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Race to succeed Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi has become referendum on his tenure

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

Race to succeed Texas GOP chair Matt Rinaldi has become referendum on his tenure” 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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Weeks after a bruising primary that further divided state Republicans, a new fight over the Texas GOP’s future is already underway.

Earlier this month, Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi announced he would not seek reelection when Republican delegates meet for their annual state convention in May. His exit comes in the middle of an ongoing civil war between the party’s far right and more moderate, but still deeply conservative, wings.

Now, with the powerful chair open, some Republicans and candidates are calling for a serious change, warning that the party could be vulnerable in future elections because of dwindling staffing levels and the ongoing disunity that has defined Rinaldi’s two terms.

Rinaldi has been a lightning rod in the state party since he took over in 2021 for outgoing chair Allen West. As party leader, Rinaldi has been a persistent antagonist of establishment Republicans such as House Speaker Dade Phelan. And he has used his post to advance the interests of the state’s far right and its billionaire funders, Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks.

In the wake of the Tribune’s reporting that prominent white supremacist Nick Fuentes was hosted for several hours in October by the then-leader of Defend Texas Liberty, a political action committee that’s funded by Dunn and Wilks and is a major donor to the Texas GOP, Rinaldi attacked Defend Texas Liberty’s critics and refused to condemn the PAC’s leader, Jonathan Stickland, for meeting with Fuentes.

Rinaldi was also seen outside the one-story office building while Fuentes was inside, but denied knowing the well-known Adolf Hitler admirer was there. The Tribune later reported that Rinaldi was quietly working as an attorney for Wilks throughout much of the Fuentes scandal — and as other Republicans, as well as nearly half of the Texas GOP’s executive committee, called for the party to cut ties with the group.

Dana Myers, current vice chair for the Texas GOP, has been among Rinaldi’s critics. She announced a challenge to him earlier this year, citing the party’s “disarray” and “internal divisions.” Before that, she was also a key supporter of a proposed ban on neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers that was narrowly defeated by the party’s executive committee last year. (A significantly watered-down version of the proposal, which came in response to the Fuentes controversy, was eventually passed this year).

Others running for party chair have been similarly worried by Rinaldi’s tenure. Ben Armenta, a businessman and former school teacher based in Katy and one of four current candidates for chair, also chastised the party’s efforts to raise funds, recruit new candidates and expand its voter base — particularly among Hispanic Texans, a massive voting bloc that has increasingly trended toward Republican candidates.

“There’s been a dereliction of duty when it comes to fundraising, when it comes to supporting local races,” he said in an interview. “A complete absence of discipline around messaging and marketing. And those are just the basics.”

Meanwhile, Rinaldi and other right-wing Republicans have already coalesced around their own candidate for state chair: Abraham George, whose failed 2024 run for the Texas House was buoyed by more than $58,000 from Dunn and Wilks.

George did not respond to a request for comment, and does not appear to have publicly commented on his relationship with the billionaires. He’s previously said that he is running to continue Rinaldi’s work as the party chair, but has also praised Myers as a “good Republican” and vowed to work together.

Some Republicans are still skeptical, noting the seemingly coordinated rollout of George’s campaign endorsement by far-right Republican figures. George announced his candidacy within minutes of Rinaldi’s decision to step down earlier this month, and was immediately backed by Rinaldi, Attorney General Ken Paxton and a slate of other Dunn- and Wilks-backed lawmakers. That has caused some Republicans to worry that George would be a continuation of the party under Rinaldi — further deepening its schisms ahead of a crucial November general election and continuing its heavy reliance on Dunn and Wilks, now the party’s largest donors.

“Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are,” House Speaker Dade Phelan said of George in a recent interview with KERA. “So, I’ve seen who’s endorsed him, and I think he would be just an extension of the current inept leadership at the RPT.”

Earlier this month, George also faced criticism after the Tribune reported that police were called to his Collin County home last year amid a domestic dispute. George was not arrested or charged in the incident, but police reported that they stopped him as he was leaving in his car with a loaded pistol, hoping to confront a man he thought was having an affair with his wife.

That, combined with his recent primary loss and ties to Rinaldi, could be problematic, said Mark McCaig, a longtime conservative activist and leader of the Texas Republican Initiative who has been critical of Rinaldi’s tenure. Myers, he said, has a proven record in the party both because of her strong support for President Donald Trump and years of work in conservative politics.

That might make it harder for her opponents to attack her from the right, he said. And the delegates who elect the state chair are typically more plugged-in than the average GOP primary voter, thus making them more likely to vote based on the state of the party rather than allegiance to one of its warring factions.

The party’s financial situation, he said, could ultimately shift the focus away from some of the lightning-rod issues of the primary — including Paxton’s impeachment and legislation to allow taxpayer money to go to private schools, a priority of Gov. Greg Abbott — and instead turn the race into a referendum on Rinaldi’s tenure.

“I don’t think this is going to be an ideological battle,” he said. “People who are involved in the actual party apparatus generally are the ones who are delegates to the convention. They’re the ones who know if the party is strapped for cash and resources. … and right now the party infrastructure is disintegrated.”

Armenta agreed that dissatisfaction with party leadership has been an animating issue for many voters. He’s spent the last few months campaigning around the state. And while the fallout from Paxton’s impeachment still looms large among some voters, he said a growing number have shifted their focus toward the future.

“I’m hearing that it’s behind us,” he said of the Paxton impeachment. “That people have cast their votes, and now they’re 100% focused on ensuring that [Sen. Ted Cruz] retains his seat and that we have a victory in November. Now we just need the state party to do its job.”

The state chair will be elected by delegates at the Texas GOP’s annual convention, which will be held in San Antonio from May 23-25.

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