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Takeaways from Texas primary runoffs

Texas’s GOP primary runoffs put Republican intraparty divisions on full display Tuesday night as several mainline conservative incumbents fended off challenges from their right even as other incumbents got picked off.

Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) and state House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) both survived primary contests against challengers who enjoyed support from either former President Trump or hard-line conservatives.  

At the same time, a handful of state lawmakers lost their reelection bids after drawing the ire of top Republicans in the state over their opposition to Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) school voucher policy or their support for ousting Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) during impeachment proceedings.

The mixed bag of results among mainline conservatives and hard-liners is only expected to deepen tensions between the two sides — to the potential benefit of the state’s embattled Democrats.  

Here are a few takeaways from Texas’s contentious primary runoffs. 

Trump, Paxton take a hit

For Texas’s long-ascendant far right, there was one principal target: state Rep. Dade Phelan (R). 

Phelan is “bad, bad, bad for the Republican Party and democracy. We need him beaten and beaten badly,” Trump said in a video shared Saturday on his Truth Social platform.

Trump had called on Texans to vote for Phelan’s challenger, former county Republican Chair David Covey, in a “very important” runoff.

As House Speaker, Phelan presides over the faction of “business Republicans” that ruled Texas from the late 1990s until the rise of Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) in the 2010s.

While a conservative Republican himself, the 48-year-old Phelan also serves as the head of the last part of the state’s government that is not in the hands of the far right — a body that, in the 2023 legislative session, pushed back on some of Abbott and Patrick’s key priorities, such as the assault on renewable energy and the direction of millions of dollars toward a state-run immigration policy.

But Phelan won particular ire from Abbott and Patrick for what they viewed as insufficient support for school vouchers, a policy that opponents saw as a means to allow wealthy parents to pull money out of public schools.

And he won the enmity of Paxton, a scandal-plagued Trump ally, for directing the House in its impeachment proceedings last summer — a move that escalated the divisions in the state party into something approaching a civil war.

In the March primary, where Covey won more votes than Phelan but failed to clear the margin for victory, the far right sought to cast Phelan as a moderate or even a closeted liberal.

In last night’s runoff, this gambit narrowly failed. Just more than 25,000 Orange County Republicans turned out for the primary, and Phelan won by a margin of 400 votes, or just more than 1.5 percent, leaving him battered but still in office.

But with his enemies’ proxy victories in other runoffs last night, the question of whether Phelan maintains his role as House Speaker remains an open question.

Abbott, Paxton still eked out some major wins

While top Republicans were unable to oust Gonzales and Phelan, they still enjoyed their fair share of wins Tuesday night.

Abbott targeted a slew of Republicans who opted to get rid of a school voucher provision in the state’s education package.

The school voucher policy was a major priority of Abbott’s, and the governor threw his weight behind Republicans seeking to challenge members of the Legislature that blocked the governor’s attempt to get the voucher program into the education bill.

Six voucher opponents were defeated during the initial March primary, with an additional three losing their primary runoffs Tuesday — meaning Abott and allies have now knocked off 75 percent of the voucher opponents they targeted.

But even supporting the governor’s school voucher priorities was not enough to save some incumbents.

Three state House members who had drawn the ire of Paxton for voting to impeach him last year also lost their seats in the runoff, bringing the total incumbents displaced by the far right to a record 15, according to the Texas Tribune. 

Abbott claimed Tuesday that the House “now has enough votes” to pass vouchers — though this assumes that all these candidates win in the November general election. 

A moderate House Republican squeaks by

Gonzales barely held onto his seat in the GOP primary Texas’s 23rd Congressional District, which runs from El Paso to San Antonio.

He survived a primary challenge against Brandon Herrera, a YouTuber and guns enthusiast who enjoyed support from conservative hard-liners including House Freedom Caucus Chair Bob Good (R-Va.) and Reps. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Eli Crane (R-Ariz.).

Gonzales and hard-line conservatives often found each other on opposing sides of key GOP issues, including whether to include a warrant requirement to a U.S. spy program and whether to support House Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) foreign aid legislation.

But the Texas congressman had also faced ire from within the state GOP, which censured him last year over his support for several pieces of legislation supported by Democrats, including the bipartisan gun safety bill that came after the 2022 school shooting in Uvalde — which Gonzales represents — and the Respect for Marriage Act.

Several outside groups waded into the GOP primary to aid Gonzales, a nod to how tight the race in a swing congressional district had become. The Republican Jewish Coalition contributed $400,000 in an ad buy for the primary runoff, while a super PAC aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee targeted Herrera in a $1 million ad buy, among other groups.  

Money matters

The 2024 Republican primary fight marked a watershed in Texas politics: the entrance of a flood of money into what have historically been sleepy, low-cost races.

The high-roller status of these races was evident in the Phelan-Covey matchup. Covey received $845,000 from Texans United for a Conservative Majority, a far-right PAC run by oil billionaires Tim Dunn and Dan and Farris Wilks; $120,000 from Patrick’s campaign committee; and $700,000 from conservative donor Alex Fairly, according to

But Phelan drowned Covey in a flood of money, including $1 million from mainline state Republican PACs, $700,000 from oil and gas, and half a million from real estate interests. One significant chunk — about $660,000 — came from casino tycoon Miriam Adelson. He also received $75,000 from controversial oilman Harlan Crow, the patron of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Over the Republican primary season, Adelson also gave $9 million to Texas Defense, a PAC to which she is the only donor, according to The Texas Tribune. This is matched on the other side by the $6 million poured into the coffers of school voucher supporters by Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass.

Gonzales was also aided by a money advantage as well. The ad-tracking firm AdImpact reported five days out from the election that there was $3.6 million in ad spending supporting Gonzales, another $1 million launching anti-Herrera ads and roughly $800,000 spending in support of Herrera at that point.

Deepening Texas GOP divisions embolden Democrats 

On Wednesday, the Texas Democratic Party pointed to Phelan’s near loss as a harbinger for the state — and a possible salvation for the party, which dominated Texas for much of the 20th century.

“The staggering primary defeats suffered by GOP incumbents, previously deemed ultra-conservative, unequivocally demonstrate that MAGA extremists have seized complete control of the Republican Party,” the state Democratic Party wrote in a scathing statement.

While many Texans are governed by local Democratic administrations, the party has failed to win statewide office for the past 30 years.

This next election could be existential for them, however: The proposed Republican primary plank would create a system like the Electoral College, in which statewide officials would have to win most counties — effectively locking Democrats out of power, as the Tribune reported.

Nearly three-quarters of Texans believe the state has been captured by “an extreme conservative agenda,” according to a poll from the progressive group Unlocking America’s Future earlier this month.

On Wednesday, the state Democrats sought to cast themselves as the party of mainline opposition to a rising far right.

“Despite being one of the most conservative speakers to ever lead the Texas House, Dade Phelan was forced into an unprecedented, precarious primary challenge after refusing to condone corruption,” the party wrote.

“Congressman Tony Gonzales narrowly escaped defeat by a C-List YouTube gun influencer after being censured for supporting common sense gun legislation aimed to prevent tragedies like the Uvalde massacre from taking place again.”

These tight races — and the wave of bumped-off incumbents — “show that the state GOP has been hijacked by the most extreme fringe of the far-right and is grossly unfit to lead,” the statement continued. “The Texas Democratic Party calls upon all Texans — regardless of partisan affiliation — to stand against this depravity.”

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