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Texas Lockstep

The hard right wants all Republicans to fall in line
Dade Phelan and Dan Patrick pose before the Texas Capitol.

When the Republican-controlled Texas House voted overwhelmingly in May of 2023 to impeach Republican Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, long-simmering tensions among competing factions of the state Republican Party turned into open warfare. The more conservative state Senate came to Paxton’s rescue and, shortly after a Paxton defense lawyer shouted “the Bush era in Texas ends today!” Paxton was acquitted. But following his acquittal, Paxton and his ultra-conservative defenders resolved to go after the “RINOs”—Republicans in Name Only—in the 2024 primaries.

And they did. The recent spring primaries in Texas brought major gains to the hard-right faction, which is determined to rid the party of the more traditional Republican establishment style of politics that dates to the Era of the Two Bushes. Paxton himself went out to campaign for insurgent GOP candidates, and money flowed from Texans United for a Conservative Majority, a political action committee backed by two West Texas billionaires, Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks. In the final count after the March primary and the runoff elections on May 28, fifteen Republican incumbents were knocked off. But in the most-watched contest, the top target of the GOP’s insurgent right wing—House Speaker Dade Phelan—survived a challenge from David Covey, who had led in the first round and carried the endorsement of former president Donald Trump. Following his victory, Phelan told supporters he intends to return as House Speaker in the next legislative session.

The effort to stock the House with more extreme conservatives is not just about retribution for the Paxton impeachment. Governor Greg Abbott has been obsessively pushing a “school choice” bill—the official euphemism for private school vouchers. His voucher bill fell short last year, defeated by a coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans who, whatever their other positions, were committed to their local public schools, especially in districts where there are no private or religious schools. Now, with the results in from the primary season, Abbott claims he has enough votes to pass the bill.

But that depends on what happens in the general election in November.

At least in the hopeful fancies of Texas Democrats, the rightward GOP surge has created opportunities for a voter backlash in favor of Democratic candidates. There are 150 members of the House, and their districts are aggressively gerrymandered to protect the Republican majority. In November, roughly eighteen seats are said to be in play, and a twelve-seat shift would mean a Democratic majority. Although the Republican margin of victory has decreased in the last two presidential elections, winning back the House in a year when Texans are likely to again vote for a Republican at the top of the ticket remains a stretch. But if Dems can protect their existing sixty-four seats while winning in a few closely contested districts, a five-to-seven seat pickup is at least imaginable, in part because not all Republican voters are sold on Abbott’s school voucher plan.

“The data shows opportunities,” said Austin Democratic representative Gina Hinojosa. “Texas progressives have been putting in the work without outside help [i.e., from the national party], and our hearts have been broken too many times. But the data is trending our way. People are scared about this election. The challenge is to take fear and turn it into action.”

On the time-honored but dubious Texas theory that less government is good government, the legislature meets only every other year for 140 days, not counting thirty-day “special sessions” that may be convened by the governor when he isn’t yet satisfied he’s gotten everything he wants. At salaries of $7,200 a year (plus per-diems), legislators are by definition amateurs, dependent on outside income. Many appear at the Capitol effectively on behalf of their primary employers in the permanent government: oil and gas, real estate, insurance, agriculture, and so on.

The 89th legislative session begins in January of 2025. This off-year is for planning and research, focused on the legislative priorities assigned to standing committees by the Speaker of the House and lieutenant governor (who presides over the Senate). In early May, House Speaker Phelan released his “interim charges.” They included the usual Republican concerns: school vouchers under the brand name “education savings accounts”—essentially cash grants to parents of children already attending private schools; property tax reduction; broader attempts to address housing prices; the dread prospect of “foreign” ownership of farmland; and the inevitable hot-button push for more funding for ever-increasing militarization of the Texas-Mexico border. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s interim list, released a few weeks earlier, was in a similar vein: border controls, housing costs, and even a directive to calculate the costs of eliminating “all property taxes,” to be replaced with . . . something. Patrick’s statement omits any mention of vouchers or “education savings accounts,” though he is on record in earlier statements supporting Abbott’s plans for “school choice.”

The new conservatives are united not just in their retrograde opinions, but in their deference to oil billionaire Tim Dunn, who has become the Chief Sugar Daddy (or Oil Baron) of Texas Republican politics.

Along with these official proclamations, yet another priority list was released in April, in a letter signed by current and would-be Republican House members. Shades of Newt Gingrich, it was a purported “Contract with Texas.” The “Contract” is not a policy document but an explicit attack on Phelan’s speakership (“To Reform the House of Representatives and Select a Real Republican Speaker”). It recites a dozen “reforms” intended structurally to weaken the speaker as well as eliminate any vestige of bipartisan administration or legislation—that is, to purge the House of any significant Democratic influence (despite officially representing at least 43 percent of Texans). The signers demand that any future speaker agree to no appointment of Democratic committee chairs, no committees with Democratic majorities (already vanishingly rare), priority consideration of only GOP-sponsored legislation, and various rule revisions intended to fast-track conservative priorities, as part of the state’s ongoing fight against “an out of control federal government that seeks to undermine our borders, the Constitution, and our freedoms. . . .”

It’s no secret that the “Contractors,” a subset of extreme “conservatives,” are united not just in their retrograde opinions but in their deference to oil billionaire Dunn, who has become the Chief Sugar Daddy (or Oil Baron) of Texas Republican politics. Nearly every House member or candidate who signed the Contract has received major campaign funding from PACs underwritten by Dunn, an ardent evangelical Christian, and his like-minded billionaire ally Wilks. Allied with them is former Orange County GOP chair Covey, defeated by Phelan in the primary. In his campaign material, Covey described “Austin Politician” Phelan as “doing the bare minimum” for Republican interests and thereby effectively promoting the Democrats’ “radical agenda.”

