With new rules, the Texas GOP seeks to keep its elected officials in line

The state party plans to limit primaries to registered Republicans and keep elected officials it censured off the ballot. It’s unclear if it can without legislative approval.

By James Barragán, The Texas Tribune

Republican voters in Texas sent a strong message this primary season about their expectations for ideological purity, casting out 15 state House GOP incumbents who bucked the grassroots on issues like school vouchers or the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton.

At the same time this spring, the party itself has been making moves beyond the ballot box to keep its elected officials in line.

At its biennial convention last month, the Texas GOP tried to increase its party purity by approving two major rules changes: One would close the Republican primary elections so that only voters the party identifies as Republicans can participate. The other would bar candidates from the primary ballot for two years after they had been censured by the state party.

Jon Taylor, a political science professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the moves are clear political shots by the increasingly dominant right wing of the party to root out dissenters and shape the party in its image.

“It says something about this battle, this civil war that’s broken out in the Republican Party of Texas that one side has gotten so concerned that they haven't been able to solidify their control of the party that they want to close their primary,” he said.

But the ideas have drawn pushback from inside and outside the party, with many questioning whether the GOP has the power to enact them without action from the state Legislature.

James Wesolek, a spokesperson for the Republican Party of Texas, said the party will be pursuing the policies regardless. He added that “an overwhelming majority” of Republican voters supported the ideas when they were included as propositions in the GOP primary this year.

“We hope the legislature takes action, but we will move forward as our rules dictate,” Wesolek said in an email last week.

Questions remain about how that would work.

Eric Opiela, a longtime Republican who previously served as the state party’s executive director and was part of the rules committee at this year’s convention, said moving forward on closing the primary without legislative action would lead to legal challenges.

Because party primaries are publicly financed and perform the public service of selecting candidates for elected office, they must adhere to the state’s election law, said Opiela, who has also served as a lawyer for the state party.

Currently, any voter can participate in a Democrat or Republican primary without having to register an affiliation. Without a change to state law, the Texas GOP could open itself to liability if it barred voters from participating in its primary elections, Opiela said.

Under the rules approved by the GOP, a voter would be eligible to cast a ballot in a primary if they voted in a GOP primary in the past two years or submitted a “certificate of affiliation with the Republican Party of Texas” prior to the candidate filing period for that election. They also could register with the state party, though the party hasn’t yet unveiled a process to do so.

A voter under 21 could also vote in the primary if it were their first primary election.

But critics are concerned that the party is underestimating the amount of work required to vet a person’s voting history. And Opiela also said that there are concerns about how to provide proper notification to new voters, especially military voters, who might have recently moved into the state and are not covered under the proposal as written. He said such concerns are why these changes should be left to the Legislature, where lawmakers can consider obstacles to implementation and come up with solutions.

“I don’t know that the process was given much thought,” said Opiela. “Those of us who have run an election know that this isn’t easy to pull off.”

Texas is among 15 states that currently have open primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ten states currently have closed primaries.

Closed primaries are a particularly hot topic in the GOP due to frustration among some in the conservative grassroots over House Speaker Dade Phelan’s primary runoff victory.

Phelan oversaw the passage of major conservative victories including restricting abortion and loosening gun laws in recent years. But he has become a target of the hard right for failing to pass school voucher legislation, appointing some Democrats to chair legislative committees and presiding over the impeachment of Paxton, who is a darling of the hard right.

He finished second in his March primary, but won his primary runoff against right wing candidate David Covey by fewer than 400 votes. Covey and his supporters blamed Phelan’s victory on Democratic voters who crossed over into the GOP primary runoff to vote for Phelan.

It’s difficult to say whether that’s true; Texas doesn’t track party registration. About 4% of the people who voted in the GOP primary this year had most recently voted in the Democratic primary, according to data compiled by elections data expert Derek Ryan, a Republican. But party leaders, such as recently departed party Chair Matt Rinaldi, have pointed to the Phelan race as a reason for a need for change.

“The time is now for Republicans to choose our own nominees without Democrat interference,” Rinaldi said in May.

Taylor, the UTSA professor, said the push to close the primaries was in line with the right wing’s push to force GOP candidates to follow the party line.

“You’re engaging in a form of ideological conformity, you’re demanding 100% fealty to the party,” he said.

But Daron Shaw, a political science professor at the University of Texas, pushed back against those crying foul.

“It is completely unclear to me how it is the ‘right’ of a voter in Texas, particularly one that does not identify as a Republican, to vote in the selection of Republican candidates,” he said. “Ultimately, a party is a private association and if it chooses to select extreme candidates, then presumably the general electorate will react accordingly.”

The rule to bar candidates who had been censured by the state party has also been met with skepticism.

Opiela said that if a candidate turned in an application that otherwise met the requirements for running for office, a court would likely order the party to allow the candidate on the ballot. He also said the provision could open up precinct and county chairs to criminal liability for rejecting applications that met the requirements.

The state party rule tries to cover for that potential liability by stating it would provide legal representation for any party official who is sued for complying with the rule.

Asked by The Texas Tribune to assess the legality of the idea, Rick Hasen, a UCLA professor and election law expert, called it “dicey.”

Taylor, from UTSA, said the move was also a pretty transparent message to elected officials like Phelan and U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales to fall in line. Phelan was censured in February for overseeing Paxton’s impeachment and appointing Democrats as committee chairs. Gonzales was censured for supporting a bipartisan gun law in the wake of the 2022 Uvalde shooting, which occurred in his district, and his vote for a bill that codified protections for same-sex marriage.

The censure rule in particular has been denounced as undemocratic, an increasingly common criticism from the GOP’s loudest critics. At the same party convention, the state party changed its platform to call for a new requirement that candidates for statewide office must also win a majority of votes in a majority of Texas’ 254 counties to win office, a model similar to that of the U.S. Electoral College.

That proposal, which represents the official position of the party but does not have any power of law, has been panned as unconstitutional.

“There’s a very good argument that such a system would violate the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court,” Hasen said.

Under the proposal, the 4.7 million residents of Harris County would have the same voting power as the 64 residents of Loving County.

“It’s basically a tyranny of the minority,” Taylor said. “This is designed to potentially go a step further in nullifying the concept of one person-one vote.”

The proposals come even as the GOP has dominated Texas politics for decades, and the hardline conservative movement continues to grow its influence. Brian W. Smith, a political science professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, questioned the moves on a political level.

“Texas is already gerrymandered to elect ideologically pure candidates. We’re not seeing a lot of Republicans or Democrats moving to the middle to attract a broad swath of voters,” he said. “The Dade Phelans of the world are not winning because of independents or Democrats, they’re winning because they’re more popular among Republicans than their opponents.”

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Tracking URL: https://www.texastribune.org/2024/06/10/texas-republican-closed-primaries-rule-changes/

The GOP’s Texas platform is bonkers. You should see the rest of the party

Sure, the Republican Party is overwhelmingly backing a convicted felon, confirmed sexual assailant, business fraud, insurrectionist, and (alleged!) documents thief whose most endearing personality trait is his rascally inability to stop quoting Hitler, but have you seen what’s going on in Texas lately?

The Lone Star State, which has continually returned a criminally indicted attorney general to statewide office, is now looking to be a laboratory of new, exciting ideas, like “what if we shove all these unlabeled lab chemicals in a Hefty bag, light it on fire, and then stand around and see what happens?”

To read the Texas GOP’s recently passed, deeply un-American platform is to hate it—particularly if you’re a progressive ... or a moderate … or a moderate conservative who either has, knows someone with, or knows of someone with a womb.

As Karen Tumulty wrote in The Washington Post:

Just a few of the platform’s planks: that the Bible should be taught in public schools, with chaplains on hand “to counsel and give guidance from a traditional biblical perspective based on Judeo-Christian principles.” That noncitizens who are legal residents of this country should be deported if they are arrested for participating in a protest that turns violent. That name changes to military bases should be reversed to “publicly honor the southern heroes.” That doctors who perform abortions should be charged with homicide. That the United States should withdraw from the United Nations and that the international organization should be removed from U.S. soil.

