Loving the state you represent is not a unique phenomenon in Congress. But, as Texas Republicans are just dying to tell you, everything is bigger in the Lone Star State.
Republican House members punctuate their $300 suits with gimmicky $3 Texas-themed ties. They sit together on the House floor during votes as a sign of solidarity. And they hold weekly lunches to socialize and celebrate just how Texan they are.
Texas Republicans talk about the state like it’s a different country — it was, they’ll be happy to remind you, once an independent republic. (Rep. John Culberson, the Republican who represents west Houston, said it’s “genetically Texan” to remember that the state was once its own nation.)
But how does a state delegation translate its state pride — state worship, really — into congressional power?
In hallway interviews with more than 20 Texas representatives, Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry, the Lone Star State politicians all insisted there was something special about their state, that the relationships they share with their Texas colleagues go deeper than the bonds in other states, and that because of their unity and because they come from Texas, they are the strongest delegation.
With 24 Republican members, Texas has the clout to bend the Republican Conference to its will.
Easily the largest GOP delegation, Texas is poised to add to its collection of committee gavels next year, and, maybe, wage a fight for the upper rungs of House leadership.
Texas holds five of 21 full committee chairmanships already. And next year, with Rep. Mac Thornberry expected to take the gavel of the Armed Services Committee, it could have six chairmen — with K. Michael Conaway also expected to trade his Ethics gavel for the Agriculture Committee.
That’s assuming one of the delegation’s current chairmen, such as Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling or Rules Chairman Pete Sessions, doesn’t snag a spot in leadership first.
The whispers are mounting that Hensarling, a former conference chairman, could launch a bid for the speaker’s gavel or majority leader. He was recently asked whether he might run for leadership at a fundraiser at Carmine’s. Hensarling’s answer? “Next question.”
Sessions, with his two stints as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, is also said to be pondering a run for majority whip.
Whether either of them will actually seek a spot is an open question — they might be, as Texans are fond of saying, “all hat and no cattle.”
It takes more than desire to win a leadership race, and it’s unclear whether Hensarling, Sessions or any other Texas Republican has that. But if any Texan did mount a challenge, they’d have a natural constituency.
Asked if there was an unspoken alliance among Texas Republicans regarding leadership elections, Sessions could barely wait for the question to end before answering it.
“We’re stickin’ together because we see the world that way,” he said. “It’s indigenous to us. It’s just the way we are.”
At the end of 2012, when it wasn’t clear that any Texan would be sitting in the GOP’s weekly leadership meeting, the delegation looked poised to raise a stink if Sessions didn’t take the Rules gavel. Speaker John A. Boehner was considering giving the chairmanship to Doc Hastings, R-Wash., but Sessions maneuvered, “joking” with reporters that he might want to stick around for a third term as the head of the NRCC. It was, perhaps, a trite but true message sent to the speaker: Don’t mess with Texas.
No word yet on whether Sessions is up for another battle, but unlike Hensarling, his children are grown — and the long hours and demanding requirements of leadership might not seem as daunting.
Almost every Texas Republican polled agreed that a Texan running for leadership would weigh heavily in their support.
“Absolutely,” said Rep. Kay Granger, who is considered one of the more levelheaded members of the delegation. Pressed on whether a Texan might be running for leadership, she responded with a wry shrug, “It could be.”
The dean of the delegation, Joe L. Barton — who emphatically said “Oh, you bet” when asked if he’d be inclined to back a Texan — unsuccessfully challenged Boehner for minority leader after Republicans lost the majority in 2006. All but “three or four” Texas Republicans, according to Rep. Kenny Marchant, supported Barton. (Marchant said he, Culberson and Sam Johnson were among those for Boehner.)
Barton said no one has broached the topic of leadership elections during the weekly Thursday lunch with Texas Republicans — yet.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., who hasn’t been a fan of Boehner, recently said there was chatter among conservatives about Hensarling running for speaker, particularly after he cut a $1 million check to the NRCC. He noted a speaker has to do a lot of fundraising.
“People like Hensarling have shown they can raise money — and they’re willing to share it,” he said.
Huelskamp said Hensarling is viewed as a “compromise candidate” among many conservatives, noting that he might be one of the few members who could upset the leadership order.
“Well if you got 24 votes in your back pocket,” Huelskamp mused. “I’m not saying he does or he doesn’t.”
Indeed, support might not be monolithic.
Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul said Texans are “always going to want to support one of our own in a leadership race.”But he added: “Many of us in the Texas delegation are close to the current leadership, and the speaker particularly, so that could present a difficult choice if that happened.”
Rep. Blake Farenthold agreed, saying, “generally,” Texans support Texans running for leadership, “unless there’s a very good reason not to.”
We are the largest Republican delegation in the conference, and quite frankly, I’d like to see us exercise that clout a little bit more, ” he said.
If the party breakdown in the House remains about the same for the 114th Congress, the clout of those 24 votes alone would be enough to throw a speaker election to a second ballot, which itself would be its own footnote in congressional history — and that clout extends beyond 24 votes.
A senior GOP aide noted that chairmen “generally have their own fiefdom among their committee members on any vote, leadership races included.”
With those five chairmanships — perhaps soon to be six (or seven, if the stars somehow align for Kevin Brady on Ways and Means, or eight, if, miraculously, Louie Gohmert takes over Natural Resources) — a Texan could be a legitimate challenger for a leadership position, especially if Texans could wrangle support from the committees they control.
The NRCC money doesn’t hurt either. Thanks to the Texas legislature’s creative district lines — “We use the word ‘packed,’” Marchant said — there is really only one competitive district in Texas: the 23rd, represented by Democrat Pete Gallego.
That means Texas Republicans are free to give a healthy amount of their re-election spoils — and their fundraising time — to the NRCC and to other members.
All those factors give Texas tremendous influence — and Lone Star State members aren’t shy about it.
“We are an important damn delegation,” Rep. Michael C. Burgess said. “You know, the California members are sometimes jealous.”
This is Part I of an ongoing series on the Texas Republican delegation.