Covey’s stated “priorities” were in fact not significantly different from Phelan’s, although expressed in more colorful prose. He advocated abolishing both property taxes and abortion (“from fertilization”), a ban on mandatory vaccinations (“Protect Medical Liberty”), elimination of “gun-free zones,” outlawing already thoroughly illegal “election fraud,” and ensuring “the woke left is not encroaching on our American way of life by indoctrinating our children in school.” None of this is out of line with the prevailing legislative winds in the House, but Covey, the other sub-Contractors, and their General Contractor Dunn (who would exclude not just Democrats but non-“Christians” from leadership positions) adopt a no-holds-barred approach to governance that dismays even many traditional Republicans.

It’s not unusual for an incumbent Republican officeholder to face a challenge from his right; indeed, it’s been a standard ritual of Texas politics for at least a generation. But in reasonably normal times, an incumbent House speaker enjoying the institutional support of his party (and re-elected unopposed four times) would swat away such a challenge like a Galveston Bay horsefly. Phelan is certainly not without GOP supporters, and in the warmup to the runoff, big names and big donors lined up behind him in hopes of building an establishment wall against Covey. The Phelan defenders, reported the Texas Tribune, included such bold-faced GOP names as one-time kingmaker Karl Rove, Clarence Thomas benefactor Harlan Crow, former governor Rick Perry, and former senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, as well as Phelan’s predecessors in the Speaker’s chair, Dennis Bonnen and Joe Straus.

While Phelan survived, other Republicans targeted by Governor Abbott, Lieutenant Governor Patrick, Attorney General Paxton, and Dunn did not. While Abbott officially remained neutral in the Phelan/Covey race and some others that Paxton got involved in, he joined in challenging most GOP House members who opposed vouchers. There were plenty of potential targets, many of them otherwise hard-edged conservatives abruptly accused of heresy. Yet the anti-incumbent campaigns seldom directly mentioned the voucher bills—instead, GOP candidates competed to portray each other as soft on immigration and the border.

A defeated Republican wrote: “Governor Greg Abbott has defiled the Office of Governor by creating and repeating blatant lies about me and my House colleagues.”

One such GOP loyalist to lose his seat, Glenn Rogers of Graford, a tiny town west of Fort Worth, published a blistering reaction a few days after his loss to Mike Olcott in the March primary. Wrote Rogers: “Governor Greg Abbott has defiled the Office of Governor by creating and repeating blatant lies about me and my House colleagues, those who took a stand for our public schools. I stood by the Governor on all his legislative priorities but just one, school vouchers. For just one disagreement, and for a $6 million check from Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvanian TikTok investor, and voucher vendor, Abbott went scorched earth against rural Texas and the Representatives who did their jobs—representing their districts.”

Rogers’s ire suggests Republican resentment about the power of Dunn and Wilks: “Throughout my three campaigns,” he wrote, “because of my unwillingness to be compliant with the two billionaire, ‘Christian’ Nationalist, power brokers that run this state, I have been unmercifully slandered through the politics of unwarranted personal destruction on social media, radio, post mail, streaming sites, and cable television.”

The question for November is how many of the voucher-supporting Republicans can win. The question for January is how many will hold strong to the position.

Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin, the school district’s employees’ union, pointed out that in these contested GOP primaries, the Abbott-backed candidates did not emphasize vouchers, still unpopular among rural Republicans. “What carried those rural districts was the border,” Zarifis said, “and who could portray themselves as more anti-immigrant. . . . There’s at least a slim chance of pulling a couple of those Republicans away on vouchers.” What enrages Zarifis, beyond the prospect of vouchers, is the broader GOP assault on already underfunded public schools, which will continue to educate the vast majority of Texas children. (About three hundred thousand Texas children attend private, mostly religious schools; more than 5 million attend public schools.) “The governor doesn’t give a damn about kids and their education,” he said. “He’s holding public school funding hostage against vouchers. He and his funders—Dunn and the rest—want to destroy public education and sell it to the highest bidders.” Meanwhile, even a relatively wealthy district like Austin’s is facing a major deficit this year; they are hoping for the success of a tax rate election in the fall. The governor has tied any state increase in public school funding to approval of his voucher proposal.

Democratic analysts say that voting trend lines favor a Democratic resurgence, and that the GOP success in pushing their candidates further to the right (as has been the case with reproductive rights) could help provoke some voters to abandon the GOP in November. As always, much depends on fall turnout, and whether a presidential contest will motivate sufficient Democratic voters to the polls. One analyst emphasized that, in addition to the presidential contest and the hotly contested U.S. Senate race (where Dallas congressman Colin Allred faces polarizing GOP incumbent Ted Cruz), the GOP general electorate is not as hardcore as in the primary. He said bluntly, “It’s good for Dems if the hard-right candidates do well in their primaries.”

Austin Democratic representative James Talarico, a former schoolteacher and seminary student, has become a prominent voice in the arguments over private school vouchers. He describes the backers as Christian nationalists and “religious hypocrites.” The primary season, in his view, made previously safe GOP seats look more vulnerable, and highlighted the polarizing effect of the voucher issue, along with extreme GOP stands on reproductive rights.

“There’s a clear line in the voucher fight,” Talarico continued. “It’s not about parental choice of their children’s schools, it’s about schools choosing their students, unlike public schools open to all. Dunn and Wilks are on a religious crusade to establish an authoritarian theocracy. And they want to send public funding to unaccountable private companies. Whatever else that is, it’s not conservative.”