Holy Mike Johnson! It’s enough to make you swallow your own tongue, assuming it wasn’t cut out years ago by your local Christofascists for uttering the sacred name of Barron Trump. What’s next, thought crimes? It won’t be long before Republicans seek to jail ordinary Americans for looking at pornographic images of consenting adults—or for not looking at pornographic images of Hunter Biden. (If Covenant Eyes hasn’t yet tweaked its filter to accommodate lurid photos of Hunter Biden, it really doesn’t understand its audience and should probably just shut down now.) 

And that’s not all! If you’re gobsmackingly horrified by the above, well, you should see what they want to do to democracy in Texas.

As reported in the Texas Tribune:

Perhaps the most consequential plank calls for a constitutional amendment to require that candidates for statewide office carry a majority of Texas’ 254 counties to win an election, a model similar to the U.S. electoral college.

Under current voting patterns, in which Republicans routinely win in the state’s rural counties, such a requirement would effectively end Democrats’ chances of winning statewide office. In 2022, Gov. Greg Abbott carried 235 counties, while Democrat Beto O’Rourke carried most of the urban, more populous counties and South Texas counties. Statewide, Abbott won 55% of the popular vote while O’Rourke carried 44%

So to review, Texas Republicans wants to jail abortion doctors while ensuring Greg Abbott can’t possibly lose the governorship, no matter how many killer mutant Sea-Monkeys he pours into the Rio Grande.

All of that is suitably horrifying, of course—and Texas Republicans are admittedly pushing the envelope further than other state parties—but Republican extremism and anti-democratic thinking have been running rampant of late, in case you somehow hadn’t noticed. And that’s a big opportunity for big-D Democrats.

First and foremost, the GOP is a party that embraces a literal felon who faces three more felony cases, all of which are arguably stronger than his first one.

It’s a party that, in newly red redoubts like Ohio, is brazenly attempting to thwart the will of voters on reproductive rights, vowing to do “everything in [its] power” to uphold restrictive abortion laws. 

It’s a party that’s rushed to pass new restrictive voting laws in response to Trump’s insistence that the racist, eternally demagoguing, pro-Putin candidate deserves to win every time.

It’s a party that, to a startling degree, has embraced and protected Putin, as well as openly autocratic Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

It’s a party that, post-Dobbs, has eagerly passed new, restrictive abortion laws, even as it tries to pretend it’s moderate on the issue. 

It’s a party that keeps hinting it will take an axe to Social Security and Medicare, which remain vital to the well-being of millions of Americans.

It’s a party that elevates ambulant absurdities like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s dog killing.

And it’s a party that’s apparently eager to ratify every fascist scheme that Trump wants to inflict on the American people. 

In other words, as Hopium Chronicles’ Simon Rosenberg tweeted, the current iteration of the Republican Party is “the ugliest thing any of us have ever seen.”

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg we’re about to crash into at full speed if we’re not careful.

In 2020, the GOP neglected to release a platform in advance of its national convention, perhaps reasoning that Trump’s surpassing charm and wit were all that they needed—or perhaps worried that Trump wouldn’t read it and would wildly contradict its key planks. Or, more likely, they were worried that the GOP’s awful policies—psst, if you want to live a long, healthy life, don’t live in a red state—would actually shake people loose from their tribal fealties long enough to notice that they prefer progressive policies. (Which, to be clear, most of them do. Turns out millions of non-billionaires actually support raising taxes on billionaires. Go figure.)

Of course, despite ample evidence that the electorate as a whole has no use for GOP policy prescriptions—on abortion and a range of other topics—Republicans across the country (not just in Texas) somehow can’t resist saying the quiet parts out loud. 

I say we hand them a megaphone and encourage them to Trump front and center as often as possible. Because every time he talks, an angel vomits into a pail, and there’s only so much mess God is willing to put up with, even from his chosen one.

Daily Kos’ Postcards to Swing States campaign is back, and I just signed up to help. Please join me! Let’s do this, patriots! Democracy won’t defend itself.

Every day brings a new prognostication that is making President Joe Biden's campaign operatives worry or freak out. Is Donald Trump running away with the election? No. Not even close.

At Texas GOP convention, Republicans call for spiritual warfare

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

From his booth in the exhibit hall of the Texas GOP’s 2024 convention, Steve Hotze saw an army of God assembled before him.

For four decades, Hotze, an indicted election fraud conspiracy theorist, has helmed hardline anti-abortion movements and virulently homophobic campaigns against LGBTQ+ rights, comparing gay people to Nazis and helping popularize the “groomer” slur that paints them as pedophiles. Once on the fringes, Hotze said Saturday that he was pleased by the party's growing embrace of his calls for spiritual warfare with “demonic, Satanic forces” on the left.

“People that aren’t in Christ have wicked, evil hearts,” he said. “We are in a battle, and you have to take a side.”

Those beliefs were common at the party’s three-day biennial convention last week, at which delegates adopted a series of new policies that would give the party unprecedented control over the electoral process and further infuse Christianity into public life.

Delegates approved rules that ban Republican candidates—as well as judges—who are censured by the party from appearing on primary ballots for two years, a move that would give a small group of Republicans the ability to block people from running for office, should it survive expected legal challenges. The party’s proposed platform also included planks that would effectively lock Democrats out of statewide office by requiring candidates to win a majority of Texas’ 254 counties, many of which are dark-red but sparsely populated, and called for laws requiring the Bible to be taught in public schools.

From left: Conservative activists Steven Hotze and Jared Woodfill enter the Senate gallery during the afternoon session of Day 1 of the Ken Paxton impeachment trial in the Texas Senate on Sept. 5, 2023.

Those moves, delegates and leaders agreed, were necessary amid what they say is an existential fight with a host of perceived enemies, be it liberals trying to indoctrinate their children through “gender ideology” and Critical Race Theory, or globalists waging a war on Christianity through migration.

Those fears were stoked by elected officials in almost every speech given over the week. “They want to take God out of the country, and they want the government to be God,” Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Thursday morning.

“Our battle is not against flesh and blood,” Sen. Angela Paxton, Republican of McKinney, said Friday. “It is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

”Look at what the Democrats have done,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, said Saturday. “If you were actively trying to destroy America, what would you do differently?”

Controlling elections

The Texas GOP’s conventions have traditionally amplified the party’s most hardline activists and views. In 2022, for instance, delegates approved a platform that included calls for a referendum on Texas secession; resistance to the “Great Reset,” a conspiracy theory that claims global elites are using environmental and social policies to enslave the world’s population; proclamations that homosexuality is an “abnormal lifestyle choice”; and a declaration that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.

The 2024 convention went a step further.

It was the first Texas GOP convention set against the backdrop of a civil war that was sparked by the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton and inflamed by scandals over white supremacists and antisemites working for the party’s top funders, West Texas oil billionaires Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks. This year’s convention was also sparsely attended compared to past years, which some longtime party members said helped the Dunn and Wilks faction further consolidate their power and elect their candidate, Abraham George, for party chair.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks during the Texas GOP Convention on Thursday, May 23, 2024 in San Antonio.

“What we're seeing right now is a shift toward more populism,” said Summer Wise, a former member of the party’s executive committee who has attended most conventions since 2008, including last week’s. “And the [party’s] infrastructure, leadership, decision-making process, power and influence are being controlled by a small group of people.”

That shift was most evident, she said, in a series of changes to the party’s rules that further empower its leaders to punish dissent. The party approved changes that would dramatically increase the consequences of censures—which were used most recently to punish House Speaker Dade Phelan for his role in impeaching Paxton, and against U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales for voting for gun safety legislation.

Under the changes, any person who is censured by the party would be banned for two years from appearing on GOP primary ballots—including judges, who are elected in partisan races but expected to be politically neutral once on the bench. The party also voted to unilaterally close its primaries, bypassing the Legislature, in a move intended to keep Democrats from voting in Republican primaries.

“It’s pretty hypocritical,” Wise said of the changes, which legal experts and some party members expect will face legal challenges. “Republicans have always opposed activist judges, and this seems to be obligating judges to observe and prioritize party over law—which is straight-up judicial activism.”

The convention came amid a broader embrace of Christian nationalism on the right, which falsely claims that the United States’ founding was God-ordained and that its institutions and laws should reflect their conservative, Christian views. Experts have found strong correlations between Christian nationalist beliefs and opposition to migration, religious pluralism and the democratic process.

