In Texas: a once-in-a-generation battle for control of the Republican Party

By | March 4, 2024

Rarely have the infighting among Texas Republicans been as bitter, prolonged and far-reaching as the primaries that culminated in Election Day on Tuesday.

The fighting has focused mainly on members of the Texas House, who angered many conservative voters last year by impeaching the Republican attorney general. Ken Paxton, on charges of corruption and abuse of office. Paxton, who was acquitted in the Texas Senate, vowed revenge, and number one in his sights was the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dad Phelan.

Government Greg Abbott has also hounded some Republicans in the Texas House, trying to unseat those who opposed his plan to use public money to help families pay for private and religious schools.

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Aggressive campaigns by both state leaders are exacerbating tensions that have been simmering for years between the party’s old guard and a more socially conservative faction aligned with former President Donald Trump and who see Tuesday’s vote as an opportunity to alter the balance of power in the Texas House to shift. has served as a moderating force in state politics.

The battle is not unique to Texas, as Republicans across the country and in Congress wage a battle for control of the party. But the outcome could have broad resonance if Republicans in Texas, the most populous and wealthiest conservative state, decide the state should move even further to the right.

“This is a once-in-a-generation election,” said Nick Maddux, a Republican consultant who has worked with Paxton and for Republican candidates in more than a dozen races.

If the two chambers of the Texas Legislature emerged from the election even further to the right, “it would be the most conservative legislature in the country,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican consultant who has done work with school voucher supporters. “Dade and his allies are the only thing preventing that.”

The flood of outside money and the sheer number of contests, including more than two dozen races considered competitive, have forced longtime representatives into nerve-wracking fights for their political lives. Those involved in fundraising said the primaries would likely be the most expensive ever seen in Texas, a state known for big campaign spending.

To finance his statewide campaign, Abbott received a $6 million campaign contribution — the largest in state history — from a Pennsylvania billionaire, Jeff Yass, who supports school voucher programs. A pair of West Texas billionaires who have long supported Christian conservative causes have invested more than $2 million to help candidates who align themselves with Paxton. Millions more have been spent defending Phelan and his controversial colleagues.

“It is without a doubt the most painful election we have seen,” Phelan said, citing his own experiences and those of his colleagues.

Greeting voters this week in Vidor, Texas, near the Louisiana border, Phelan — wearing a white T-shirt and camouflage hat, both printed with his name — responded to his opponent’s claims that the Texas House is under his leadership had not promoted conservative goals.

“We went from 50,000 abortions to 34, and they say that’s not pro-life. We have constitutional capacity. You no longer have to get a permit from the government to carry a firearm, and they said that’s not good enough because convicted felons aren’t allowed to have them,” Phelan said. ‘Tell me, what else should I do? Mandatory to bring?”

In addition to his efforts to oust Republican state representatives like Phelan, who supported the attorney general’s ouster last year, Paxton is trying to reshape the state’s highest criminal court by removing three Republican judges who are serving in the Court of Criminal Appeals.

He has criticized the justices as Republicans-in-name-only for their part in an 8-1 ruling by the all-Republican court, which found that the state Constitution did not allow Paxton to unilaterally prosecute criminal voter fraud cases without going through the local district to go. lawyers.

Sharon Keller, the presiding judge and one of those facing a challenge, said she was surprised by the attacks. “I’ve always been criticized for being too conservative,” she said in a television interview.

At the same time, Paxton faces criminal charges dating back to a 2015 indictment for securities fraud. Arguments about details that have delayed this case have already been submitted to the highest criminal court whose judges he is now attacking.

Although both Abbott and Paxton are rooting for Republican incumbents, their interests are not always aligned. And Abbott himself has faced challenges from the far right in his party, including during his 2022 primary.

On Monday evening, Abbott appeared in the Houston suburb of Katy with state Rep. Jacey Jetton, who supported the governor’s voucher plan for private schools but had voted to oust Paxton. It was the third time the governor had traveled to the area to support Jetton during the primary.

In an interview, Jetton lamented the large number of mailers and advertisements against him, especially those suggesting he supported the “trans agenda.” He clarified that he was a co-sponsor of a ban on gender transition care for minors.

“There are a number of candidates who are basing themselves on complete lies,” he said. “If they win, I think it will take us in a dangerous direction.”

Nowhere is the campaign more hard-fought than in the Southeast Texas district that Phelan has represented since 2015 and where his family has played a prominent role in the business community for generations. A boulevard in Beaumont, the largest nearby city, bears the family name, as does a shopping plaza. He hasn’t faced an opponent from either party in a decade.

Phelan is being challenged by David Covey, a local Republican Party activist and technical adviser to the oil and gas industry who has pledged to help make the Texas House more like the conservative Senate.

Covey, who described himself as a “very committed Christian and conservative,” said in a telephone interview that Phelan and other representatives in Austin were too accommodating to Democrats and had lost touch with what Republican voters want.

“The conflict comes because elected leaders are not listening to Republican voters and the majority of Republican activists,” he said.

His campaign has been supported by outside groups like Texans United for a Conservative Majority, backed by oil and gas money from West Texas, and catapulted into the national spotlight by an endorsement from Trump, who called Covey out of the blue to offer it. .

“It was an incredible moment in my personal life and in the campaign,” Covey said. “His message was: As Texas goes, so goes the nation.”

Phelan, for his part, was endorsed by Rick Perry, the former Republican governor, who has hosted two events for the speaker in recent weeks.

At one point in the race, online entertainers posing as Phelan supporters and claiming to have a transgender child and a fentanyl addiction knocked on doors in the neighborhood, including Phelan’s own home. He wasn’t home at the time, Phelan said, but his wife and four children were.

In addition, a 44-year-old Orange County man was arrested in Phelan County after making threats against Phelan on Facebook. “He told me what gun he was going to use and how he was going to do it – I think he said my right temple,” Phelan said.

A recent poll from the Texas Politics Project, a program at the University of Texas, found that Phelan’s statewide approval rose slightly from December but remained below 30%.

“Phelan has been there for a while, maybe it’s time for some new blood,” said Pat Jinks, a Vidor resident, after voting for Covey at the early voting center there. Her husband, Brett, said he voted for Phelan.

Another voter, Tony Wilcoxson, the mayor of the nearby city of Rose City, came forward and shook Phelan’s hand. He said he voted for the speaker because of Phelan’s relief for the area after Hurricane Harvey. “I’m as conservative as I am a Republican, anti-abortion, pro-gun and all those good things, but at the end of the day you have to take care of the people,” he said.

Early voting turnout in the Texas primaries was low in most places, and Republican voters who turned out to cast ballots in Vidor seemed torn and eager to put the fight behind them.

“I wasn’t unhappy” with Phelan, said Randy Jarrell, who nevertheless said he voted for Covey. He said Trump’s endorsement had an impact on him and his wife, who also supported the challenger. Both were tired of the flyers in their mailboxes and the barrage of attack ads on television.

“I’ll be glad when it’s over,” he said.

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