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Get the popcorn ready: 2024 Texas GOP State Convention

Republicans across Texas are descending upon San Antonio this week as the largest political gathering in the world convenes for the Texas GOP’s biennial 2024 convention. Thousands of activists and hundreds of elected officials will all be in one place — a set of circumstances sure to draw all the quirky, knock-down-drag-out ideological brawling for which Texas politics has become known.

Here are some themes to watch.

Wide Open Chair Race

Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi’s decision not to seek re-election assured an entertaining scrap for his position at this convention — and it’s delivered.

So far, six candidates have thrown their hats into the ring: RPT Vice Chair Dana Myers, who’d already announced a challenge to Rinaldi before he dropped out; former Collin County GOP Chair Abraham George, endorsed by Rinaldi and Paxton; perennial candidate Weston Martinez; former Texas Freedom Caucus Executive Director Mike Garcia; activist Ben Armenta; and, most recently, Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak.

Generally, the theme of the race is George against the field; he’s the current chair’s hand-picked successor and the chosen candidate by the faction of the party that primarily controls the Texas GOP apparatus right now.

It’s an unusual path to the chairmanship. Delegates will convene in Senate District (SD) caucuses on Thursday. There, they’ll vote both on candidates for chair and a nominee to the State Nominations Committee; a chair nominee must receive a majority of votes and runoffs will be held until one is reached, with the lowest vote-receiver from the previous round eliminated from the next.

A candidate must get support from an SD caucus to advance. From there, the State Nominations Committee will vote to recommend a nominee to the floor, the full body of delegates.

On the first round of voting, Nominations members are tied to vote for whom their respective caucus selected. To receive the recommendation from the committee, a candidate must receive 16 votes.

If no candidate reaches 16 on the first ballot, then members are untethered. Voting occurs until a majority is achieved for one candidate. There is also a provision that allows candidates to be nominated from the floor, though it’s seldom used and has never been successful.

Party rules require a man and woman pair for the chair and vice chair positions; regardless of whether a man or woman wins the chairmanship, a person of the opposite sex must hold the vice chair.

And because of the nature of this race, the four-minute speeches each candidate will give on the main stage to delegates before SD caucuses convene are paramount as the final pitch to a body of voters that likely, barely knows who the candidates are.

While the bluster on social media over this race is prolific, it’s in these SD caucuses, and in the State Nominations Committee, where it’s really run. The behind-the-scenes jockeying will be busy.

Statewide Headliners

This go-around, there’s unlikely to be the kind of spectacle that occurred in 2022 when Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) was booed prolifically during his speech. That came right after Cornyn authored and proposed gun reform legislation in the U.S. Senate.

His was also contrasted by Attorney General Ken Paxton, who hit Cornyn directly and hinted at a run for Senate in 2026 — something that seems even more likely following Paxton’s impeachment and acquittal last year, which Cornyn supported.

Cornyn will not be speaking this year.

His place will be taken instead by Gov. Greg Abbott — a 2022 absentee by choice who instead hosted a competing event of his own across the street — who’s slated to speak to delegates via video from a campaign rally on Friday. But in the last year, following action on the border and his school choice crusade, Abbott finds himself the beneficiary of a newfound respect from many of the party faithful who were once rearing to censure him during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor’s appearance will be bookended by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Saturday.

Red meat is sure to be the meal of the day for each of these speeches, but the potentially contrasting scope of each official’s messaging and who they decide to hit rhetorically are the most interesting factors to watch.

Maneuvering the Rules

The table was set two years ago in an under-the-radar maneuver by the party’s Rules Committee: stripping every explicit mention of the Texas Election Code from its governing document. Those behind the change intended it to serve as the foundation for closing primaries in the state.

Now the Texas GOP is beginning to act on that, expected to approve a closed primary requirement in the permanent set of rules adopted by the full delegate pool by the end of the weekend. That is sure to spark a legal fight, something Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi and the others pushing the issue believe is to their benefit.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1980s found that the Connecticut GOP had the freedom of association right to determine whether it wanted an open or closed primary. That’s the legal basis for the move. The practical basis is the existence of crossover voters, those with some or a lot of Democratic voting history who vote in GOP primaries — ostensibly to affect the Republicans’ nominee in a given race.