Wise said she has seen parts of the party similarly shift toward dogmatic political and religious views that have been used “to justify or rationalize corrupting the institution and stripping away its integrity, traditions, fundamental and established principles"—as if “‘God wants it, so we can rewrite the rules.’”

“Being Republican and being Christian have become the same thing,” she said. “If you're accused of being a (Republican in Name Only), you're essentially not as Christian as someone else. … God help you if you're Jewish.”

The “rabbit hole”

Bob Harvey is a proud member of the “Grumpy Old Men’s Club,” a group in Montgomery County that he said pushes back against Fox News and other outlets that he claims have been infiltrated by RINOs.

“People trust Fox News, and they need to get outside of that and find alternative news and like-minded people,” Harvey, 71, said on Friday, as he waited in a long line to meet Kyle Rittenhouse, who has ramped up his engagement in Texas politics since he was acquitted of homicide after fatally shooting two Black Lives Matter protesters.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, wave to attendees during the Republican Party of Texas convention in San Antonio on Thursday, May 23, 2024.

Rather, Harvey’s group recommends places such as the Gateway Pundit, Steve Bannon’s Breitbart News or the Epoch Times, a far-right website that also had a booth at this year’s convention and is directly linked to the Falun Gong, a hardline anti-communist group.

Such outlets, Harvey said, are crucial to getting people “further down the rabbit hole,” after which they can begin to connect the dots between the deep-state that has spent years attacking former President Donald Trump, and the agenda of the left to indoctrinate kids through the Boy Scouts of America, public schools, and the Democratic Party.

Harvey’s views were widely-held by his fellow delegates, many of whom were certain that broader transgender acceptance, Critical Race Theory, or “diversity, equity and inclusion” initiatives were parts of a sinister plot to destroy the country and take over its churches.

The culprits behind the ploy differed—Democrats, socialists, or “globalists,” to name a few. But their nefarious end goals loomed over the convention. Fearing a transgender takeover of the Republican Party of Texas, delegates pushed to explicitly stipulate that the party’s chair and vice chair must be “biological” men or women.

At events to recruit pastors and congregations to ramp up their political activism, elected leaders argued that churches were the only thing standing between evil and children. And the party’s proposed platform included planks that claim gender-transition care is child abuse, or urge new legislation in Texas that's "even more comprehensive" than Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits the teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity in public schools.

“Our next generation is being co-opted and indoctrinated where they should have been educated,” Rep. Nate Schatzline, Republican of Fort Worth, said at a Friday luncheon for pastors and churches. “We are in a spiritual battle. This isn't a political one.”

Kyle Rittenhouse shakes hands with conventioneers at a meet and greet during the Texas GOP convention on Thursday in San Antonio.

For at least a half-century, conservative Christian movements have been fueled by notions of a shadowy and coordinated conspiracy to destroy America, said Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University who focuses on movements to put the Bible in public schools.

“It's like the boogeyman that won't go away, that gets summoned whenever a justification is needed for these types of agendas,” he said. “They say that somebody is threatening quintessential American freedoms, and that these threats are posed by some sort of global conspiracy—rather than just recognizing that we're a pluralistic democracy.”

In the 1950s, such claims were the driving force behind the emergence of groups such as the John Birch Society, a hardline anti-communist group whose early members included the fathers of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones and Trump. After decades of dwindling influence, the society has seen a revival since Trump's 2016 election. And in the exhibit hall last week, so-called Birchers passed out literature and pamphlets that detailed the New World Order's secret plans for "world domination."

Steve Oglesby, field director for the Birch Society's North Texas chapter, said interest and membership in the group has been on the rise in recent years—particularly, as COVID-19 lockdowns and international climate change initiatives have spurred right-wing fears of an international cabal working against the United States.

"COVID really helped," he said, adding that the pandemic proved the existence of a global elite that has merely shifted its tactics since the 1950s. “It’s not just communism—it’s the people pulling the strings.”

Throughout the week, prominent Republicans invoked similar claims of a coordinated conspiracy against the United States. On Friday, Patrick argued that a decadeslong decline in American religion was part of a broader, “Marxist socialist left” agenda to “create chaos,” including through migration—despite studies showing that migrants are overwhelmingly Christian. Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed those claims in his own speech minutes later, saying migration was part of a plan to "steal another election."

“The Biden Administration wants the illegals here to vote,” he said.

As Paxton continued, Ella Maulding and Konner Earnest held hands and nodded their approval from the convention hall’s front row. Last year, the two were spotted outside of a Tarrant County office building where Nick Fuentes, a prominent white nationalist and Adolf Hitler fan, was hosted for nearly seven hours by Jonathan Stickland, then the leader of Dunn and Wilks' most powerful political action committee. They eventually lost their jobs after The Texas Tribune reported on their ties to Fuentes or white nationalist groups.

Ella Maulding and Konner Earnest watch as Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick speaks during the Republican Party of Texas convention in San Antonio on Thursday, the first day of the gathering.

Maulding has been particularly vocal about her support for Great Replacement Theory, a conspiracy theory that claims there is an intentional, often Jewish-driven, effort to replace white people through migration, LGBTQ+ acceptance or interracial marriage. Once a fringe, white nationalist worldview, experts say that Great Replacement Theory has been increasingly mainstreamed as Republican leaders, including some who spoke last week, continue to claim that migration is part of a coordinated effort to aid Democrats. The theory has also been cited by numerous mass shooters, including the gunman who murdered 22 Hispanic people at an El Paso WalMart in 2019.

Five hours after Paxton and Patrick spoke, Maulding took to social media, posting a cartoon of a rabbi with the following text: “I make porn using your children and then make money distributing it under the banner of women’s rights while flooding your nation with demented lunatics who then rape your children.”

David Barton

Kason Huddleston has spent the last few years helping elect Christians and push back against what he believes is indoctrination of children in Rowlett, near Dallas. Far too often, he said, churches and pastors have become complacent, or have been scared away from political engagement by federal rules that prohibit churches from overt political activity.

Through trainings from groups like Christians Engaged, which advocates for church political activity and had a booth at this year’s convention, he said he has been able show more local Christians that they can be “a part of the solution” to intractable societal ills such as fatherlessness, crime or teen drug use. And while he thinks that some of his peers’ existential rhetoric can be overwrought, he agreed that there is an ongoing effort to “tear down the family unit” and shroud America’s true, Christian roots.

David Barton, left, of WallBuilders, at a Texas Eagle Forum reception at the Republican Party of Texas convention in Fort Worth on June 7, 2012.

“If you look at our government and our laws, all of it goes back to a Judeo-Christian basis,” he said. “Most people don’t know our true history because it’s slowly just been removed.”

He then asked: “Have you ever read David Barton?”

Since the late 1980s, Barton has barnstormed the state and country claiming that church-state separation is a “myth” meant to shroud America’s true founding as a Christian nation. Barton, a self-styled “amateur historian” who served as Texas GOP vice chair from 1997 to 2006, has been thoroughly debunked by an array of historians and scholars—many of them also conservative Christians.

Despite that, Barton’s views have become widespread among Republicans, including Patrick, Texas Supreme Court Justice John Devine and U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson. And his influence over the party was clear at last week’s convention, where his group, WallBuilders, maintained a booth and delegates frequently cited him.

This year’s platform, the votes for which are expected to be released later this week, included planks that urged lawmakers and the State Board of Education to “require instruction on the Bible, servant leadership and Christian self-governance,” and supports the use of religious chaplains in schools—which was made legal under a law passed by the state Legislature last year.

Warren Throckmorton, a former Grove City College professor and prominent conservative, Christian critic of Barton, told the Tribune that the platform emblematized Barton’s growing influence, and his movement’s conflicting calls to preserve “religious liberty” while attempting to elevate their faith over others. The platform, he noted, simultaneously demands that students’ religious rights be protected, and for schools to be forced to teach the Bible.

“What about the other students who aren’t Christians and who don't believe in the Bible?” he said. “This is not religious liberty—it’s Christian dominance.”

