In Texas, a ‘Once-in-a-Generation’ Brawl for Control of the G.O.P.


Rarely have intraparty battles between Republicans in Texas been as bitter, protracted and consequential as the primary contests culminating in Election Day on Tuesday.

The fights have primarily focused on members of the Texas House who angered many conservative voters last year by impeaching the Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, on charges of corruption and abuse of office. Mr. Paxton, who was acquitted in the Texas Senate, vowed revenge, and number one in his sights has been the house speaker, Dade Phelan.

Gov. Greg Abbott has also been going after a number of Republicans in the Texas House, seeking to unseat those who opposed his plan to use public money to help families pay for private and religious schools.

Aggressive campaigning by both statewide leaders is amplifying tensions that have simmered for years between the party’s old guard and a more socially conservative faction aligned with former President Donald J. Trump that sees Tuesday’s vote as a chance to shift the balance of power in the Texas House, which has served as a moderating force in the state’s politics.

The fight is not unique to Texas as Republicans across the country and in Congress engage in a struggle for control of the party. But the outcome could reverberate widely if Republicans in Texas, the most populous and wealthiest conservative state, decide the state needs to move even further to the right.

“This is a once-in-a-generation election,” said Nick Maddux, a Republican consultant who is working with Mr. Paxton and for Republican candidates in more than a dozen races.

If the two chambers of the Texas Legislature came out of the election aligned further to the right, “it would be the most conservative legislative body in the country,” said Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican consultant who has done work with school voucher supporters. “Dade and his allies are the only thing preventing that from happening.”

The flood of outside money and the sheer number of contests, including more than two dozen races seen as competitive, have forced longtime representatives into nail-biting fights for their political lives. Those involved in raising money said the primary appeared likely to be the most expensive yet seen in Texas, a state famous for big campaign spending.

To fund his statewide push, Mr. Abbott received a $6 million campaign contribution — the single largest in state history — from a Pennsylvania billionaire, Jeff Yass, who supports school voucher programs. A pair of West Texas billionaires who have long backed Christian conservative causes put in more than $2 million to help candidates aligned with Mr. Paxton. Millions more have been spent to defend Mr. Phelan and his embattled colleagues.

“It’s uniformly the most painful election we’ve experienced,” Mr. Phelan said, referring to his own experience and that of his colleagues.

Greeting voters this week in Vidor, Texas, near the Louisiana border, Mr. Phelan — wearing a white T-shirt and a camouflage hat, both imprinted with his name — bristled at his opponent’s claims that the Texas House under his leadership had not advanced conservative causes.

“We went from 50,000 abortions to 34, and they’re saying that that’s not pro-life. We have constitutional carry. You no longer have to get a permit from the government to carry a firearm, and they were saying that’s not good enough because convicted felons can’t have them,” Mr. Phelan said. “Tell me what’s left to do? Mandatory carry?”

In addition to trying to oust the Republican state representatives like Mr. Phelan who backed the attorney general’s impeachment last year, Mr. Paxton is trying to remake the state’s highest criminal court by unseating three Republican judges who serve on the Court of Criminal Appeals.

He has criticized the judges as Republicans-in-name-only for their part in an 8-1 ruling by the all-Republican court finding that the state Constitution did not allow Mr. Paxton to unilaterally prosecute criminal cases of voter fraud without going through local district attorneys.

Sharon Keller, the presiding judge and one of those facing a challenge, said she was surprised at the attacks. “I’ve always been criticized, if anything, for being too conservative,” she said in a television interview.

At the same time, Mr. Paxton is facing criminal charges, dating to a 2015 indictment for securities fraud. Arguments over details that have delayed that case have already been before the top criminal court whose judges he is now attacking.

While both Mr. Abbott and Mr. Paxton have been going after incumbent Republicans, their interests are not always aligned. And Mr. Abbott has himself faced challenges from the hard right of his party, including in his 2022 primary.

In the Houston suburb of Katy on Monday evening, Mr. Abbott appeared with State Representative Jacey Jetton, who supported the governor’s private school voucher plan but had voted to impeach Mr. Paxton. It was the third time the governor had traveled to the area in support of Mr. Jetton during the primary.

In an interview, Mr. Jetton lamented the large number of mailers and advertisements against him, particularly those suggesting that he supported the “trans agenda.” He clarified that he was a co-sponsor of a ban on gender-transition care for minors.

“There are a number of candidates that are running on complete lies,” he said. “If they win, I think that puts us in a dangerous direction.”

Nowhere has the campaign been as hard-fought as in the Southeast Texas district that Mr. Phelan has represented since 2015, and where his family has been prominent in business for generations. A boulevard in Beaumont, the largest nearby city, carries the family name, as does a shopping plaza. He has not faced an opponent of either party in a decade.

Mr. Phelan is being challenged by David Covey, a local Republican Party activist and technical adviser to the oil and gas industry who has promised to help make the Texas House more like the lock-step conservative Senate.

Mr. Covey, who described himself as a “very committed Christian and a conservative,” said in a telephone interview that Mr. Phelan and other representatives in Austin were too accommodating to Democrats and had lost touch with what Republican voters want.

“The conflict comes from elected leaders not listening to the Republican voters and the majority of the Republican activists,” he said.

His campaign has been bolstered by third-party groups like Texans United for a Conservative Majority, backed by West Texas oil and gas money, and catapulted into the national spotlight by an endorsement from Mr. Trump, who called Mr. Covey out of the blue to offer it.

“It was an incredible moment in my personal life and in the campaign,” Mr. Covey said. “His message was, as Texas goes, so goes the nation.”

Mr. Phelan, for his part, has been supported by Rick Perry, the former Republican governor, who has held two events for the speaker in recent weeks.

At one point in the race, online entertainers, posing as supporters of Mr. Phelan and claiming to have a transgender child and a fentanyl addiction, knocked on doors in the district, including Mr. Phelan’s own house. He was not home at the time, Mr. Phelan said, but his wife and four children were.

Separately, a 44-year-old man from Orange County in Mr. Phelan’s district was arrested after making threats against Mr. Phelan on Facebook. “He talked about what rifle he was going to use and how he was going to do it — I think he said my right temple,” Mr. Phelan said.

A recent poll from the Texas Politics Project, a program at the University of Texas, showed Mr. Phelan’s statewide approval had risen slightly from December, but remained below 30 percent.

“Phelan has been in there a while, maybe it’s time for some new blood,” Pat Jinks, a resident of Vidor, said after voting for Mr. Covey at the early voting center there. Her husband, Brett, said he voted for Mr. Phelan.

Another voter, Tony Wilcoxson, the mayor of the nearby town of Rose City, emerged and shook hands with Mr. Phelan. He said he had voted for the speaker because of the aid Mr. Phelan had secured for the area after Hurricane Harvey. “I’m as conservative Republican as they come, anti-abortion, pro-gun, all that good stuff, but at the end of the day you’ve got to take care of people,” he said.

Turnout for early voting in the primary elections in Texas has been light in most places, and Republican voters who came to cast ballots in Vidor appeared torn and eager to put the contest behind them.

“I wasn’t unsatisfied” with Mr. Phelan, said Randy Jarrell, who nonetheless said he voted for Mr. Covey. He said the Trump endorsement had an impact on him and his wife, who also backed the challenger. Both were tired of the fliers in their mailboxes and the barrage of attack ads on television.

“I’ll be glad when it’s over,” he said.

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