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Get ready for a battle between Republicans in the Texas House

In the end, it amounted to Jefferson County backing their hometown boy: a speaker under fire within the broader fight over the GOP was pushed across the finish line by his neighbors who turned out to vote in droves.

It’s strange for a sitting speaker winning re-election in a runoff to feel like an upset, but that’s exactly what Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) delivered Tuesday night in defeating David Covey as well as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Club for Growth, Donald Trump, and more all in one fell swoop.

It was a slim victory — 366 votes — the reaction at Phelan’s afterparty didn’t care; the margin matters not in winner-take-all-politics. 

He is the first incumbent state lawmaker since the mid-1990s to win in a runoff after finishing second in the primary.

Different sides will take away different things from the result. 

Here’s Phelan’s: “I think this primary did me a favor. It allowed me to show the voters what my record is. When it’s all said and done, I am your state representative. House District (HD) 21 is not for sale. I will be your representative to the House in 2025. And I will be your speaker in 2025.”

And for Covey’s statement, headlined “King of Democrats Dade Phelan Steals Election”: “Dade Phelan may have won this election, but in doing so, he has irrevocably destroyed his already feeble legacy. The Texas history books will undoubtedly record how a frightened Speaker, desperate to save his political future, mobilized the very party he claims to oppose.”

Others unhappy with the speaker say he “cut up” his members on two massive votes in Paxton’s impeachment and the November school choice vote and paid for it with a contentious primary; his proponents would counter that a large majority of House Republicans originally supported the former and that there was no good option in the latter.

Phelan himself hasn’t backed off the impeachment stance, stating that it was and remains the right thing to do. He’s also maintained a hands-off approach on school choice, vouchers, and education savings accounts, and may again take that approach next session should he retain his position.

All that fueled the primary hurricane that hit HD 21. But on Tuesday night, the gale passed.

The history books are going to have plenty to say about this race — the most expensive House race ever, a win notched for the status quo after a bizarre political year, a speaker who tempted fate and snubbed those looking to take him out, and many a hastily written political obituary all come to mind.

That a sitting speaker was pushed to a runoff in the first place is remarkable, chalked up to the momentous year that was 2024. A first-in-a-century impeachment followed by a bitter property tax standoff and a momentous vote on school choice really ushered the governor off the sidelines — all paralleling the venomous, long-running feud between Phelan and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

But in the end, all that, including the most powerful endorsement in GOP politics right now, Donald Trump, couldn’t oust the speaker.

And it really comes down to Jefferson County. During the primary, Phelan’s home accounted for 32 percent of the total vote. This time around, it jumped to 39 percent and the speaker grew his sum there by 8 points. Jasper County’s turnout proportion dropped 5 points and Orange’s fell by two.

The ground operation that Phelan’s team ran worked, and without it, this morning he’d be in the loser’s circle and Covey would be picking out the furniture for his new Capitol office.

But there were other factors at play. First off, Trump’s endorsement didn’t play here as much as it did in the primary. Part of that is surely due to the former and potentially future president’s absence from the ballot in this runoff.

Another part is the emphasis Covey’s team placed on it this time around, or lack thereof. Those in the district say it was less prominent in their mail and media advertising than during the primary — though most of his signs in district read “Trump-endorsed.”

Covey lays the blame at the feet of Democrats crossing over to support Phelan. His release states that they identified “at least 1,442 Democrats who voted early in Jefferson County.”

The full numbers aren’t available yet, but taking the primary past as prologue, there is likely to be a chunk of voters with Democratic history who voted in this runoff — probably more than the slim margin by which Phelan won.

But it’s not all so simple. Anyone who voted in this year’s Democratic primary was ineligible to vote in the GOP runoff. Also, of the nearly 3,000 voters with Democratic history who voted in the HD 21 primary, two-thirds had otherwise mixed or GOP-heavy history.

The current rules of the game are such that crossover votes are both legitimate and permitted, a fact that could change given recent changes implemented by the Texas GOP that hopes to close its primary. The tea leaves aren’t hard to read, the 2024 primary and runoff will invigorate the pro-closed primary faction of the party to follow through on that aim — though it’s not as simple as stating it into existence as a legal fight looms.

On top of all that, runoffs are abnormal. It’s a smaller electorate that is quite difficult to pin down in polling — internals fluctuated between Covey up 9 points to Phelan within the margin of error.

One thing is incontrovertibly true: Covey’s challenge ensured the speaker’s dollars that would have flowed to defending incumbents remained in HD 21, likely playing a role in the 15 incumbent defeats across the state.

Phelan escaped his political death on Tuesday, and whether his antagonists admit it publicly or not, his chances of retaining the gavel are higher than had been pronounced following the primary. The path is more difficult following the gains made by his opponents this primary, but it still exits.

And Phelan woke up today to an officially underway speakership race. State Rep. Tom Oliverson (R-Cypress) is already in and shows no sign of bowing out, releasing a statement the morning after the runoff.

“I want to reiterate so that everyone is clear – I intend to take the fight all the way to the floor. I will ensure that Republican members will have the opportunity to declare their preference and cast their vote for the status-quo or a new direction," wrote Oliverson. 

State Rep. Shelby Slawson (R-Stephenville) — previously considered part of or adjacent to House leadership like Oliverson, who is considering a run for the gavel herself — issued her own declaration on the eve of the runoff, stating that Phelan cannot be speaker again.

State Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Plano) congratulated the speaker in a statement Tuesday night, striking a tone fully expecting Phelan to retain his position.

Others are and have been working behind the scenes, gauging support. Some of those will stop now that Phelan survived, but the growing “Contract with Texas” contingent, now at 21 members following the runoffs, has yet to declare their own candidate or jump behind an existing one. The jury is out on whether they’ll ultimately splinter or stick together when things ramp up, but for now it’s a sizable contingent that can’t really be ignored.

For now, Phelan and team will take their victory lap after fighting off the most formidable challenger of the speaker’s political career and the forces behind him. 

Being dependent on an ever-fluid majority, speakerships often fall victim to entropy — but it hasn’t taken Phelan. Not yet. A speaker battered, but not broken.

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