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Infighting threatens to overshadow Texas Republican Party at this year's state GOP convention

Elaine Wilmore poses for a photo during the 2022 Texas Republican Party convention.
Elizabeth Conley / The Associated Press
Elaine Wilmore poses for a photo during the 2022 Texas Republican Party convention.

The Texas Republican Party will kick off its biennial convention Thursday against the backdrop of intraparty animus and early voting in runoff elections that could usher in a new balance of power in the Texas House.

The three-day convention in San Antonio will see attendees set the state GOP’s platform for the next two years, select delegates for July’s Republican National Convention in Milwaukee, and vote on a new leader for the state party.

A notable absence at the convention will be Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, who is in the crosshairs of his party’s far-right flank after detractors accused him of not being conservative enough for Texas. Though Phelan has championed Republican priorities, including extreme limits on abortion access in Texas, limiting access to books in public schools and controversial - and possibly unconstitutional - border security measures, Phelan voted with the majority of the Texas House to impeach state Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Phelan’s chamber also failed to pass legislation last year that would allow taxpayer dollars to be spent on private school tuition, and he’s been criticized for appointing Democrats as chairs to powerful House committees.

He was also formally censured by the party in February for “for lack of fidelity to Republican principles and priorities.”

The disapproval has, in part, forced Phelan into a runoff election next week that could see him ousted from his seat. If that happens, he’ll be the first speaker to lose reelection in more than five decades. Phelan joins more than a half-dozen Republicans forced into runoffs after meeting the ire of either Gov. Greg Abbott for votes on school vouchers, or Paxton for voting to oust the three-term attorney general.

The crowded race to be Texas’s next GOP chair

The discord surrounding Phelan’s leadership competes with that tied to the election for the party’s chair. Current chairman Matt Rinaldi, a former state representative from Irving, announced earlier this year he would not seek another term at the helm of the party. Just last week, Matt Mackowiak, who has chaired the Travis County Republican Party since 2017, announced he’s joining the crowded field that features five more contenders.

“It’s become increasingly clear how dire the financial situation is at the Republican Party of Texas,” Mackowiak recently told Houston Public Media. “The situation has been worsening over the last few months.”

Mackowiak said the current state of the party could adversely affect Republican candidates on the ballot in November’s general election, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who will face off with Dallas Democratic Congressman Colin Allred.

Also vying for party chair is Abraham George, whom Rinaldi and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have endorsed. Mackowiak called George “inadequate.” Ben Armenta, a businessman from Katy, is also on the ballot. He told Houston Public Media that the current party leadership appears divested from local elections.

“If the candidate or the precinct chairs or the grassroots organizations aren’t communicating value-based messages — aren’t connecting with the voters, aren’t doing any marketing, aren’t registering voters — then nobody else is,” he said.

READ MORE: Texas Republicans prepare for six-way election contest for state party chair

On Wednesday another potential scandal emerged when Current Revolt, an online publication on Texas politics, published a story claiming to have uncovered how Rinaldi voted in the March primary. Despite professing his support for former President Donald Trump, the story says Rinaldi voted for former GOP candidate and former Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The story was less about the alleged about-face by Rinaldi – its larger focus was on election integrity and whether a voter’s ballot was truly secure and confidential.

In a post on social media, Rachel Hooper, the Texas Republican Party’s general counsel, called the story “absurd” and said the party will look into whether any laws were violated.

“I have instructed Mr. Rinaldi to not comment in any way on these accusations as we investigate potential civil and criminal acts including defamation,” Hooper posted. “I am also calling on the Texas Attorney General to investigate any voter intimidation by a government official in the midst of our Republican primary runoff and Texas GOP convention.”

Mackowiak quickly seized on the news and demanded George renounce Rinaldi’s endorsement.

 

Will the GOP alter the way Texans vote in primary elections?

Though the convention kicks off to the public at large Thursday, the party’s rules committee has been working throughout the week to set the agenda for its delegates. On Tuesday, the committee voted to advance a rule that, if approved, would close the Republican Primary in Texas.

Texas currently has open primaries, which means voters don’t have to register with a major party to cast a ballot in their primary. That has led some Republicans to allege Texas Democrats are voting in Republican races to ward off more conservative candidates.

Rinaldi supported changing the system following approval of a ballot measure in March.

“The time is now for Republicans to choose our own nominees without Democrat interference,” he said in a statement. “Republicans saw multiple primaries this cycle that would have turned out differently if Democrats were not allowed to interfere. For example, nearly 9% of the voters in the March primary for Dade Phelan’s re-election were known Democrats.”

A final vote on the rule is scheduled for Friday.

Though the Texas GOP convention will feature a host of competing story lines, it’s not really for the average voter. That’s according to Mark P. Jones, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Rice University.

“These conventions tend to be dominated by the most intense activists within the party. And they really aren't representative of even where Republican elected officials are, let alone Republican voters or the general population,” he said. “They tend to be oriented toward issues that are of real, prime concern for the most diehard activists.”

Jones said more mainstream issues will be raised this week in San Antonio, including school choice and border security. But there will also be topics – like seceding from the United States – that won’t see the light of day during the upcoming 2025 legislative session in Austin.

“The Republican Party convention is famous for having some policy proposals and resolutions come out that are widely supported among Republican elected officials,” he said. “And others which are really only strongly supported by a small fringe element of the party.”

The convention runs through Saturday. A full schedule of the weekend’s events can be found here.

Copyright 2024 KERA

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom