CANTON — Two Republican candidates in a closely watched special election runoff for a Texas House seat in northeast Texas faced off Tuesday night in their only anticipated debate, showing why the race has become a microcosm for the Texas GOP civil war.
One of the candidates, Brent Money, wasted little time before leaning into the intraparty contrast, comparing the 10 House Republicans who have endorsed rival Jill Dutton to his high-profile backers, which include Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Nine out of 10 voted to impeach Ken Paxton without any evidence,” Money said. “Half of them – five – voted against school choice.”
“When you look at birds of a feather, my birds are sitting over there,” Money added, gesturing to life-size posters of his endorsers in the back of the room. “That’s who I want to flock with.”
Later in the debate, Dutton generally defended her endorsements, saying “most — if not all” are based on a personal relationship, highlighting her history with former Gov. Rick Perry in particular. As for the House Republicans, she said she got to know them during the race and some offered their support, while she sought the others’ backing.
The debate brought well over 100 people to a Texas Farm Bureau building in Van Zandt County, Dutton’s home turf. There were more than a few reminders of the race’s contentiousness, with the moderator remarking that the race has “obliterated” Ronald Regan’s “11th Commandment” to not speak ill of a fellow Republican.
Dutton emphasized her desire to unify and grow the party, while Money said he is not afraid to call out fellow Republicans if they go against his principles. He joked about Reagan’s famous advice, saying it’s “a Ronald Reagan commandment, it’s not in the Bible.”
Money and Dutton were the top two finishers in a November special election to succeed former state Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City, in House District 2. The House expelled Slaton in May after a committee investigation found that the married lawmaker got a 19-year-old intern drunk and had sex with her.
Money is a Greenville lawyer who previously served on the City Council there, while Dutton is the former president of the Republican Women of Van Zandt. She also was a Van ISD board trustee.
The contest intensified as an intraparty proxy war after the House impeached Attorney General Ken Paxton on abuse-of-office charges last year. The Senate acquitted him after a trial in September.
Paxton has backed Money as part of a political revenge tour to shake up the House, while Dutton has the support of Perry, who urged senators to hear the evidence against Paxton, and groups allied with Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.
Money also has the support of Defend Texas Liberty, a hard-right political action committee that came under fire after its leader hosted white supremacist Nick Fuentes in October.
But the biggest endorsement came last month, when Abbott backed Money. It was a surprise given that Money has previously criticized Abbott in harsh terms, but Abbott is intent on building a House GOP majority that is more supportive of his school voucher push. Both candidates have backed Abbott’s agenda, but Money has run as a purer ally to the cause.
Money’s criticism of Dutton’s endorsers was not the only tense moment of the night. After Money blamed Dutton for property taxes that went up while she was on the Van school board, she shot back by attributing the trend to a 2015 bond election in the wake of a tornado that damaged schools.
“He is attacking the voters of Van ISD,” Dutton said, noting they overwhelmingly approved the bond. She added she was “very proud” of the new facilities that the bond made possible.
When it came to school vouchers, both candidates signaled support for Abbott’s push, though Dutton suggested she has had more of an evolution on the concept. She said that before 2023, there was “not “a plan well-thought-out and there was no accountability associated with” the proposals. Last year, though, she said her concerns were allayed by Senate Bill 8 and found herself in favor of it.
On education, Dutton went on the offensive over the Teacher Retirement System, asking Money whether he supported its current defined-benefit model or a defined-contribution plan. Under the current system, teachers are promised a specific, predetermined benefit when they retire. Under a defined-contribution plan, returns are less certain and depend on employee and employer contributions and investment strategy.
Money said he preferred the latter because he does not think “the government should always have to pick up the slack.”
“The Teacher Retirement System is the one thing that [teachers] can count on, and with their low salaries, they do not have the extra money in their paychecks to contribute to a defined-contribution system,” Dutton said. “I think every teacher, every school employee, would have that same concern.”
The two also fielded a moderator question about how they would run the House if they were speaker.
Money said “absolutely no Democrat” should chair a committee — and added that some Republicans would not meet his standards either. Dutton was not as explicit against appointing Democratic chairs but said she would pick chairs based on their experience, expertise and “conservatism and adherence to the party platform.”
Slaton loomed large over the race in its earlier stages, but he only came up briefly at the debate on Tuesday night. Asked about a hypothetical scenario where their chief of staff is having an affair with a lobbyist, both candidates said they would fire the staffer.
“I’m going to expel the chief of staff just like our former state representative was expelled for what he did,” Dutton said. “That was a stain and embarrassment for our district.”
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