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Phelan Wins, But Odds Of Remaining Speaker Are Long

The primary runoffs happened on Tuesday, and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan narrowly won against his challenger, David Covey. However, his chances of remaining speaker are long.

The primaries were extremely vicious, with two factions of the Texas GOP fighting for dominance. On one side was the comparatively moderate caucus embodied by Phelan. On the other was an extremist wing led by Governor Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, and Attorney General Ken Paxton. Armed with millions of dollars from oil and gas moguls and Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass.

Abbott and company backed a set of primary challengers aimed at punishing rural Republicans who blocked Abbott’s school voucher plan, other Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton for misuse of office, and Phelan, who they accuse of betrayal for allowing Democrats to chair some committees, a long-time tradition in the House.

The Abbott wing mostly prevailed. Six of the eight incumbents lost their races, possibly giving Abbott enough votes to push through vouchers next session. The governor has already declared victory for what he erroneously calls “school choice.”

Phelan, though, held onto power, and said he expects to be speaker again in 2025. Meanwhile, Patrick made an ultimatum in a written statement against anyone continuing to support Phelan’s bid.

“My message to Austin is clear: 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 counterattack from the Abbott wing was devastating. Not only did they oust six roadblocks to vouchers, but also three pro-voucher Republicans that voted to impeach Paxton. Phelan prevailed by less than 500 votes. The message is clear: fight Abbott and he will destroy you from the right.

Phelan ascended to the speakership in 2021 after a reporting a secret recording scandal brought down his predecessor, Dennis Bonnen. At the time, Phelan was seen as a trustworthy guy who could heal the fractured party and conduct business with quiet professionalism. He has continued to push for bipartisanship and cooperation in government.

That message has increasingly irked Abbott and company, who have spent the last three years in intense culture wars in order to maintain complete control of Texas politics. Phelan’s insistence on allowing the participation of Abbott’s political opponents have largely worn away his reputation as a consensus speaker.

To maintain his position as speaker, Phelan would need 76 votes. Assuming that all Democrats voted for him (and that all seats remain in the same hands after November), that would leave him with 11 Republicans he needs to woo. That doesn’t sound too hard as Phelan easily has thrice that many allies in his own party, but it comes with a catch.

If a majority of House Republicans want someone else, and Phelan can only return as Speaker with full Democratic support and minority of Republicans, he essentially proves that he is insufficiently conservative. This remains a mortal sin in Texas politics, and Abbott’s wing has been very free with accusations that Phelan and others are near traitors to the Republican cause.

It’s hard to imagine 11 Republicans willingly committing career suicide that way, no matter how much they like Phelan and hate Abbott’s vengeance-based governing style. If Phelan can’t convince a majority of his own party to back him in spite of Abbott’s willingness to torch the careers of people who vex him, he has no chance, even if he technically could have the votes.

Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner
Jef Rouner is an award-winning freelance journalist, the author of The Rook Circle, and a member of The Black Math Experiment. He lives in Houston where he spends most of his time investigating corruption and strange happenings. Jef has written for Houston Press, Free Press Houston, and Houston Chronicle.


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