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Texas GOP evaluating methods of closing its primary

The Republican Party of Texas will evaluate non-legislative methods of closing its primary ahead of its 2024 convention after taking an initial step two years ago at its last convention.

A working group of five party activists will consider methods outside of the legislative process for the Texas GOP to close its primary to non-Republican voters. Texas’ primary system is open, meaning voters do not register with a specific party. Voters may cast ballots in either major party primary each cycle. The only restriction is that a voter in one party’s primary may not cross over and vote in the opposite party’s primary runoff election.

The five members of the working group are former State Republican Executive Committee (SREC) member Mark Ramsey, current SREC members Matt Patrick and Jim Pikl, Texas Homeschool Coalition President Tim Lambert, and the party’s general counsel Rachel Hooper.

“Republican voters have the right to choose the candidates who will represent them in general elections,” Rinaldi said. “We look forward to ending Democrat interference in the Republican primary and giving Republican voters a stronger voice in their own party moving forward.”

The issue gained a new gust of momentum following the March 5 primary as voters with some or significant Democratic voting history joined the contentious GOP primary’s fray. It happened across the state, as it always does, particularly in districts that are heavily GOP favorable; in many legislative districts, the Republican primary serves as the election that’ll decide who holds the given seat.

The high-profile race in House District (HD) 21 — one of those heavily Republican districts — between Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) and challenger David Covey made headlines for having a chunk of voters with Democratic history participate in the race. Overall, 9 percent of the primary electorate had some level of Democratic history. But broken down further, the data gets more complicated.

Twenty percent of the voters had zero primary history at all, while 70 percent had only Republican histories. Of that 9 percent with Democratic history, two-thirds had either one, two, or three past GOP primaries under their belt.

Voters with Democratic history did participate in the GOP primary, but whether a voter in question counts as a Republican, a Democrat, or neither varies significantly based on each one’s individual voter history.

But in Rinaldi’s and the other party activists’ minds, any Democratic influence on their primary is undue and should be prevented in the future.

The party took an initial step toward closing its primary by striking every explicit reference to Texas Election Code at the 2022 convention; the requirements laid out by state law remain in there, just without the literal reference to code.

But since then there’s been no action and only active discussion about closing that loop — until now.

The Texas GOP sees one of two methods for the closure: through legislation, or via a rules change that’d likely need to withstand a legal challenge.

In recent years, Texas lawmakers and officials have bristled with the party apparatus — part of a long-running and unceasing debate over the role of the state party, particularly how active it should be in pushing a legislative agenda.

The 2022 maneuver was a response to an attempt the previous year by legislators to make the party chair and vice chair elected on the primary ballot rather than by delegates at the convention. Ultimately that reform wasn’t implemented, but it’s sparked a series of clashes over legislation.

Last session, one such proposal would have restricted the ability of party officials to void the eligibility of a candidate running for the GOP nomination. That bill stalled out in the Texas Senate.

It’s possible the results of the 2024 primary, or the runoffs to come, change the calculus such that a legislative path is now tenable. But assuming the status quo that the legislative route is unlikely remains, the other pathway is the option.

The Idaho GOP closed its primary more than a decade ago through a lawsuit against the state that succeeded in voiding a mandate from the legislature that its primary be open for all voters. In that state, the Democratic Party kept its primary open — a likely outcome here in the state as the minority party is behind the eight ball, needing to attract as many voters as possible.

But another piece of case law from the 1980s may be more applicable. The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Tashjian v. Republican Party of Connecticut found that a law requiring a closed primary violated the party’s right to freedom of association. It’s the opposite of the outcome Rinaldi, et al. hope to achieve, but the line of argument likely applies in the reverse direction too.

Practically, closing the primary will necessarily limit the voter base eligible to vote in the GOP’s contest. It could also drive Independent or soft Democratic voters to register as Republicans, still maintaining a moderating influence but now as a registered part of the GOP. In all likelihood, a closed primary would achieve some of those outcomes.

The 2024 Texas GOP convention is set for May 23–25 in San Antonio and a clash over closed primaries is now guaranteed alongside the five-person race to succeed Rinaldi as chair — who’s made advancing the ball on closing the primary his departing mission.

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