As Zach Maxwell watched his fellow Republicans debate and vote last week, he said he was struck by the frequency and intensity with which Christianity was invoked. Maxwell previously served as chief of staff for former Rep. Mike Lang, then the leader of the ultraconservative Texas House Freedom Caucus, and he later worked for Empower Texans, a political group that was funded primarily by Dunn and Wilks.

He eventually became disillusioned with the party’s right wing, which he said has increasingly been driven by purity tests and opposition to religious or political diversity. This year’s convention, he said, was the culmination of those trends.

“God was not only used as a tool at this convention, but if you didn’t mention God in some way, fake or genuine, I did feel it was seen as distasteful,” he said. “There is a growing group of people who want to turn this nation into a straight-up theocracy. I believe they are doing it on the backs of people who are easily manipulated.”

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Tracking URL: https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/28/texas-gop-convention-elections-religion-delegates-platform/

‘Gunfluencer’ seeks Texas district where Uvalde massacre took place

Voters in Texas return to the polls on Tuesday for primary runoffs in contests where no one earned a majority of the vote in the first round on March 5. 

Lone Star Republicans will decide whether to eject several incumbents who've run afoul with the base—including a prominent West Texas congressman and the speaker of the state House— in favor of more hardline options. They're also selecting nominees in another pair of congressional districts, including one where a longtime Democratic congressman was recently indicted.

Below you'll find our guide to the top runoffs to watch. The polls close at 8 PM ET/7 PM local time in most of Texas, while they'll close an hour later in the small portion located in the Mountain Time Zone.

To help you follow along, you can find interactive maps from Dave's Redistricting App of Texas' 38 congressional districts and 150 state House seats. No one has released any reliable polling for any of the contests we cover below.

You also can find Daily Kos Elections' calculations of the 2020 presidential results for each congressional district here, as well as our geographic descriptions for each seat. And you'll want to bookmark our primary calendar, which includes the dates for primaries in all 50 states.

• TX-12 (R) (58-40 Trump): State Rep. Craig Goldman led businessman John O'Shea 44-26 in the first round of the GOP primary to replace retiring Rep. Kay Granger in a constituency based in western Fort Worth and its suburbs.

Goldman has maintained a huge fundraising edge over O'Shea throughout the contest, and almost all of the $1.1 million that super PACs have spent in the runoff has benefited the frontrunner. The state representative also sports endorsements from Granger, Gov. Greg Abbott, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a powerful conservative who leads the state Senate.

O'Shea, though, is hoping that hard-right voters will make up a disproportionate share of the vote in round two and favor him over Goldman, a former legislative leader who is closer to the party establishment. O'Shea has also reminded voters that his opponent voted to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton, a far-right icon who is O'Shea's main ally, for corruption.

Goldman, for his part, is trying to avoid being outflanked on the right. The state representative has run ads blasting O'Shea for not voting in elections when Donald Trump, Abbott, and other prominent Republicans were on the ballot.

• TX-23 (R) (53-46 Trump): Far-right challenger Brandon Herrera, a gunmaker who has over 3 million YouTube followers, forced Rep. Tony Gonzales into a runoff after holding the incumbent to a 45-25 advantage in the March GOP primary for this sprawling district in West Texas.

Gonzales found himself in this predicament a year after the state GOP voted to censure him for, among other things, voting to confirm Joe Biden's victory in the hours after the Jan. 6 attacks and later supporting gun-safety legislation after the Uvalde school shooting, which happened in his district exactly two years ago on Friday. Herrera has continued to argue that Gonzales, who is a close ally of GOP leadership, is insufficiently conservative and voted "to track you and your family's vaccine status."

The congressman and his allies, though, have used their massive financial advantage to push their preferred narrative about Herrera, whom Gonzales has dubbed "a known neo-Nazi." Gonzales' side has highlighted Herrera's mockery of the Holocaust, veteran suicide, and even Barron Trump, and pointed out that he only relocated to Texas from North Carolina a few years ago.

Gonzales has the support of Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, and House leaders. Herrera's biggest backers, by contrast, are a pair of far-right congressmen from out of state: Freedom Caucus chair Bob Good of Virginia and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz. (Gonzales also had some choice words for both of them.)

The winner will take on businessman Santos Limon, who won the Democratic nomination in the first round. Limon has struggled to raise money, but he could have an opening if Herrera pulls off an upset.

• TX-28 (R) (53-46 Biden): The Republican runoff to take on Rep. Henry Cuellar suddenly surged in importance after federal prosecutors indicted the congressman on corruption charges in early May.

GOP voters in this constituency, which includes Laredo and the eastern San Antonio suburbs, will choose between Navy veteran Jay Furman and businessman Lazaro Garza. Furman outpaced Garza 45-27 two months before Cuellar was charged. Neither Republican reported spending much money during the second round, and there has been no outside activity.

• TX State House (R): Eight Republicans in the ultra-conservative Texas House are fighting for renomination on Tuesday as two of the state's most powerful figures, Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, continue their campaign to push the chamber even further to the right.

By far the most prominent incumbent under fire is state House Speaker Dade Phelan, who trailed former Orange County Republican Party chair David Covey by a 46-43 margin in the first round of voting for the speaker's dark red East Texas seat, which is numbered the 21st District.

Covey already had the support of Paxton and Donald Trump, who are looking to punish Phelan for supporting Paxton's impeachment last year. Abbott has remained neutral in this contest, though the governor and his political network are targeting several other representatives who successfully blocked his plan to use taxpayer money to pay for private schools. Abbott is also active in a pair of open-seat races where he's trying to install his favored candidates.

The runoff between Phelan and Covey has been exceptionally expensive for a contest in the 150-member House. AdImpact reported Thursday that Covey and his allies, including the anti-tax Club for Growth, have outspent the speaker's side $2.4 million to $2 million in advertising.

‘The house is on fire’: Texas GOP plots its next chapter amid civil war

Under outgoing chair Matt Rinaldi, the party’s donor base has shrunk as it aligns with two far-right megadonors.

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

In one of his last speeches as chair of the Republican Party of Texas, Matt Rinaldi declared victory.

“We’ve changed the game,” he told members of the Texas GOP’s executive committee in February. “The biggest con that has been propagated against grassroots Republicans is that you have no other job other than to be a cheerleading society for anyone with an R next to their name.”

Rinaldi has indeed accomplished what he set out to do in 2021, when he was first elected chair. Whereas most of his predecessors focused on traditional party duties — courting donors, recruiting candidates and voter outreach — Rinaldi has turned the chair into a bully pulpit, using it to attack and purge more moderate Republicans and help usher in a dark-red wave in this year’s primaries. But when he steps down as chair this week, he will leave behind a deeply divided organization, with a decimated staff, that is increasingly dependent on two ultraconservative megadonors who have played key roles in the party’s ongoing civil war.

Last year, the Texas GOP’s fundraising dropped to its lowest level since 2017, and the number of corporate and individual donors to the party’s state account sank to their lowest levels in at least a decade. The party currently has just five employees — compared to 50 at the same point in 2020, the last presidential election year.

In its most recent federal filing, in April, the party reported having $2.7 million on-hand — three-quarters of what it had at the same point in the 2020 cycle, when adjusted for inflation. And much of the funds reported by the party in April have already been spent to cover the estimated $1.8 million cost of this week's convention — which is projected to operate at a $38,000 loss for the party, executive committee members were told at a Wednesday financial briefing.

As its donor base has shrunk, the party has increasingly relied on two West Texas oil tycoons, Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, who have for years funded attacks by the far right on fellow Republicans, pushed for hardline restrictions on immigration and LGBTQ+ rights, and faced recent scandals over avowed white supremacists and antisemites working for their political network. In the decade before Rinaldi became chair, the party received $310,000 in donations from Dunn, Wilks or their political action committees. Since then, they have given more than $1.2 million to the party — and last year, as Rinaldi increasingly used his position to attack their political enemies, the billionaires made up a quarter of the party’s total donations.

At the same time, some Republicans say, they’ve seen a noticeable drop in solicitations from the party for donations.
“I have gotten precious little under [Rinaldi’s] leadership asking for funding — precious little,” Andi Turner, a Republican lobbyist, said on a recent podcast. “And having done fundraising for a major organization in this state, I can tell you that if you're not asking every month, then you get what you deserve.”

