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Updated May 21, 2024, 5:57pm EDT
politicsNorth America

A top Republican’s lonely stand against Donald Trump’s Texas takeover

Texas Speaker of the House Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, gavels in the 87th Legislature's special session in the House chamber at the State Capitol on July 8, 2021 in Austin, Texas.
Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images
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The Scene

BEAUMONT, Texas – In three years as speaker of the Texas House, Dade Phelan passed laws that banned abortion, prevented public universities from teaching “critical race theory,” let local police arrest illegal migrants, and allowed any Texan to carry a firearm without a permit.

Now he’s battling for his job, after angering Donald Trump with a failed impeachment against MAGA-aligned Attorney General Ken Paxton on corruption charges. Next week, Republican voters here will decide whether to “stand with President Trump” by ousting Phelan and electing a “real Republican,” as one campaign ad puts it.

The May 28 runoff in southeast Texas, where Phelan had won easily for a decade, is at the center of a broader campaign to remake the state Republican Party — a mass replacement of business-friendly conservatives by MAGA-branded conservatives.

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One week out, it’s already the most expensive state legislative race in Texas history, with $6.9 million spent on behalf of Phelan or challenger David Covey. Millions more was spent to oust six House Republicans who opposed Gov. Greg Abbott’s school choice reforms, force four more Republicans into runoffs, and replace judges who’d crossed Attorney Gen. Ken Paxton, denying him the ability to unilaterally pursue voter fraud cases.

Trump personally endorsed Covey in January; Paxton is the challenger’s next best-known advocate. A 34-year-old energy consultant and former congressional aide, who’d donated to Republicans but never sought office before, Covey and his wife prayed about their decision, then jumped in.

“The establishment leaders told me I didn’t have a chance,” he said, “but the voters kept saying, ‘No, we actually want a conservative.’” The money came immediately — nearly half a million from a new PAC supported by oil billionaire Tim Dunn, nearly a million from the political arm of the Club for Growth. Covey and his allies blamed Phelan for every stalled conservative goal; Phelan said wealthy interlopers were lying about him, for mysterious reasons.

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“You wanna talk about the Second Amendment? You wanna talk about pro-life issues? You wanna talk about border security? You wanna talk about election integrity?” Phelan asked the crowd at a Monday night rally here, wearing a camo version of his campaign T-shirt. “No one’s done more than Dade Phelan has. No one! Zero!”

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Know More

David Covey poses with Republican state legislators who've endorsed his campaign against Dade Phelan in Beaumont, Texas, on May 16, 2024.
David Weigel/Semafor

In an interview, Covey identified a few areas where Phelan wasn’t giving conservatives everything they might expect in a red state legislature. He let Democrats hold some committee chairmanships, a tradition in Austin; he kept a new Border Protection Unit out of border control legislation; he didn’t stop Republicans from nixing Abbott’s school voucher plan.

“Sometimes he does the right thing on local issues,” Covey said. “Well, that’s the bare minimum, but the huge failure to represent the conservative voice on the state level is just tremendous, and really, really does damage to our district.”

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Those weren’t the reasons why Trump intervened — a huge moment in the race, commemorated in Covey’s ads, mail, and campaign signs. Trump was moved after Phelan presided over the impeachment of Paxton, which ended with his acquittal by the Texas Senate. The Republican Party of Texas voted to censure Phelan for his role in that, and with early voting underway, Phelan’s expected to skip the state convention this week.

According to Covey, the president cited “border security” and “election integrity” when he phoned to endorse him; Trump emphasized the latter issue in Dallas last week, when he called out Covey from the stage of the NRA’s annual convention.

“David is leading, very substantially, an absolutely terrible speaker of the House who didn’t want to go into voter fraud,” Trump said. “We have to get your speaker out of there so we can go into voter fraud.”

Covey didn’t go into detail about what election changes were needed. “I do think that we have voter fraud in Texas,” he told Semafor, before addressing supporters at a meet-and-greet held in a supporter’s Beaumont firearms store and shooting range. “I think that we’re doing some things to close that gap.”

