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Texas Speaker Dade Phelan fighting for his political life

About two weeks after the March 5 primary, House Speaker Dade Phelan hosted an event at the Austin Club with lobbyists and House members to chart a path forward after a difficult election for incumbent House Republicans.

A record nine members lost their primaries, and eight were sent to runoffs — including Phelan, who has run the House for two sessions and is the main target of right-wing Republicans’ efforts to push the lower chamber further to the right. Phelan had come in second place in his primary, possibly setting him up to be the first speaker ousted from the Legislature in more than 50 years and threatening to send the House into a chaotic race to replace him.

The roughly 150 people in the room were anxious to hear Phelan’s vision for the next two months, unsure what the primary drubbing meant for lobbyists’ priorities and House members’ ongoing projects. A few House members spoke to the crowd first, including Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo, who was one of just two targeted House Republicans to survive his primary challenge outright.

Darby recalled delivering a sober message: “If we don't invigorate people who are invested in the state and its infrastructure to get out and work for it, then, in my estimation, we're going to lose Texas.”

Now, with Election Day slated for the Tuesday after a holiday weekend, Phelan is fighting to keep his political career alive and send a message of defiance to his party’s right flank. In recent years, as the Texas Senate has lurched to the right and embraced culture war issues, the House has emerged as a more moderate and deliberative chamber. Even so, the past two legislative sessions in Austin have been widely considered the most conservative in the state’s history.

Instead of catering more to the conservatives who have criticized him, Phelan has doubled down on his messaging as a voice of reason in a tumultuous political climate, and he’s relied on support from former Gov. Rick Perry’s team and other prominent Republicans who have seen their party change drastically over the past two decades. A loss would not only push Phelan out of office but would reshape the lower chamber’s leadership, tone and legislative agenda. Even if he does win, his grip on the gavel could be weakened.

Phelan has approached the runoff with an expanded grassroots team and a new consultant who’d helped lead Perry’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2016. In an interview, he said the 75-day window between the primary and the runoff gave him an opportunity to pick apart some of the mailers and campaign ads attacking him. And he said he’s been able to stress to voters the importance of a House runoff race that perhaps would not have inspired many to head to the ballot box before.

“The tide has turned in all these counties, in my personal opinion, and I’m seeing it on the ground right now,” Phelan said. “This is not about changing a lot of people's minds. This is about motivating your base, and I feel really good about my base getting back to the polls.”

More than two dozen incumbent House Republicans have come to his aid in the district over the past two months, knocking on doors and talking to voters.

At the end of the day, Phelan and others said, his race and the other runoffs would be a referendum on the direction of Texas politics. Far-right donors, led by West Texas billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, poured millions into the race. Former President Donald Trump endorsed Phelan’s opponent, oil and gas consultant David Covey, significantly hurting his polling numbers. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller all endorsed Covey, too.

Covey similarly said the runoff provides him with an opportunity to reach more voters and tout Trump’s endorsement across the district, which he described as Trump country. He’s spent the past several weeks telling voters how he believes Phelan has failed the House and his district by appointing Democrats as committee chairs and declining to advance a bill that aimed to block some Chinese and Russian citizens from owning certain land in Texas. 

Covey said Phelan has used his speakership to “block and kill key conservative legislation, not protect his district.” He has repeatedly called the speaker a “liberal.”

“Victory would send a message to politicians across the nation that they work for the people, and when they don't do their job, there are consequences,” Covey said in a written response to questions. “This is a once-in-a-generation election.”

‘They know my record’ 

The opposition Phelan faces is steep. Patrick, the staunchly conservative head of the Texas Senate, said earlier this year that he wouldn’t weigh in on Phelan’s race or other House races — but that pledge didn’t last long. Patrick was present at Covey’s election night party in March, and last month, he donated a whopping $100,000 to Covey’s campaign.

Trump, speaking at the NRA convention in Dallas last weekend, reiterated that Covey has his “complete and total endorsement.”

“David is leading, very substantially, an absolutely terrible speaker of the House,” Trump said on stage before addressing Covey, who was in attendance. “Good luck in a week from now. You’re going to win big!”

Initially, much of the criticism Phelan faced centered on his chamber’s decision to impeach Paxton on corruption charges last year. Paxton was ultimately acquitted by the state Senate, and Patrick railed against Phelan for, in his view, leading a rushed and unfair impeachment process.

But Phelan has also come under fire for declining to prioritize private school vouchers, a top issue for Gov. Greg Abbott, who has stayed out of Phelan’s race but has campaigned against several House members who opposed vouchers. After the primary, Phelan appeared alongside Abbott at several press conferences.

Phelan said much of the runoff campaign period has been spent pushing back on the criticism that he is not conservative enough. He said having House members come out to his district has been an especially effective way to communicate with voters who may be concerned about the allegations against him — that he doesn’t care about border security or election fraud or a host of other conservative priorities.

“They know my record,” Phelan said. “I mean, they were there. When (my opposition) says, ‘Dade Phelan didn't vote for this, Dade Phelan didn't vote for that,’ they can say, ‘Because the speaker doesn't vote for those bills. He never votes.’” 

He has also had the enduring support of former Gov. Perry, who has hosted at least two campaign events for Phelan this year. In his most recent appearance in Beaumont this week, Perry pleaded with attendees not to trade a powerful speaker for a freshman member who “wouldn’t even be a speed bump” in trying to fight against bad legislation.

Phelan’s campaign is also receiving heavy financial support from casino gambling interests. Political action committees backed by Las Vegas Sands and its owner, Miriam Adelson, spent more than half a million dollars boosting his campaign in the last few months. 

State Rep. Cole Hefner, an East Texas Republican, has visited Beaumont twice to campaign for the speaker. It was hot, and there were more mosquitoes than he’s ever seen — but he said the trips gave him a chance to personally vouch for the speaker and recruit new voters. In his experience, he said, a runoff is “a new ballgame. The score is zero to zero, and you basically start from scratch.”

“You can't really build on what you got in the primary,” Hefner said. “You just have to start over and run a new race and turn the voters out.”

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