The party’s divisions and proximity to Dunn and Wilks have turned the race to replace Rinaldi into a referendum on his tenure, and whether to continue its direction by electing his endorsed candidate, Abraham George, as the party’s new leader. Earlier this year, Texas GOP Vice Chair Dana Myers announced her candidacy for chair, saying the party was in a “state of disarray, fractured by internal divisions and marred by turmoil.”

In his late campaign announcement last week, Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak blasted what he said has been “five years of neglect, dishonesty, self-dealing, and blatant anti-Semitism.” And at a candidate forum days earlier, Houston-area businessman Ben Armenta argued that the party’s “chaos” has come at the expense of voter outreach initiatives and stronger partnership with grassroots groups.

The party “has not gotten the grassroots the resources it needs,” Armenta said. “Everyone is on the frontlines, waiting for the supplies to get there.”

Rinaldi did not respond to interview requests, but downplayed some of those concerns on a recent podcast. The party’s tiny staffing levels, he said, are due to cuts to regional employees who were replaced with contract labor. Other employees, he said, were working at the direction of the Republican National Convention, which scaled back in reliably-red states. That’s a “good sign” of the Texas GOP’s strength, Rinaldi said. He has similarly downplayed the party’s broader infighting, saying that it has good relationships with most elected leaders — save for House Speaker Dade Phelan and the Beaumont Republican’s “closest lieutenants.”

Longtime party members disagree.

“His time as chair is going to be seen as the time when the Republican Party no longer came together,” said Derek Ryan, a veteran consultant and adviser to GOP campaigns. “There is a certain portion of the party and electorate that is thrilled by that, and there are financial backers that are thrilled by that. And they may be effective right now at getting their agenda through. But is it coming at a cost in 2024, 2026 and beyond?”

“Win elections and beat Democrats”

As the party’s executive director from 1997 to 2004, Wayne Hamilton was on the frontlines of the fight against generations of Democratic dominance over the state. Hamilton credited the GOP’s rise to close collaboration between the party, Govs. George W. Bush and Rick Perry, and a coalition of business, socially conservative and grassroots groups.

“The party was focused at the time on what the party is supposed to do, which is win elections and beat Democrats,” said Hamilton, who later served as a national political director for Perry’s 2012 presidential bid and campaign manager for Gov. Greg Abbott in 2014. “We worked with anybody who would work with us.”

By 2008, however, the Republican Party of Texas was insolvent, with nearly $750,000 in debt that had accumulated over more than 15 years, as the party borrowed from future election cycles to cover convention costs, salaries or to pay outside groups that assisted with fundraising efforts. Deep in the red, the party and its new chair, Steve Munisteri, spent the next few years beefing up their outreach to donors, consolidating and streamlining its fundraising initiatives and working closely with officials such as Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“Our teams were always over at their teams’ shops,” Munisteri said in a recent interview. “The way I tried to govern was to bring all the factions together, find the common ground and create good dialogue and cooperation between the elected officials, the donors and the grassroots.”

Under Munisteri, the Republican Party of Texas sent out more than a million mailers each election cycle, created a network of phone-bankers and set up “victory centers” in major cities and predominantly Hispanic regions of the state. Aided by anti-Obama anger and the tea party movement, the party saw stunning results. From 2010 to 2015, Texas Republicans picked up nearly 1,200 seats across the state, grew their narrow advantage in the state Legislature into a supermajority, and zeroed out the party’s debt. 

Former Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri at the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth on June 7, 2014. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune.

By the time Munisteri stepped down as chair in 2015, that political marriage was showing early signs of acrimony. As tea party lawmakers and groups gained influence — often with major funding from Dunn and Wilks — they increasingly accused fellow Republicans, namely then-House Speaker Joe Straus, of being weak conservatives, and attacked them for working with House Democrats on bipartisan legislation.

Meanwhile, Dunn and Wilks continued to build their influence. In 2015, they were crucial to then-Sen. Ken Paxton’s election to attorney general. And in 2017, Rinaldi and other lawmakers funded by the billionaires formed a new group, the Texas House Freedom Caucus, that continued to attack House leaders from the right, laying the groundwork for the party’s eventual civil war.

Hot topics

At each of the party’s biennial conventions, delegates debate and approve its platform, a sprawling outline of conservative policy priorities which has for years been viewed as a bellwether for broader Republican sentiment.

And for years, party leaders cautioned that the platform should be understood not as an end-all-be-all list of Republican stances, but as a broad set of positions that reflect the party’s diverse coalition of business, activist and grassroots groups.

“It's false to represent that each one of those platform planks necessarily represents ... the view of the majority of the delegates, let alone a majority of Republicans," Munisteri said in 2014, amid criticism of the platform’s calls that year to repeal the Voting Rights Act, endorse conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people and end in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. “The Texas Republican Party has millions of people who vote for it, and every individual Republican has their own views on issues."

From left: West Texas billionaires Farris Wilks and Tim Dunn. Credit: Courtesy Ronald W. Erdrich/Abilene Reporter-News|Brett Buchanan for The Texas Tribune

That’s changing, however, as the state’s ultraconservatives continue to consolidate power. While the platform has always trended toward the right — the 2014 platform also called for the end of hate crimes laws and the restoration of Confederate symbols — by 2022 it had turned into what Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas-Austin, called a “Frankenstein assemblage of up-to-the-minute GOP hot topics.”

That year, the platform included calls for a referendum on Texas secession; resistance to the “Great Reset,” a conspiracy theory that claims global elites are using environmental and social policies to enslave the world’s population; proclamations that homosexuality is an “abnormal lifestyle choice”; and a declaration that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.

Over the same time — and reflecting the party’s ongoing division and purity tests — the platform has begun to shift from merely a compromise document, and into a vehicle for punishing dissent. In just the last year, it was cited in censures of three prominent Republican officeholders: Phelan and outgoing Junction Rep. Andrew Murr, both of whom were central to Paxton’s impeachment; and U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, of San Antonio, over his vote for a bipartisan gun law in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, which is in his district.

Heading into this year’s convention, a Texas GOP committee also adopted language requiring state and county chairs to reject ballot applications from any official censured in the two years prior, a move that would give the party unprecedented sway over who can run in GOP primaries. “The party apparatus has gone from being the means of sorting out tensions within the Republican coalition to being an ally of the more extreme and ideologically driven factions, interest groups and organizations within the party,” Henson said.

That was evident by 2020. Furious that the party’s convention was virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, delegates ousted then-Chair James Dickey and replaced him with Allen West, a former Florida congressman who has long flirted with conspiracy theories.

In a recent interview, Dickey downplayed West’s election as a sign of the party’s shift, instead blaming his defeat on elected Democrats in Houston who fought against allowing the convention to be held in person there because of the pandemic. “It was a very unpleasant experience,” he said. “And as happened to President Trump, incumbents don't fare well in unpleasant experiences.”

West was an immediate lightning rod. He suggested that “law-abiding states” should secede from the United States after the U.S. Supreme Court shot down Texas’ lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election results. He pushed for the Texas GOP to have an account on Gab, a social media website frequented by neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists. He appeared at a convention for QAnon conspiracy theorists, and repeatedly used some of the movement’s best-known slogans. He referred to the party’s then-vice chair, Cat Parks, as a “cancer” (Parks is a cancer survivor). And he repeatedly blasted Abbott, at one point leading protests outside the governor’s mansion over his pandemic orders.
In June 2021 — barely a year after he was elected chair — West stepped down, and soon after announced his campaign against Abbott for governor. The Texas GOP’s executive committee met soon after to choose between four potential successors that included David Covey, the former Orange County GOP chair who is currently in a runoff against Phelan; and Rinaldi, a West ally who had remained involved in party affairs after losing his House seat to a Democrat in 2018.

Rinaldi won, and immediately called for unity. "We cannot lose Texas — and will not lose Texas — if we work together," he said in his victory speech.

Rinaldi's reign

The reconciliation period was short.

After running unopposed for a second term in 2022, Rinaldi began to stoke a broader civil war. As other donors pulled back their giving, Rinaldi further aligned the party with Dunn and Wilks, using his powers to attack the billionaires’ Republican opponents and to help them survive a series of high-profile scandals and potential setbacks.