The oft-cited example this year is in House District 21 where almost 3,000 voters — 9 percent of the total — had some degree of Democratic primary history. Broken down further, though, it’s not exactly so straightforward as two-thirds of those voters had one or multiple GOP primaries under their belts, too.

Regardless, the RPT intends to limit what it sees as undue influence on its nomination process by the opposing party.

On Monday night, the Rules Committee approved language closing the primary going forward; it must be approved by the full body of delegates in the permanent rules before becoming effective. Once that happens, a lawsuit is sure to follow.

In discussion on the issue, a couple of delegates opposed to the move — far outmatched in number on the committee — raised concerns about the cost the party would have to bear. Should the primary be closed, particularly if the Legislature does not alter state law to cement the change, it is possible the party would have to run the election entirely on its own. Currently, both parties use the Texas Secretary of State to administer their respective primaries — an entity with the requisite infrastructure already in place to handle voter registration and other tasks.

Should that occur, it may also be incumbent upon the county parties, opponents asserted, to not only handle the administration tasks but also defend themselves against legal challenges. Another assertion made during the hearing by the language’s author Jim Pikl was that each voter would have to re-register every year.

All of this is a string of hypotheticals, but there’s a very real desire — and overwhelming support in terms of number — among the party’s activists. Not everything has been hammered out yet.

It’s unclear if this will occur, but before the convention began, former gubernatorial candidate Don Huffines issued a paper arguing that not only could the party close primaries without Legislative approval, it could also establish term limits.

Should a rule like that be adopted, it’d not only ensnare elected officials whom the current set of dominant party activists dislike but also those they do support — probably the biggest reason term limits have never been set by the Legislature.

Another substantial change made by the Rules Committee is an addition to Rule 44, the portion governing the censure process. Only three times has a GOP official been censured by the state party, and two of those occurred in the last 12 months: against Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) and Congressman Tony Gonzales (R-TX-23).

A censure allows the party to drop neutrality in primaries and spend money against those censured officials. Another section was added to the rule that directs county chairs to reject the ballot application of a censured official for two years after the condemnation, passing the body in a much narrower vote of 17 to 14.

Had that already been in effect, neither Phelan nor Gonzales could have run for the GOP nomination.

Back during the 2023 session, a bill by state Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) would have precluded any party from denying ballot access to a candidate who otherwise qualified for the election. It also would have voided any party rule that conflicted with state or federal law — a clear attempt to beat party activists to the punch on a host of election alterations.

That bill — along with the 2021 party-related resign-to-run bill for state GOP officials, that at one point was altered to require the election of the party chair on a primary ballot rather than at convention — was cited in discussion over the adoption of the closed primary language as reason for making the change.

It’s dense and bureaucratic, but the rules fight is the most interesting and the most practically impactful battle of the whole convention.

Drawing Policy Battle Lines

At each convention, the party establishes a list of priorities, items that activists will push for when the Texas Legislature reconvenes next year. The list of items has fluctuated greatly over the years — both as some items were accomplished through legislation and others jumped in priority.

The current list includes:

Protect our elections
Secure the border and protect Texans
Ban gender modification of children
Stop sexualizing Texas kids
Ban Democrat chairs
Abolish abortion in Texas
Defend our gun rights 

They’ve tended toward broader categories of topics rather than specific policies. One to watch for resurgence to the list is banning taxpayer-funded lobbying, which disappeared in the last iteration and has failed to move much in the Texas House.

Banning Democratic chairs is bound to reappear once again, having been a significant issue in the primary recoil against incumbent House Republicans.

The Legislative Priorities Committee will establish a shortlist and recommend it to the full body, which may make alterations.

TEXIT Hits Back?

Finally, the biggest question mark is how the Texas Nationalist Movement devotees organize. They’re miffed after the Texas GOP snubbed their attempt to place a TEXIT question on the March 5 primary ballot — Rinaldi being the totem of their ire.

Do they coalesce around a chair candidate? Four of the six candidates have signed the group’s Texas First Pledge, with the other two being Garcia and Mackowiak.

Or do they choose to focus on elevating Texas Independence as a policy plank more than it already is? It is currently in the platform, but moving it into a legislative priority would give the item new relevance it has previously lacked.

The fervent activists behind TEXIT are always rearing for a fight, and frequently find unique grounds from which to tussle — even if they’ve yet to land a blow for their cause procedurally.

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