NATIONAL NEWS

A Texas GOP brawl is dragging to a runoff. How the power struggle may push Republicans further right

Mar 6, 2024, 2:18 PM

FILE - Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference...

FILE - Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2024, at the National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Md., Friday , Feb. 23, 2024. Paxton beat impeachment and now he wants political revenge. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Republican power struggle in Texas that could push the state even further right come November isn’t cooling down.

The brawl within the Texas Republican primary this week was fought over personal and political reasons and left insurgent challengers emboldened that more victories are to come. With more than a dozen incumbents defeated or forced into uncomfortable runoffs, the results could reshape the Legislature and have already altered a top state appeals court.

The leaders behind the upheaval: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott.

For Paxton it was personal. He waged war against dozens of GOP lawmakers who were part of the 2023 effort to impeach him, most notably state House Speaker Dade Phelan. For Abbott, it was about policy. He spent millions to unseat Republicans who killed his plan to spend tax money on public schools.

Here is at look at what’s at stake:

WHO RUNS THE TEXAS HOUSE?

In a typical election, a House speaker who led the Republican-majority chamber as it passed some of the toughest anti-abortion laws in the country, vastly expanded gun rights, supported Abbott’s highly visible anti-immigration platforms and curtailed LGBTQ+ rights, would be a shoo-in for reelection.

But Phelan also led the attempt to force Paxton from office and was the attorney general’s biggest target. The party’s hard right forcing him into a May 28 runoff with oil and gas consultant David Covey was arguably the biggest result of the day.

Republican activists have railed against the Paxton impeachment, even after he was acquitted in a Senate trial. Paxton cast Phelan as “liberal.”

“Let this runoff be a rallying cry for all conservatives across Texas,” Paxton said. “The battle lines are drawn, and our resolve has never been stronger.”

Yet Republicans have struggled to pinpoint issues where Phelan had failed them on policy, other than Abbott’s visions for schools. Still, the state party censured Phelan over the impeachment and a “lack of fidelity to Republican principles and priorities.”

Even if Phelan wins the runoff, his hopes for third term as speaker would appear heavily damaged. But the GOP insurgents may not get their wish in a new leader.

Democrats still have enough numbers to force a compromise choice for speaker in 2025, and shut out any hard right candidates.

“Despite the lies and attempts by my opponents to disparage this conservative record of the Texas House, the facts speak for themselves,” Phelan said.

UPHEAVAL ON TEXAS’ HIGHEST CRIMINAL COURT

The GOP brawl wasn’t confined to the Capitol. Three sitting Republican judges on the state Court of Criminal Appeals, which handles death penalty matters and other criminal law issues, were defeated. Two of them, Barbara Hervey and Sharon Keller, had been on the court for more than 20 years.

This too, was part of Paxton’s revenge campaign but for different reasons. He targeted the three women judges because they were part of the 8-1 majority that stripped his office of the power to prosecution election fraud without permission from local district attorneys.

The court said the law violated the state constitution’s separation of powers. Paxton labeled the three as “activist” judges. Trump also weighed in on Paxton’s behalf, shining a spotlight on the normally quiet judicial campaigns.

Their defeat doesn’t change the ruling or the law, but Paxton’s success in defeating three judges on a panel that will consider future cases involving his office grabbed attention.

A CHANCE FOR CHALLENGERS ON THE RIGHT

Shelley Luther, the salon owner who make national headlines and spent two days in jail for defying Abbott’s COVID-19 shutdown orders in 2020 and called him a “tyrant governor,” defeated an incumbent for a the Republican nomination for a North Texas House seat. She had been endorsed by Paxton.

Brandon Herrera, a gun rights activist who produces YouTube videos and calls himself “The AK Guy” forced a runoff against incumbent U.S. Rep Tony Gonzalez in a sprawling south Texas district that covers a long portion of the U.S.-Mexico border from El Paso to San Antonio.

Gonzales had been sanctioned by the state party over a voting record that highlighted an independent streak that included support for protecting same-sex marriage, and new gun safety laws following the 2022 Uvalde school shooting in his district that left 21 people dead.

Katrina Pierson, former Trump presidential spokesperson and campaign adviser, advanced to a Republican primary runoff against the incumbent Justin Holland in a House seat in the Dallas suburbs.

Phelan’s race was forced into a runoff in part because of a third candidate: retired hairdresser and postal worker Alicia Davis, who barely spent any money, still snatched enough votes to deny Phelan and Covey a majority.

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A Texas GOP brawl is dragging to a runoff. How the power struggle may push Republicans further right