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House Speaker Dade Phelan wins runoff, surviving challenge by Texas GOP’s far-right forces

House Speaker Dade Phelan celebrates after declaring victory over challenger David Covey on May 28, 2024 at JW’s Patio in Beaumont
Mark Felix for The Texas Tribune
House Speaker Dade Phelan celebrates after declaring victory over challenger David Covey on May 28, 2024 at JW’s Patio in Beaumont

BEAUMONT — Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, the top electoral target for a far-right faction of Republicans intent on controlling the Legislature, declared victory Tuesday over a well-funded challenger endorsed by Donald Trump and his allies.

Phelan defeated former Orange County Republican Party chairman David Covey, who also had the backing of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and former Texas Republican Party Chairman Matt Rinaldi. In doing so, he avoided the ignominious fate of becoming the first House speaker to lose a primary in 52 years.

With all precincts reporting, Phelan was up 366 votes — within the margin that Covey can call for a recount. Covey, however, conceded in a speech to supporters at his election night party in Orange shortly after 9:30 p.m.

Phelan, 48, who has seen his popularity plummet among Republicans since he backed the impeachment of Paxton on corruption and bribery charges exactly one year and one day ago, was defiant in his victory speech at JW’s Patio in Beaumont.

“I will be your state rep for HD 21 and I will be your speaker for the Texas House in 2025,” Phelan said to a raucous crowd of more than 100 supporters. “This was a true grassroots effort — not the fake grassroots.”

Covey, a 34-year-old first-time candidate, not only forced Phelan into a runoff in March but secured more votes than the two-term House speaker. That outcome shocked many in the district, as Phelan was previously reelected four times without Republican opposition and hails from one of the most prominent families in Beaumont.

David Covey stands on stage as the crowd waits for results to come in during a watch party on election night in Orange on May 28, 2024.
Callaghan O'Hare for The Texas Tribune
David Covey stands on stage as the crowd waits for results to come in during a watch party on election night in Orange on May 28, 2024.

Candidates for the Texas Legislature who trail after the first round rarely win their runoffs. Phelan carried the unique advantage of being a statewide leader with a prolific roster of political donors. Through May 20, his campaign reported spending $3.8 million on the runoff, more than double Covey’s $1.6 million.Their combined hauls amounted to what was almost certainly the most expensive state House race in Texas history.

It was also an ugly contest — Phelan accused Covey of running on “lies and deceit” — where the candidates attacked each other in a flood of mailers and television advertisements.

“This was a terrible, awful knock-down, drag-out,” Phelan said. “You can now open your mailboxes again. You can watch the 6 o’clock news. It’s over. It’s done.”

Phelan’s win is a major blow to the party’s ultraconservative faction that is led ideologically by Patrick and Paxton and financed by megadonors like West Texas oil magnate Tim Dunn. It is a group that rejects compromise and bipartisanship, demonizing Democrats and the Republicans willing to work with them. This ascendant wing has supplanted the party’s traditional focus on taxes and regulations with highly divisive social issues like transgender rights and book bans.

In defeat, that group did not go quietly. Covey called Phelan an "Austin swamp creature" who only secured reelection through the support of Democrats, which he said was a "brazen act of betrayal."

Paxton, an early endorser of Covey who had campaigned for the challenger as late as Tuesday afternoon, echoed the claim. The attorney general, who had vowed revenge against Phelan for supporting his impeachment, said the speaker had "blatantly stolen an election from the hard-working people of his district" by courting Democrats. Paxton said Republicans should move to closed primaries — a priority of the far right — and he issued a warning to members of the House.

"To those considering supporting Dade Phelan as Speaker in 2025, ask your 15 colleagues who lost re-election how they feel about their decision now," Paxton said. "You will not return if you vote for Dade Phelan again."

The more business-oriented establishment wing of the party viewed Phelan’s campaign as a last stand to maintain influence — and civility — in the Legislature. That group, led by some of the state’s wealthiest business executives, political strategists like Karl Rove and erstwhile Republican elected officials including U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry, poured millions of dollars into Phelan’s campaign. Phelan’s win was a victory for them, too. That well-heeled group of powerbrokers, who swept Texas Republicans into power in the 1990s, cracking a century of Democratic dominance, showed that despite recent attacks on their own reputations as RINOs, they still have sway within the state party.

But whether Phelan can hold on to the speaker’s gavel is unclear. One of his own committee chairmen, Republican Rep. Tom Oliverson of Cypress, declared his candidacy for speaker in March. But no members have publicly endorsed Oliverson, and while his reelection was in doubt, Phelan was able to keep the rest of his caucus from open rebellion.