In March 2023 — and hours after leaving a small, private donor retreat with Rinaldi and Dunn — Rep. Bryan Slaton, a Royse City Republican who was heavily funded by the West Texas oil billionaires, invited a 19-year-old intern to his downtown Austin apartment, plied her with alcohol and had sex with her. Rinaldi was later criticized for what some said was a delayed and muted response to the allegations against Slaton, who the Texas House later expelled unanimously. 

He spent the next three months vociferously attacking House leaders for impeaching Paxton, a key ally whose two largest donors are Dunn and Wilks. And when some Republicans publicly worried about the party’s paltry fundraising, the then-leader of Dunn and Wilks’ main political action committee responded with insults and assurances that the billionaires would make up the gap.

“Quit being such an obvious lackey,” Jonathan Stickland, who was at the time president of Defend Texas Liberty PAC, wrote in one social media exchange. “[The party] will have everything it needs.”

In the wake of Paxton’s acquittal by the Texas Senate, Rinaldi, Stickland and other allies of the billionaires’ political network vowed scorched-earth revenge against anyone who supported the impeachment.

Those retribution plans were disrupted two weeks later, when the Texas Tribune reported that Stickland had hosted notorious white supremacist and Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes for several hours. Rinadi was spotted outside the meeting, but denied knowing Fuentes was inside. Subsequent reporting by the Tribune uncovered deeper ties between the network and avowed antisemites. As other Republicans condemned the meeting and called for the party to cut ties with Defend Texas Liberty, Rinaldi attacked critics of Stickland and his billionaire funders — while quietly working as an attorney for Wilks.

The series of scandals did not hinder Dunn and Wilks’ political network. After spinning off a new PAC, Texans United For a Conservative Majority, ahead of this year’s GOP primary, the billionaires saw massive electoral gains that will likely give them more control than ever over the state Legislature. Rinaldi endorsed most of their candidates and, 10 days after primary day, announced he would not seek a third term as chair.

Hamilton, the former Texas GOP executive director, said the last few years have made him increasingly worried that current infighting and purity tests have made Republicans vulnerable. After seven years as the party’s executive director — the longest-ever tenure — and stints on Abbott and Perry’s campaigns, Hamilton started Project Red TX, a grassroots group that recruits and supports candidates in south Texas, which he says has been almost entirely neglected by the party.

Hamilton, the former Texas GOP executive director, said the last few years have made him increasingly worried that current infighting and purity tests have made Republicans vulnerable. After seven years as the party’s executive director — the longest-ever tenure — and stints on Abbott and Perry’s campaigns, Hamilton started Project Red TX, a grassroots group that recruits and supports candidates in south Texas, which he says has been almost entirely neglected by the party.

Today’s party, he said, is a “night-and-day” contrast from two decades ago, when a united coalition of Republicans worked together to flip the state’s political landscape on its head and cement a generation of GOP dominance.

“It’s becoming more of an advocacy group — similar to an industry group, business group or sector group — rather than a functioning campaign organization,” he said. ”It leaves a big void. … Meanwhile, the house is on fire.”

When delegates choose this week between six candidates to replace Rinaldi, they will do so at a convention replete with signs of the party’s new alignment. The leader of Dunn and Wilks’ political network, Luke Macias, will lead the group that nominates party representatives to the Republican National Convention; the convention’s sponsors include Wilks’ development company and three other groups funded by the billionaires; and the event schedule features a breakfast hosted by the Dunn family, and five events — by far the most of any other figure — hosted by Sen. Bob Hall, an Edgewood Republican who has received $853,000 from the billionaires.

Among the frontrunners in the race is George, whose endorsements by Rinaldi and his allies have helped him overcome backlash after reports that he was intercepted by police last year as he left his home with a loaded gun to confront a man he believed was sleeping with his wife. George, the former chair of the Collin County GOP, has said that he wants to expand the party’s fundraising and is running on a platform to, among other things, “defeat the Austin swamp.” But Republicans broadly agree that his election would continue the party’s current direction under Rinaldi. And they are, yet again, divided over whether that’d be great or cataclysmic.

“Rinaldi made it very clear that if you think the party has been doing just perfectly the last two years, then George would be the candidate to support,” said Dickey, the former chair who is supporting Mike Garcia in the race. “I think it is clear from the amount of candidates that have stepped up that there are concerns about doing just that.”

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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Donald Trump says he’d consider Ken Paxton for US attorney general

Trump told a reporter in Texas this weekend that Paxton is “a very talented guy.”

By Jasper Scherer, The Texas Tribune

Former President Donald Trump said he would consider tapping Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for U.S. attorney general if he wins a second term in the White House, calling his longtime ally “a very talented guy” and praising his tenure as Texas’ chief legal officer.

“I would, actually,” Trump said Saturday when asked by a KDFW-TV reporter if he would consider Paxton for the national post. “He’s very, very talented. I mean, we have a lot of people that want that one and will be very good at it. But he’s a very talented guy.”

Paxton has long been a close ally of Trump, famously waging an unsuccessful legal challenge to Trump’s 2020 election loss in four battleground states. He also spoke at the pro-Trump rally that preceded the deadly U.S. Capitol riot in January 2021.

Paxton’s loyalty was rewarded with an endorsement from Trump in the 2022 primary, which helped the attorney general fend off three prominent GOP challengers.

Trump also came to Paxton’s defense when he was impeached last year for allegedly accepting bribes and abusing the power of his office to help a wealthy friend and campaign donor. After Paxton was acquitted in the Texas Senate, Trump claimed credit, citing his “intervention” on his Truth Social platform, where he denounced the proceedings and threatened political retribution for Republicans who backed the impeachment.

“I fought for him when he had the difficulty and we won,” he told KDFW. “He had some people really after him, and I thought it was really unfair.”

Trump’s latest comments, delivered at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Dallas, come after a series of recent polls have shown the presumptive Republican nominee leading President Joe Biden in a handful of key battleground states.

Paxton has also seen his political prospects rise in recent months, after prosecutors agreed in March to drop three felony counts of securities fraud that had loomed over Paxton for nearly his entire tenure as attorney general. The resolution of the nine-year-old case, along with Paxton’s impeachment acquittal in the Senate last fall, has brought him closer than ever to a political career devoid of legal drama.

Still, Paxton’s critics say he is far from vindicated. He remains under federal investigation for the same allegations that formed the basis of his impeachment, and he continues to face a whistleblower lawsuit from former deputies who said they were illegally fired for reporting Paxton to law enforcement. A separate lawsuit from the state bar seeks to penalize Paxton for his 2020 election challenge, which relied on discredited claims of election fraud.

If nominated, Paxton would need to be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. The chamber is narrowly divided along party lines, with Democrats holding a 51-49 majority. One of the most prominent Republican members, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, has been an outspoken critic of Paxton, while Paxton has openly entertained the idea of challenging Cornyn in 2026.

Paxton is not the only Texan Trump has floated for a high-profile spot in his potential administration. In February, he said Gov. Greg Abbott is “absolutely” on his short list of potential vice presidential candidates. Abbott has since downplayed his interest in the job.

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Tracking URL: https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/20/donald-trump-ken-paxton-attorney-general/

Texas congressman openly blasts fellow Republicans as ‘scumbags’ and klansmen

Gonzales’ interview on CNN infuriated members of the House Freedom Caucus, causing one to endorse his primary opponent.

U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, ripped into his party’s right flank for voting against billions in foreign aid for U.S. allies last week, castigating his ultraconservative peers as “scumbags” and klansmen.

“These people used to walk around with white hoods at night. Now they're walking around with white hoods in the daytime,” Gonzales told CNN’s Dana Bash in an interview Sunday. “It didn't surprise me that some of these folks voted against aid to Israel.”

Gonazales, a rare flame-throwing centrist who is battling it out against YouTube gun enthusiast Brandon Herrera in the first serious primary challenge, singled out two sitting Republicans by name who have endorsed against him.

“It's my absolute honor to be in Congress, but I serve with some real scumbags like [Florida Congressman] Matt Gaetz. He paid minors to have sex with them at drunk parties,” Gonzales said, before calling out Rep. Bob Good for earlier this month endorsing Herrera, whom he called a “known neo-Nazi.”

