Texas GOP divisions grow after fraught primaries

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Tuesday’s contentious runoffs laid bare the turmoil in Texas’s state Republican Party. 

In elections that saw unprecedented levels of outside spending, the party’s so-called business faction was left battered but still standing as some incumbents hung on, most notably Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) and Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas). 

Their positions, however, are precarious. In Tuesday’s vote, conservative hard-liners in the state executive largely wiped the board of holdout members — largely those who had fought the rise of privatization in the state’s massive public school system, as well as a smaller group that had backed the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton (R). 

Tuesday’s results “were truly the most chaotic outcome,” said Joshua Blank of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “You had most of the targeted Republicans losing, and yet the Speaker eking out a victory.” 

As a result, the primaries have widened divisions within the state GOP as a whole — a body that has been widely criticized, Blank noted, for “prioritizing going after Republicans more than building out the state party.” 

Now, he said, “it looks like the party is continuing in that direction.” 

Tuesday’s election came just after a state party convention, where Republicans passed a hard-line platform calling abortion “homicide, not health care”; advocating for the end of no-fault divorce; labeling homosexuality as “an abnormal lifestyle choice” not deserving of any legal protections or parental rights; and classifying climate-warming carbon dioxide as “a non-pollutant.” 

These moves flew in the face of the once-dominant “business” faction of state Republicans, who tended to put the culture war second to the day-to-day functioning of the state. 

Those intraparty tensions were on full display following Tuesday’s runoffs. School voucher activist Corey DeAngelis called the result “a political earthquake.”

Abbott said he now had “the votes to pass school choice,” which proponents call vouchers, and conservative activists were already sharpening their knives for Phelan, who they perceive as insufficiently committed to that cause. 

“We’ll see whether the Speaker hangs on,” said Sherry Sylvester of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “He’s got a whole new House, many of whom were elected on their commitment to school choice, and he didn’t let school choice pass, didn’t make it a priority, and has said that he would have preferred a weaker version of school choice to pass.” 

Now, she said, the voucher side has the ability to pass “a stronger version. Because every previous time, it included carrots for the school districts. We don’t need those carrots now. We have the votes.” 

But that sort of analysis views things too “simplistically,” argued Republican lobbyist Thomas Ratliff. Whatever members’ top-line commitment to vouchers is, he said, “there are 37 different flavors of what that means. You’re going to have a divide within the House, and as big or bigger a divide between the House and Senate.” 

Ratliff pointed to the number of Texas House members who have rallied around Phelan since the runoff as a sign that picking him off will not be easy.

“What still holds true in Texas politics is that House members and Senators don’t like when the other side meddles in what they consider to be their internal affairs,” he said. “I think outside interference influences the House to come together and circle the wagons.” 

The vitriol among Republicans was apparent in congressional races, as well.  

Gonzales narrowly survived a challenge from his right against Brandon Herrera, a YouTuber and guns enthusiast, in the Tuesday runoff. The congressman had drawn the ire of the Texas state GOP last year over his position on several pieces of legislation, most notably supporting a bipartisan gun safety law in the wake of a devastating school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, which Gonzales represents, and for backing the Respect for Marriage Act.  

In response, the Texas Republican Party censured Gonzales — a move that, under measures proposed in the new party platform, would allow them to remove him from the ballot. 

Gonzales’s primary got personal when several of his House colleagues endorsed Herrera in the primary. Among those who backed the YouTuber were House Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good (R-Va.) and Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Eli Crane (R-Ariz.).

Though Gonzales had the backing of House colleagues from his home state, in addition to Abbott and others, the mainline conservative barely squeaked out a win. 

As typically happens in Texas primaries, both Gonzales and state Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Texas), who’s running in the 12th Congressional District, were “being challenged from the right,” Travis County GOP chair and Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak told The Hill. 

“I wouldn’t say either one of their opponents were serious,” Mackowiak added.  
“But the political environment made them serious.” 

Many in the party argued non-Republicans had helped Gonzales ride to victory. This belief — and the steps the party is taking to respond to it — underscore a second divide, between those Republicans who believe in embracing a big tent that includes as many new voters as possible and those who want a smaller, more ideologically united party committed to the culture war. 

The new Republican platform, for example, restricts primary voting to registered party members and sets out the party’s intention to end the state’s lengthy period of early voting. 

Those steps have concerned even some on the state’s ascendant far right.

“As a conservative, my side is coming up with good ideas all the time that we think we can win people over,” Sylvester of the Texas Public Policy Foundation told The Hill. “Elections are about ideas and need to make as easy for [people to vote] as possible.” 

Sylvester also criticized a party plank that seeks to require statewide elected officials to win more than half of Texas counties — locking the largely-urban Democratic party out of power. 

Still, Sylvester and other Republicans are in agreement that the party will be successful in the fall.

“Texas Republicans are more united than ever before,” said state GOP chair Abraham George in a statement to The Hill. “We just passed our platform, legislative priorities, rules, and elected new party leadership at our convention with overwhelming majorities.”

Others see a longer road ahead.  

Infighting at the state House level is unlikely to give Democrats an opening electorally outside of a few purple districts, experts told The Hill, noting that many of those consequential races took place in rural districts that are safely conservative. 

But they acknowledge tensions and infighting will still linger heading into the fall and into the new Legislature. 

“I think this is going to continue all summer, all fall and all winter because everybody has their eyes on Dade Phelan and whether he can remain Speaker or not,” said Republican strategist Brendan Steinhauser. 

“There are a lot of vested interests that want to replace him, not only on the school choice issue, but on other issues like the border or other cultural issues.” 

Phelan is still a clear favorite to keep control of the House, Blank of the Texas Politics Project told The Hill, in part because many members may be angry at the role Abbott, Patrick and Paxton played in picking off their incumbent colleagues. 

“They may have created an environment in which those Republican members — or at least a significant number of them — are even less likely to come in with the goal of compromising,” Blank said. 

That division could give statehouse Democrats a level of strategic power they have not known in a long time.

“From Washington to Austin, Republicans are more divided than ever,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told The Hill. 

But as in Congress, “when Democrats come together — our unity is our greatest asset,” he said.

One looming question is whether Texas Republicans will begin to shoot down bills just because Democrats have proposed them, Ratliff told The Hill.

“If Democrats come back to the legislature next session with less power and less say in the process, they could become a further force for chaos, which is not really the role that they tend to play,” Blank said. “And so you may have factions of the Republican primary of the Republican Party within the legislature at odds with each other, and Democrats, more inclined to throw gasoline on the fire.”

Abbott’s attempt to take control of the House may founder on something far more prosaic than intraparty politics.

“They run on a single issue, they have 7,000 bills headed their way. So there are still a whole lot of unanswered questions about what these members want to do,” Blank said.  

But he said those hoping the insurgents will remake the culture of the House may be disappointed.

“To have a significant impact on rules or the process,” he said, “is not the norm for a freshman member.” 

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