- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 2, 2016

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Texas Republican House Speaker Joe Straus easily fought off a challenge from the far right to win the nomination Tuesday for another term representing his San Antonio district, a victory that likely sets him up to retain his powerful post in the nation’s second most-populous state.

Straus has been speaker since 2009 and has been targeted by tea party activists ever since. He was forced this year into a very expensive campaign to prove his conservative credentials as presiding officer in a chamber that has expanded gun rights, put new restrictions on abortion and cut spending in recent years.

Straus responded with an easy victory, smashing challenges from business consultant Jeff Judson and former school teacher Sheila Bean, tea party-backed candidates who complained Straus wasn’t conservative enough and was too aligned with Democrats.

Straus noted the money that flowed into the race from sources outside the district but failed to tip the scales against him.

“Voters showed that angry rhetoric and dishonest ads are no match for a well-organized campaign that looks to a brighter future,” Straus said.

Winning the nomination virtually assures Straus another two-year term in the Legislature as he doesn’t face a Democratic challenger in November general election.

But conservatives who seized on the anti-establishment tone of the Republican primary also attacked several committee chairmen in Straus’ leadership team in a coordinated, well-funded effort.

They included Rep. Byron Cook of Corsicana, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, and Rep. Charlie Geren of Fort Worth, chairman of the House Administration Committee. Cook is also a key witness in the securities fraud felony indictment against Republican state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Between them, Straus, Cook and Geren spent more than $7 million on their re-election campaigns.

Cook won a narrow victory over challenger Thomas McNutt by a margin of less than 250 votes out of more than 28,500 cast with all precincts reporting. Geren also easily won the nomination for another term over challenger Bo French.

Tea party-backed conservatives have been pushing Texas further right in recent years and made Straus their main target in efforts to purify party efforts when the Legislature convenes in 2017.

The House speaker is elected by the chamber’s membership. Republicans have held majority control since 2003 and currently have a 98-52 advantage over Democrats. Those numbers are unlikely to change in the general election, making the Republican primary the major sparring ground over policy and ideological purity within the party.

But ultra-conservative lawmakers also had to watch their flanks Tuesday night. Several leading tea party voices faced challenges from more moderate alternatives. Any losses there could strengthen Straus’ grip on the chamber if he wins another term.

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