Federal prosecutors declined to charge Gaetz after investigating allegations of sex trafficking, though the House Ethics Committee is continuing to investigate the matter.

Gonzales made the remarks in reaction to several Republican members voting against their party’s leadership on Saturday on military and civilian aid packages for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. The hardline House Freedom Caucus asserted Congress should not pass the bills, which would include over $90 billion in assistance to the U.S. allies, before more securing aggressive measures on the U.S.-Mexico border. The foreign aid packages passed the House with large bipartisan support.

Gonzales has a history of clashing with the right wing of the House Republican conference. He criticized hardline border proposals by U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, as anti-American and un-Christian and was the only Republican to vote against a set of rules for the House negotiated between former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and hardline Republicans. Roy’s border bill eventually became a foundation for sweeping border security legislation the House passed with full Republican support last year.

Gonzales’ attack on Good, who is the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, attracted swift rebuttal from the group’s members. U.S. Rep. Eli Crane, R-Arizona, said on social media it was “pathetic” to “insinuate that other members are klansmen.” Crane endorsed Herrera’s run in the same post.

"It is not surprising that one of the most liberal RINOs in Congress, who has egregiously fought against real border security, and votes like a Democrat, would also resort to the Democrat playbook in screaming ‘racism’ against those exposing him,” Good said in a statement. “Thankfully, the good people of the Texas 23rd District have the opportunity to vote for change and an America First patriot, in Brandon Herrera."

Herrera said Gonzales’ comments were an act of desperation as he gains momentum.

“This is the death spiral ladies and gentlemen,” Herrera said on social media.

Gaetz denied Gonzales’ claims about him as “lies,” saying on social media that “one of the final phases a politician goes through prior to defeat.”

Gaetz supported Herrera before the primary election, appearing at a campaign rally with him in San Antonio in March.

Roy, who also represents parts of San Antonio and has previously kept any personal animus out of the public eye, railed against Gonzales in a Tuesday radio interview in San Antonio.

"I'm being attacked. Conservatives are being attacked," Roy said on KTSA. "Bob Good, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, is being attacked by Tony. He said that he's a Klansman. Yeah, I cannot tolerate what's happening to the people that I think are standing up for this country."

The Texas Republican Party censured Gonzales last year, citing his opposition to Roy’s border bill and the rules package, as well as his support for gun safety legislation after the Robb Elementary shooting in his district. The party also cited his support for legislation protecting same-sex marriage.

The censure invited a lively, five-way primary field, including Herrera and Julie Clark, the former Medina County GOP chair who started the censure motion. Backed by an army of online fans donating small-dollar donations, Herrera was able to secure a place against Gonzales in the runoff, which will be on May 28.

Attacking a fellow Republican member, including endorsing a primary challenger, was historically rare in the party. Gaetz’s support for Herrera was a provocative move, but the censure motion from the Texas GOP gave some cover for other Republicans to endorse Gonzales’ challengers.

Herrera has disquieted many of his fellow Republicans for his edgy humor on his YouTube channel and podcast appearances. He has made quips about veteran suicide, the Holocaust and child abuse that many moderate Republicans viewed as flippant.

He has defended his comments as being in jest to lighten heavy topics. He says in one video he’s “not really a big fan of fascism.”

Despite the pile ons from the right, Gonzales remains a competitive candidate with a formidable fundraising operation. He raised more than twice as much as Herrera in the first quarter of the year and maintains strong relationships with Republican leadership, corporate interests, moderate Republican donors and bipartisan interest groups. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which supports members of both parties to advance Israel-related issues, has steadily supported Gonzales.

House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, also backs Gonzales. He traveled to San Antonio on Tuesday to fundraise for him.

Roy criticized Johnson for passing the foreign aid bills without securing more for the border — a move Roy viewed as a betrayal. He said the speaker campaigning for Gonzales rubbed salt into the wound.

"To have the speaker be in San Antonio, campaigning for Tony … when we had them both voting to fund this atrocity this last weekend. I'm just beside myself that that's where things are," Roy said on KTSA.

Gonzales has also shown a willingness to entertain more partisan priorities, including the impeachment of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Gonzales helped U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, garner support for her move to impeach the secretary. The Democrat-controlled Senate voted to dismiss the impeachment.

"Tony Gonzales openly blasts fellow Republicans as “scumbags” and klansmen" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Ex-Texas House speaker: GOP megadonor told him only Christians should be in leadership

Straus, who is Jewish, publicly confirmed the conversation for the first time Thursday. It had previously been reported by Texas Monthly.

By Jasper Scherer and Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune April 4, 2024

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Former Texas House Speaker Joe Straus said on Thursday that Midland oil magnate Tim Dunn, one of the state’s most powerful and influential GOP megadonors, once told him that only Christians should hold leadership positions in the lower chamber.

Straus, a Republican who is Jewish, relayed the encounter in an interview with former Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. It appeared to be the first time Straus publicly confirmed the anecdote, which was first reported by Texas Monthly in a 2018 story that cited “Straus insiders.”

The alleged remarks came at a November 2010 meeting, shortly after Dunn’s political network had targeted many of the Democrats and moderate Republicans who had helped Straus ascend to the speakership the year before. With Straus poised to seek a second term as speaker the following January, he said he asked Dunn to meet in the hopes of finding common ground on “fiscal tax issues.”

But Dunn reportedly demanded that Straus replace “a significant number” of his committee chairs with tea party-aligned lawmakers backed by Dunn’s political advocacy group, Empower Texans. After Straus rebuffed the demand, the two began to talk about social policy, at which point Dunn allegedly said he believed only Christians should hold leadership posts.

“It was a pretty unsatisfactory meeting,” Straus said Thursday. “We never met again.”

Dunn did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Straus’ confirmation of the comments comes as Dunn’s political empire continues to face scrutiny for its ties to avowed white supremacists and antisemites. In October, The Texas Tribune reported that Jonathan Stickland, the then-leader of Dunn’s most powerful political action committee, hosted prominent white supremacist and Adolf Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes at his office for nearly seven hours. The Tribune subsequently uncovered close ties between numerous other Fuentes associates and Defend Texas Liberty, the PAC that Stickland led until he was quietly replaced last year.

Nick Fuentes

The reporting prompted Speaker Dade Phelan and 60 other House Republicans to call for the Texas GOP to cut ties with Defend Texas Liberty and Stickland. Dunn has not publicly commented on the matter, though Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Dunn “told me unequivocally that it was a serious blunder” for Stickland to meet with Fuentes. Patrick added that Dunn had assured him his political action committee and its employees would have no “future contact” with Fuentes.

Late last year, the state party’s executive committee narrowly rejected a ban on associating with Holocaust deniers, neo-Nazis and antisemites — which some members said could create a slippery slope and complicate the party’s relationship with donors or candidates. After outcry, the Texas GOP’s executive committee passed a significantly watered-down version of the resolution earlier this year.

At the time of his alleged remarks to Straus, Dunn was a lesser-known political entity, using groups such as Empower Texans to push for libertarian economic policy and help fund the state’s nascent tea party movement. Groups and lawmakers backed by Dunn had been particularly critical of Straus, frequently attacking him as a weak conservative—a claim they’ve made against each of Straus’ successors, including Phelan.

Since then, Dunn’s influence on state politics has steadily grown. He and another West Texas billionaire, Farris Wilks, have poured tens of millions of dollars into far-right candidates and movements who have incrementally pulled the Texas GOP and legislature toward their hardline, anti-LGBTQ+, and anti-immigration stances. Dunn's allies have meanwhile pushed back against claims that he is antisemitic or adheres to Christian nationalism, which argues that America's founding was God-ordained and that its institutions and laws should thus favor their brand of ultraconservative Christianity.

Tim Dunn appears on a PromiseKeepers podcast

Even after the Tribune’s reporting sparked a wave of backlash, Dunn emerged from last month’s primary perhaps stronger than ever, after his political network made good on its vows for vengeance against House Republicans who voted to impeach their key state ally, Attorney General Ken Paxton. Nine GOP incumbents were unseated by hardline conservative challengers and eight others, including Phelan, were forced into runoffs—mostly against primary foes backed by Dunn’s network.

