AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Tea party-backed state Rep. David Simpson shook up the race for Texas House speaker on Monday, announcing his candidacy and immediately winning the endorsement Rep. Bryan Hughes - a fellow conservative who had spent months campaigning for the post.
Entering just his second term when the Legislature reconvenes Jan. 8, Simpson had maintained previously that he wasn't interested in challenging fellow Republican Joe Straus of San Antonio for the speakership. But he said he was persuaded to change his mind.
"For some time I have been prompted and encouraged to run for speaker," Simpson said. "After much prayer, consideration, and counsel, I made the decision to enter the race and filed the requisite paperwork."
It means yet another challenge from the right for Straus, who some grassroots conservatives say is too moderate - even though last year he helped lead one of the most conservative sessions in the Texas Legislature's history.
On the opening day of session, House members choose the speaker, who picks committee leaders and controls the flow of legislation. Straus unseated Republican Speaker Tom Craddick in 2009 and bested two challengers from within his own party to retain his post last year - winning support from GOP representatives but also from Democrats.
For re-election, Straus needs 76 votes. Republicans will hold a 95-55 advantage in the House.
Straus has spent the last several weeks crisscrossing the state and meeting with representatives, though he has yet to release a list of those pledging to support him in the speaker's race.
Straus spokeswoman Erin Daly said Monday that he "enjoys support from a majority of Republicans and Democrats in the House."
"And rather than campaigning for the position, he is focused on leading the House as we prepare for session," Daly said.
Hughes, a Republican entering his sixth term from Mineola, declared back in May that he would challenge Straus, claiming he was more conservative than the current speaker.
Hughes won endorsements from dozens of tea party groups and conservative grassroots organizations. Shortly after Simpson's announcement, however, Hughes urged his supporters to back Simpson.
"I wholeheartedly endorse my friend David Simpson," Hughes said in a statement. "David is uniquely qualified to lead the House at this pivotal time in our history."
Lawmakers from both parties had said they expected at least one more Republican, if not several more, to vie for the speakership against both Hughes and Straus. But Simpson entering and Hughes stepping aside sets up a potential showdown pitting Straus against a tea party up-and-comer.
"It's wonderful. The name of the project here is the same in both men's minds, and that is to have a conservative speaker," said Cathie Adams, president of the Texas Eagle Forum, which had endorsed Hughes.
Rather than keeping largely quiet as is the norm for freshman lawmakers, Simpson caused a stir last year by sponsoring ultimately unsuccessful legislation to criminalize "excessive touching" by screening officials during airport security pat-downs. The federal government threatened to ground all flights into and out of Texas if the bill became law, fearing it could be a security risk - and Straus dismissed Simpson's proposal, saying it would make Texas a laughing stock.
Straus angered the tea party by failing to support the airport security bill or legislation to ban so-called "sanctuary cities" for illegal immigrants that would give police more power to ask anyone they stop about their citizenship status.
Grassroots groups further faulted Straus for using what they called "financial gimmicks" to balance the state budget and for his handling of redistricting maps. Some anti-abortion groups have also questioned the speaker's loyalty, and his family is in the horse racing business, which troubles some.
"I think it comes down to liberty," Adams said. "That's why we will support Representative Hughes or Representative Simpson."
Simpson voted against Straus for speaker in 2011. Asked if Straus sought to marginalize him after that, Simpson has noted that he was assigned to the House's Urban Affairs Committee - even though his district is decided rural - and pointed to the speaker's criticism of the pat-down bill.
In his statement, Simpson said he had already won support from a number of House members. He also noted that he respects Straus but that "the culture of 'go along to get along' politics, where members face intimidation and retribution should they disagree with a leadership decision, stifles representative government."
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