Phelan’s been dismissive about the demands from Trump and his allies. “They got Hunter Biden doing these terrible things, well, why can’t our guy do terrible things,” he told Politico in March, explaining why Paxton’s supporters shrugged off his bribery and corruption charges.

But the rebellion is about more than Paxton and Trump. Last week, Covey campaigned with a team of conservatives who were crisscrossing Texas, in a bus sponsored by Gun Owners of America, to help other insurgents win their primaries. They’d endorsed a “Contract With Texas,” a 12-point plan to increase conservative power in Austin — replacing “the current liberal Parliamentarians,” taking the remaining chairmanships away from Democrats, ensuring that no “Democrat bills” got floor votes before Republican priorities did.

“He’s the reason we haven’t banned COVID vaccine mandates,” said state Rep. Brian Harrison, referring to Phelan, after jumping off the GOA bus. “It’s why we don’t have stronger border security; why we haven’t banned taxpayer-funded lobbying; why we haven’t passed school choice; why seven of eight [Republican Party of Texas] priorities couldn’t even get a vote or, quote, ‘debate,’ unquote.”

Phelan has defended his record, stood by the Paxton impeachment, and asked southeast Texas Republicans to think about it: How much clout would they lose if he did? On Monday, he stood by as former Gov. Rick Perry asked why local Republicans would ever want to eject “the only speaker you’ve ever had,” counting off the projects he’d brought to the district, speculating that the billionaires funding negative ads against him wanted the region’s water rights.

“If this was the most conservative session in Texas history, why are we going through this process to get rid of one of the three legs of that most conservative session?” Perry asked. “Something else is going on here.”

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David’s view

A victory for Covey next week — not assured, though his supporters talk like it is — would be a triumph for a GOP faction that’s moved from the fringe to real power in a couple of years. The Paxton impeachment will have sped that up, with no consequences for the attorney general’s allies. Tim Dunn’s millions had gone to Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick while he presided over the impeachment trial; the same millions were going to elect Dunn-aligned Republicans this year, as Patrick talked about “the expiration date on Dade Phelan’s speakership.”

Voters I’d talked to were not motivated by a particular bill, or particular Phelan decision in Austin. The Paxton impeachment came up occasionally; the Trump endorsement came up far more often. While not everyone was aware of the disputes over what could and could make it into the GOP’s border bill, they were open to the idea that Republicans, perhaps to make nice with Democrats, had weakened it and put them at risk.

“How many of you know what happened on Oct. 7 in Israel?” state Rep. Steve Toth asked Covey’s supporters in Beaumont. “Are we so foolish as to believe that they’re not planning the same thing for us?”

In March, with Super Tuesday turnout helping bring out more voters, Phelan won just 43% of the vote here, to 46% for Covey; the rest went to another conservative activist, who immediately got behind the challenger. Phelan could turn this around. If he does, he’ll enter the 2025 session with fewer allies, in a party whose state and local leadership vocally want him gone, with conservative media outlets and wealthy donors who’ve learned how to win.

On Tuesday, ahead of the state convention, the RPT’s rules committee voted to keep candidates off the ballot if the party had censured them within two years of the election they sought to run in. Had that rule been in place this year, Phelan couldn’t have run at all.

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The View From Democrats

Deep in the minority in Austin, Democrats are watching the GOP primaries unfold uneasily. Some of the Republicans who’d already lost to conservative challengers represented seats that Democrats might win. But most of the victors would slide into safe red districts.

“It’s not right versus left,” said state Rep. James Talarico, who represents a Democratic-trending seat in Austin’s exurbs. “It’s about these West Texas billionaires trying to take over, and their takeover will be complete if they’re able to oust this very conservative speaker. They’ve bought our LG, they’ve bought our governor, and they want to buy the House.”

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Notable

  • In the Texas Tribune, Jasper Scherer and Zach Despart profiled the longtime GOP mega-donors working to rescue Phelan, making his race a “last stand for the Republican Party’s business-minded old guard against an insurgency, primarily motivated by social and cultural issues, that aims to reshape the House.”
  • In the Dallas Morning News, Philip Jankowski looks at how Patrick is “seizing an opportunity against a speaker weakened by an unsuccessful attempt to remove Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton from office.”
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