smith was a political survivor. He came of age when Republicans had little power in Texas, and they embraced moderation and bipartisanship because it meant at least they had a voice at the table. As his party became more powerful, and more dogmatic, however, Smith adjusted and became more of a partisan attack dog.
The Congress he’s leaving has become so divided, and so dysfunctional, it’s easy to wonder who’d want the job.
“Congress is a lot less appealing than serving in the Texas Legislature, in a lot of ways,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant and chairman of the Travis County GOP. “Congress is having so much trouble getting things done. It’s a very screwy time in politics. They’ve made serving in Congress about as unappealing as they possibly can.”