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Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan heading to runoff against hardline conservative challenger

By Zach Despart, The Texas Tribune

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan heading to runoff against hardline conservative challenger” 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 House Speaker Dade Phelan is facing a runoff election after he failed to secure a majority of votes in primary voting, the clearest sign to date of his precarious position within the Republican Party.

Phelan advanced to the runoff with rival David Covey, a former chairman of the Orange County Republican Party who has been endorsed by Attorney General Ken Paxton, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and former President Donald Trump.

The third candidate in the race, anti-tax crusader Alicia Davis, won only a fraction of a vote but prevented Phelan and Covey from securing the 50% necessary to win outright.

“This runoff is not just another race, it’s the frontline of the battle for the soul of our district,” Phelan said in a statement Tuesday evening. “While my opponent hides behind empty rhetoric, dishonest advertising and surrogate voices, I stand before voters with a clear record of service and conservative success.”

The race had become a measure on the influence of the far-right wing of the GOP, which has cast Phelan as a traitor to the party. Paxton, seeking revenge on Phelan for supporting the House’s impeachment of him last year, campaigned for Covey in Beaumont.

The May 28 runoff promises to be a high-profile slugfest in this elbow of Texas that borders Louisiana. Both candidates and their surrogates will likely spend millions of dollars trying to sway voters in what are typically extremely low-turnout contests.

Covey’s campaign has been heavily funded by Defend Texas Liberty, the political group mainly bankrolled by Midland oilman Tim Dunn, a Paxton ally and conservative activist. Covey positioned himself as the true conservative in the race who would remain in touch with the party’s grassroots rather than gallivant around Austin as a glad-handing politician.

Covey attempted to challenge Phelan’s conservative credentials. He acknowledged that the House passed border security bills last year, but said it was too little, too late. He also blasted Phelan’s decision to appoint a small number of Democrats to chair House committees, an issue that has motivated Republican primary voters this cycle. And he has pledged support to the fringe Texas secession movement.

Phelan countered with accusations that Covey, who has never before served as an elected government official and is simply a pawn of Paxton and other far-right interests. Phelan’s base of support included many local Republican leaders in his three-county district as well as former Gov. Rick Perry, who appeared with the speaker on the campaign trail in Beaumont, Vidor and Jasper ahead of election day.

As he was criticized by his enemies as a “Republican in name only,” or RINO, he ran on his record of overseeing the House as it passed some of the most conservative conservative agenda items in recent member, like a new border security law making it a state crime to illegally cross from Mexico into Texas, permitless carry of handguns and abortion restrictions. Locally, he touted his record delivering funding for district priorities like Lamar University and flood control over his decade in office.

Phelan had cruised to victory in previous contests, and no incumbent House speaker has lost a primary since Rayford Price in 1972, but this was the most difficult reelection he has faced. Polling by the University of Houston showed last month that Phelan was the most unpopular Republican leader in Texas.

Not only had Paxton and Patrick publicly called on Phelan to resign last year, but the speaker also earned the ire of Gov. Greg Abbott when the House sunk the governor’s school voucher proposal. Phelan did not cast a vote. Abbott did not endorse anyone in this race, appearing indifferent to Phelan’s political survival.

But while Phelan may be unpopular with Republicans across Texas, he only needed to persuade the 200,000 residents of his southeast Texas district to reelect him.

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