House members had also refrained from expressing public support for Phelan’s return as speaker — there was little political upside in doing so if the man was going to lose his primary — but that excuse evaporated Tuesday. Politicking for the job will begin in earnest, with Phelan eager to show he still has the confidence of the caucus and other prospective candidates mulling when to declare their intentions publicly. Among the jovial supporters at Phelan’s party were Republican Reps. Jeff Leach of Plano, Stan Kitzman of Pattison, Will Metcalf of Conroe, Jared Patterson of Frisco, Brooks Landgraf of Odessa and Cole Hefner of Mt. Pleasant.

Stephenville Republican Rep. Shelby Slawson, who voted against impeaching Paxton, published a column this week criticizing House leadership for bringing the charges and arguing the speaker deserved to be replaced over the debacle.

“The architects of impeachment lit the House on fire, and regardless of what happens in the runoff elections, we cannot select an arsonist as fire chief,” Slawson wrote.

Attacked by his enemies as a RINO, Phelan was also widely considered more conservative than his predecessors, Phelan secured passage of the state’s near-total ban on abortion, permitless carry of handguns and several first-in-the-nation border security bills.

Phelan was easily reelected speaker in January 2023 with all Democrats and almost all Republicans in support; conservative rumblings of dissatisfaction amounted to a paltry three votes for another candidate. And he batted away far-right criticism of the House’s longstanding practice of appointing Democratic committee chairs, appointing them to lead eight of 34 committees.

Yet the preceding twelve months were the most tumultuous of Phelan’s political career.

The speaker routinely clashed with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose reputation for running the Senate with an iron fist has left many House members with the impression he would prefer to run that chamber, too. (Patrick said this weekend he doesn’t want to run the House but he wants someone more conservative than Phelan to run it.) But Phelan stood up for the House’s independence — on property taxes, on border security bills — and told The Texas Tribune his relationship with Patrick deteriorated to the point that by August, the men were no longer speaking.

Phelan’s relationship with the governor was cordial but increasingly fraught, again because the speaker stuck up for his members who repeatedly failed to pass a private school voucher bill, Abbott’s top legislative priority. Phelan, who later told the Tribune he would have preferred some version of the bill to pass, did not pressure the two-dozen Republican holdouts to accept the governor’s take-it-or-leave-it proposal if they were uncomfortable with it.

They left it, gutting the governor’s preferred bill during a dramatic November session. The victory was short-lived, however, as it set Abbott on a course for payback. He supported the primary challengers to many of the Republican holdouts; seven were ousted. And the failure of vouchers in the House may have contributed to Abbott’s decision not to endorse Phelan’s reelection.

But by far the greatest contributor to Phelan’s near-defeat was his support for impeaching Paxton. The impeachment was not his idea — the Republican-led House investigating committee began the probe months before presenting it to the rest of the members. But Phelan said the evidence showing Paxton’s misconduct was far too strong to ignore.

Paxton, a bombastic figure on the far right, began attacking Phelan even before the House formally voted for impeachment. He accused Phelan of presiding over the House while drunk — Phelan has denied the accusation — and demanded he resign.

Minutes after the Republican-led Senate acquitted Paxton of 16 charges and dismissed the rest, Patrick, who had just presided over the trial as judge, gave a speech excoriating the House for even bringing the case.

The impeachment, polling showed, was unpopular among Republican primary voters. In February, a University of Houston Hobby School survey found just 23% of respondents said they’d be more likely to vote for a lawmaker because they supported impeaching Paxton, while 46% said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who had. Phelan’s waning influence was evident, with respondents saying they’d be less likely to support a candidate endorsed by the speaker. For all other politicians polled, endorsements had a positive impact on voters’ views of a candidate.

Phelan skipped the biennial state Republican Party convention in San Antonio last week, where Patrick, Paxton and outgoing party chairman Matt Rinaldiused him as a punching bag in their speeches.

Despite his unpopularity statewide, Phelan had appeared flummoxed as to why District 21 voters would not want him to continue serving. The speaker’s great-grandfather made a fortune in the Texas Oil Boom, which began here, and later became a philanthropist. Phelan works for the now fourth-generation real estate business.

Signs of that lasting influence are omnipresent; the restaurant where the speaker gave his victory speech was Phelan Boulevard. Yet he downplays his patrician roots himself. He emerged from a polling place Tuesday afternoon wearing Wellington boots and a camouflage t-shirt. An alligator head adorns the desk in his downtown office.

As its representative, Phelan said he consistently secured resources to the often-overlooked and disaster-prone district, which occupies a corner of Southeast Texas that borders Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.

“I’ve answered the call, year in and year out,” Phelan said in January.

We’ve got big things in store for you at The Texas Tribune Festival, happening Sept. 5–7 in downtown Austin. Join us for three days of big, bold conversations about politics, public policy and the day’s news.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/24/dade-phelan-david-covey-texas-house-speaker-runoff/.

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Zach Despart | The Texas Tribune