The primary also paved the way for the likely passage of legislation that would allow taxpayer money to fund private and religious schools—a key policy goal for a movement that seeks to infuse more Christianity into public life. The push for school vouchers was spearheaded by Gov. Greg Abbott, who spent more than $6 million of his own campaign money to help unseat six anti-voucher Republicans and push four others into runoffs.

Straus, whose decade-long run as speaker overlapped with Abbott’s first term as governor, criticized Abbott’s spending blitz to take out fellow GOP lawmakers. He also accused Abbott of falsely portraying members as weak on border security even after they voted for the GOP’s entire slate of border legislation last year, pointing to Abbott’s ads attacking state Rep. Steve Allison, Straus’ successor in his San Antonio district.

“It’s too bad the governor took on all these members who are 99% with him,” Straus said.

Abbott has called the results “an unmistakable message from voters” in support of school vouchers. He recently said the House was two votes away from a clear pro-voucher majority and urged supporters to “redouble our efforts” during the runoffs.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Straus argued Abbott’s move to unseat anti-voucher incumbents “showed more frustration than political courage,” citing the governor’s failure to pass a voucher measure during the spring regular session and multiple special sessions.

“Persuasion failed, so he took on retribution,” Straus said. “I think it’s really unfortunate, and I think it just further diminishes the work of the Legislature and our state government.”

Abbott's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Straus, who served in the House from 2005 to 2019, announced he would not seek reelection in the fall of 2017, after concluding a months-long feud with Patrick over a bill that would have regulated which bathrooms transgender Texans could use. Straus opposed the measure, which never made it through the House.

Since Straus’ retirement, the legislature has passed laws barring transgender minors from accessing puberty blockers and hormone therapies and restricting which sports teams transgender student athletes can join.

Straus said the array of recent laws aimed at LGBTQ+ Texans have left the community “borderline persecuted.”

“Where's the humanity in that? And why is it such an obsession?” Straus said. “Time and time again, they try to find some niche thing they think will play well in the primary when, in my view, it's rooted in just plain indecency.”

Straus largely demurred when asked to assess Phelan’s performance as speaker, quipping that he “really didn't appreciate former members pontificating about whether I was good or bad” during his run as speaker. He said Phelan has generally been a good speaker, though when asked if Phelan made the right move to impeach Paxton, Straus said, “history has made that questionable,” citing the primary results.

Still, he argued that it remains to be seen how the House will change next session, even with its apparent shift to the right last month and calls from hardline House members to align more with Patrick and the Senate.

"In my experience, the House has never been easily tamed," Straus said after the LBJ School interview. "And I think that if I were a betting man, I would bet that the House will want to protect its independence, that it'll want to protect its institution."

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

Texas AG Ken Paxton skirts the law—again

Mere months after taking office in 2015, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton surrendered to authorities on three felony counts related to securities fraud. But after getting his mugshot taken and posting a $35,000 bond, Paxton spent the next nine or so years making sure that the law was a bludgeon to be used against other people. People who are not rich, white, politically empowered Republican men.

On Tuesday, weeks before that 2015 case was finally set to go to trial, the special prosecutors handling Paxton’s case announced a very special deal. Rather than facing a pair of first-degree felonies, each of which could have brought a minimum sentence of five years, and a third-degree felony that might have added at least two more, Paxton will face … zero years. Also zero months, zero days, and zero charges.

Instead, Paxton will agree to pay back the money he allegedly defrauded, attend a class on “legal ethics,” and do 100 hours of community service. He doesn’t have to pay a fine to the state. He doesn’t even have to plead guilty. Instead, all charges are dropped and Paxton can carry on with the vital work of threatening hospitals and protecting Texas’ right to drown children with razor wire.

Paxton’s get-out-of-felony-free deal comes six months after the state Senate acquitted him in an impeachment trial where he was clearly guilty. Paxton was overwhelmingly impeached in the Texas House in May 2023, on charges that included bribery, obstruction of justice, dereliction of duty, and misappropriation of public resources. In the middle of those charges was a scheme in which a wealthy donor reportedly provided a job to Paxton’s mistress and seven members of Paxton’s staff resigned.

But immediately following his impeachment, Donald Trump pressured Texas state senators to show their loyalty by acquitting Paxton, and in behind-the-scenes negotiations, none were willing to stand up and provide the critical vote that would have impeached the Texas AG.

Paxton was also allowed to skate by the state bar association, which said it couldn’t discipline Paxton for supporting false claims of election fraud. An almost four-year-old FBI investigation that began in relation to charges leveled by some of those who resigned from Paxton’s office has yet to result in any charges.

While benefiting from the immunity of the wealthy and politically connected, Paxton has continued to use the law as a club against those who aren’t so lucky. That includes his infamous war against Kate Cox, who sought to end a nonviable pregnancy that threatened her health and potentially her life. Cox was ultimately forced to leave the state to seek relief after Paxon appealed a district court decision that would have allowed her to obtain a medical abortion.

Paxton has also been on the forefront of claims about an immigrant invasion. That includes issuing a reply to a Supreme Court ruling in January, claiming that it “allows Biden to continue his illegal effort to aid the foreign invasion of America,” and seeking to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which can protect from deportation children who were brought into the country illegally. Paxton not only sued the federal government for cutting through barriers of razor wire, he also refused to consider removing that wire after a woman and two children drowned.

Like a lot of Republicans, Paxton seems to have a very strict view of the law when it is being used against someone else, and an absolute disdain for it when it’s turned his way.

But considering how many things he's gotten away with over so many years, Paxton has a right to feel like Texas law is a joke. And he always seems to get the last laugh.

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Texas attorney general who survived impeachment targets House Republicans who sought his ouster

The Texas attorney general who survived a historic impeachment trial last year made a Super Tuesday primary a bitter Republican-on-Republican brawl, targeting the House speaker and dozens of other lawmakers who had sought his ouster.

Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was on the brink of removal from office just six months ago, campaigned to defeat those political rivals in his own party in a test of his own clout and that of his biggest backer, former president Donald Trump.

After Paxton narrowly survived allegations of corruption and abuse of office, the attorney general quickly pivoted to launch fierce, bare-knuckle campaign attacks seeking to rid the GOP-dominated House of those Republicans who backed the impeachment drive.

Paxton found his biggest target in House Speaker Dade Phelan, leader of the attempt, along with more than 30 of Phelan’s Republican House colleagues who voted against the attorney general on the corruption and abuse of office allegations.

Paxton was not on the Super Tuesday ballot himself. He won a third term in 2022. His aim to overthrow the leadership of the House was being widely watched as an attempt to push an already conservative chamber further to the right.

Phelan has led the House through two terms. He fought back on the campaign trail in blunt and often personal terms against Paxton, with ads reminding voters of the corruption and abuse of office allegations that gave rise to the impeachment trial. Additional spots reminded voters of a Paxton extramarital affair.

Besides drawing support for his endorsed candidates from Trump, Paxton’s intensive and broad campaign of political revenge also prompted third-party groups to pour in millions of dollars of donations into the campaign.

Paxton still faces ongoing legal issues. He is scheduled for trial in April on felony securities fraud charges that could land him in prison for 90 years if convicted. He also is facing an ongoing federal probe involving some of the same allegations raised in his impeachment.

Paxton wasn't the only Republican attacking fellow Republicans in Tuesday's primaries Gov. Greg Abbott has targeted nearly two dozen incumbents who helped defeat his plan to spend tax money on private schools, putting some lawmakers in the crosshairs of both men as targets for removal.

Paxton also mounted a campaign to oust three female judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals. They were part of an 8-1 majority that stripped Paxton of the power to prosecute voter fraud without permission from local prosecutors. Paxton accused them of being “activist” judges after the court majority ruled the law had been a violation of the state Constitution’s separation of powers.

In Paxton’s sights were two of the court’s longest-serving judges: Judge Barbara Hervey, elected in 2001, and Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, elected in 1994. The third, Judge Michelle Slaughter, was elected in 2018.

“The Court follows the law, period,” Slaughter responded to the attacks in a pre-election post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We cannot and will not be partisan political activists.

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