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Insurgent Republicans make major gains in Texas primaries

By Karen Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune

Insurgent Republicans make major gains in Texas primaries” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Texas voters on Tuesday handed more power to the insurgent wing of the Republican Party in an expensive and vengeful primary election, punishing GOP lawmakers, judges and a House speaker who defied hard-right state leaders and their supporters in recent years.

The shockwaves rippled up and down the ballot. Most notably, Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, was forced into a runoff with a well-funded challenger, David Covey, after being targeted by ultra-conservative donors and activists, who faulted the second-term speaker for declining to stop the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton last May.

Paxton backed Covey in the primary, along with many other conservative challengers targeting House members who voted for his impeachment. Joining him in a fight against House incumbents was Gov. Greg Abbott, who targeted those opponents of his signature school voucher program.

Democrats largely rallied around incumbents as they faced challenges from the left in several congressional and state races. They nominated U.S. Rep. Colin Allred, elevating him above eight other candidates, to face GOP U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz this fall.

But the Republicans saw far more drama in their contests. Few who landed in the crosshairs of Abbott and Paxton emerged from the bruising primary unscathed.

“What a HORRIBLE night it has become for the corny establishment in Austin,” Michael Quinn Sullivan, publisher of the ultra-conservative Texas Scorecard, wrote on X as the returns came in.

Abbott said in a statement that the election “sent an unmistakable message” that Republican primary voters are in favor of school choice and vowed to continue helping those candidates as they continue their trek to Austin.

“When school choice opponents lost every argument on policy, they resigned to campaign lies—but they couldn’t fool Texas voters,” Abbott said.

Six Texas House Republicans who fought Abbott’s attempt to create a school voucher program in Texas lost their primaries to pro-voucher candidates, while another four were forced into runoffs to defend their rural districts.

Voters also ejected three Republican judges from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest criminal court, including Chief Justice Sharon Keller, who garnered less than 40% of the vote. Paxton sought to oust the three judges after they ruled in 2021 that his office didn’t have the power to unilaterally prosecute voter fraud.

“Tonight, Texans have spoken loud and clear,” Paxton said in a statement after judges he campaigned against lost their primaries.

Three Republican members of the Texas State Board of Education were struggling late Tuesday as well, with incumbents Tom Maynard and Pam Little being forced into runoffs and Pat Hardy poised to lose her seat altogether.

GOP voters did hand one big victory to an established politician: former President Donald Trump, who helped usher in the pugnacious brand of politics that prevailed Tuesday night. He dominated his primary, winning more than three-fourths of the vote and handily defeating his only significant challenger, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.

The primaries were a mix of ego, personality and policy — and in many cases it was hard to suss out how much each factor played in individual campaigns. In some races, such as the defeats of GOP House members Hugh Shine, Glenn Rogers and Steve Allison, the incumbent was opposed by both Paxton and Abbott.

In others, loyalties were mixed. Paxton, for instance, backed a candidate who forced out state Rep. Jacey Jetton, a Richmond Republican and voucher supporter whom Abbott had endorsed. Paxton also backed Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, who made a name for herself during the pandemic when she was arrested for defying Abbott’s COVID-19 orders. She won her primary against state Rep. Reggie Smith, R-Sherman, who was targeted both by Paxton and by pro-voucher groups.

But Paxton didn’t succeed in all his campaigns against the 34 House Republicans he marked for payback, nor was he able to save all of his defenders.

He couldn’t protect, for example, state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, who voted against his impeachment but was on Abbott’s hit list for voting against vouchers — a vote Clardy defended as being in line with the will of his district.

Clardy lost his primary to pro-voucher candidate Joanne Shofner, earning less than 40% of the vote.

Abbott had a higher success rate. In the last month of the primary campaign, he spent $4.4 million on challengers to 10 House Republicans and made endorsements in several races, including in several seats left open by retiring members, in an attempt to turn 11 seats over to candidates who support helping parents pay for private school tuition with taxpayer dollars.

The final number of voucher supporters who’ll be in the House next year remains undetermined due to the number of GOP House incumbents heading for a runoff, but the movement clearly gained significant ground.

The developments set up what will certainly be one of the highest-stakes primary runoff seasons ever. Money is sure to pour in from voucher supporters and opponents, along with from the more establishment and insurgent wings of the GOP. And Paxton’s legal troubles will remain a specter, as his trial on felony securities fraud charges is scheduled to begin April 15.

No runoff race will be more closely watched than Phelan’s. The speaker has been a target of the GOP grassroots ever since he was elected to preside over the House in 2021. While Phelan has pushed numerous conservative priorities, including passing strict abortion restrictions, allocating billions of dollars and allowing people to carry handguns without a permit, defeating him would eliminate one of the last remaining moderating forces of Texas politics.

In a statement Tuesday night, Phelan highlighted the stakes of his race.

“This runoff is not just another race,” Phelan said in a statement. “It’s the frontline of the battle for the soul of our district.” He denounced what he called the “deceit and vitriol” leveled at him, and said his opponent was backed by “fringe West Texas billionaires,” a thinly veiled reference to Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, who have invested heavily in far-right causes.

But no matter the outcome of the runoffs on May 28, the leadership of the state will be dramatically altered.

That will be evident in the U.S. Capitol, too. In another blow to the bipartisan middle, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, was sent into a runoff with Brandon Herrera to defend his seat after the Republican Party of Texas censured him last year over his support of gun safety legislation and gay marriage, and his willingness to work with Democrats.

A decisive nod to the far right also came in the race to replace veteran U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, a staunch social conservative known for his pragmatism and willingness to compromise with Democrats.

But his replacement is a more stark move to the right. Right-wing conservative internet influencer Brandon Gill, a 30-year-old with no formal political experience, placed a solid first in a crowded 11-way primary and was poised to avoid a run-off that most observers figured was inevitable. The district is solidly Republican, and the nominee is the presumed winner in the general election.

Trump, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and conservative filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, Gill’s father-in-law, all backed Gill’s run and sent him to a decisive victory in the solid red district.


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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/03/06/texas-primaries-gop-incumbents-defeated/.

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