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Evan Smith, CEO of The Texas Tribune.

(Audio unavailable. Click here to listen on texastribune.org.)

Former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican, revealed in an interview with The Texas Tribune that he voted for Democratic President Joe Biden in 2020 and blasted the far-right wing of the GOP as a “cult.”

Straus, who is from San Antonio, told Tribune CEO Evan Smith that the 2020 election was “a really serious contest for the heart of the country.”

“I think character matters and I was really alarmed at the rhetoric and the behavior of our nation’s leader,” he said of former President Donald Trump. “I think he was hurting our reputation abroad and I don’t think he was really ever qualified to be president.”

In a wide-ranging conversation on the Tribune’s “Point of Order” podcast, Straus denounced Republican efforts to restrict voting access, backed Medicaid expansion in Texas and refused to rule out a run for public office in 2022.

Straus is no stranger to intraparty clashes. Throughout his tenure as speaker, he publicly sparred with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the far-right wing of the Texas GOP over issues including a bill that sought to regulate which bathrooms transgender Texans could use.

In Tuesday’s podcast, he continued his vocal opposition to “culture war” issues that have dominated political discourse in recent years. Straus unequivocally dismissed the unfounded claims from many Republicans that there was fraud during last year’s election as “nonsense.” Experts have said there was no evidence of widespread fraud, even as lawmakers in 43 states have filed bills to restrict voting access. In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott named “election security” an emergency legislative item and a handful of measures that further tighten the state’s already restrictive voting rules and raise new barriers for some voters have been filed in both chambers of the Texas Legislature.

“To try to perpetuate your power through limiting access to the polling place is not only morally bankrupt, I think it’s a losing proposition over time,” Straus said.

He said that he “continues to be concerned about the state of the current Republican party,” though Straus stopped short of saying he’d switch party affiliation.

“For the moment, I’m a stay-and-fight Republican,” Straus said. “But I admit that my place in the party isn’t where it once was.”

When asked about his future political ambitions, Straus refused to rule out a run for office in 2022.

“I don’t have a plan right now,” he said. “I do think that in the future, people in this state are going to be looking for a different type of leadership than we’ve had right now.”

Straus said GOP officeholders should instead focus on issues with direct impact on Texans lives.

“One of the only punches that began to land” for many Democrats who ran in 2020 was on health care, he said. “Republicans didn’t have an idea, and they didn’t have any accomplishments there.”

Straus doubled down on comments he first made in an October editorial for the San Antonio Express-News. He wrote that expanding Medicaid in Texas is a “smart business move.” Texas has one of the largest populations of uninsured people in the nation, but the state’s Republicans have for years bucked calls to expand the federal program for people with low incomes.

“I think we’re missing out not only on helping people who could become Republicans, but we’re missing out on a real opportunity to do what’s right for the state of Texas economically, morally and in human terms,” he told Smith.

The fallout from last month’s winter storm that left at least 57 people dead in Texas became a surprise issue that has taken center stage before the state Legislature this session. Straus pressed for “strong legislative action” to reform issues laid bare by the deadly freeze, though he said many likely will not be resolved before lawmakers conclude their biennial session at the end of May.

Straus seemed to find fault with the state Senate’s effort to hastily pass a bill last week that would’ve forced the state’s utility regulator to reverse billions of dollars in charges for wholesale electricity during the freeze. Unlike the state Senate, the state House has so far taken a slower, more deliberative approach

“The rush to action without understanding what all the options are is a grave mistake,” Straus said.

This story about Tribune CEO Evan Smith’s interview with Joe Straus was written by Shawn Mulcahy.