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‘Battle for the soul:’ Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan headed to runoff with Trump-backed challenger

 House Speaker Dade Phelan as members of the Texas State House of Representatives converse with one another and wait as the House remains “at ease” during the second Special Session of the 87th Legislative Session at the Texas State Capitol on Aug. 9, 2021.
Gabriel C. Pérez
House Speaker Dade Phelan as members of the Texas State House of Representatives converse with one another and wait as the House remains “at ease” during the second Special Session of the 87th Legislative Session at the Texas State Capitol on Aug. 9, 2021.

Dade Phelan, the Republican speaker of the Texas House, is headed to a runoff with his GOP primary challenger.

As of 11 p.m. CST, Phelan trailed challenger David Covey 43% to 46%, according to election results posted by the Texas Secretary of State. Alicia Davis, a second challenger, garnered enough of the vote to keep both Phelan and Covey from getting the necessary 50% to avoid a runoff.

There is no Democrat running, so the winner of the May runoff election will gain the seat.

If he loses, Phelan would not only be ousted from his job as state representative. It would also create a leadership vacuum in the statehouse. The role of speaker is a powerful one, tasked with naming committee chairmen, setting policy priorities and helping steer bills through the legislative process.

Phelan blamed “a tidal wave of outside influence” for his failure to secure a win outright.

“This runoff is not just another race, it’s the frontline of the battle for the soul of our district,” Phelan said in a lengthy statement sent late Tuesday.

All 150 members of the Texas House are up for re-election this year. But when it comes to the future of the Texas Republican Party, this race for a small district on the Gulf Coast is perhaps the most important.

The matchup represents the wider intraparty war waging among Texas Republicans.

Phelan outraised Covey and, with deep family ties in the district, boasted leading the House during two of the most conservative sessions in living memory. He enjoyed the endorsement of influential political action committees and former Gov. Rick Perry.

But Covey had the backing of Donald Trump and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. He painted Phelan as a RINO, a “Republican In Name Only,” and criticized his policy of appointing Democrats to chair key legislative committees, the typical practice in the House.

Stumping for Phelan on the campaign trail, Perry scoffed at the description.

“I think it’s kind of sexy, frankly, when you think about it. In Africa, it’s one of the baddest boys on the block,” Perry said at a recent campaign event, according to Texas Monthly.

Phelan was targeted in part because he supported Paxton’s impeachment last year for alleged corruption. The attorney general later beat the charges and launched a revenge tour against the Republicans who voted against him, with Phelan particularly in the crosshairs.

On Tuesday, Paxton agreed that the election was a “battle for the soul of Texas.”

“This runoff is not a defeat, but rather a call to arms for all who stand for the principles of the America First movement,” Paxton posted on the social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Rural Republicans in the House also voted against Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature school voucher program, effectively killing the legislation and forcing the speaker to answer to the governor’s ire.

The governor did not endorse either anyone in the primary, a blow to the Republican speaker.

Covey describes himself as “conservative warrior” and “political outsider.” He wants to eliminate property taxes, ban vaccine mandates and add teeth to the transgender healthcare law.

Trump says Covey will better represent the interests of his MAGA base.

“Any Republican backing Phelan is a fool, and should be disassociated from the Republican Party,” Trump posted on his social media platform Truth Social on Feb. 25.

House District 21 is shaped like a teardrop, and stretches from Jasper to the Gulf Coast. It includes all of Jasper and Orange counties and a quarter of the city of Beaumont.

Phelan, 48, has represented the district since 2015 and was first elected speaker in 2021. This is the first time he’s had an opponent.

During his first session as the chamber’s leader, he spearheaded the passage of several conservative bills previously thought to be nonstarters. Abbott called that session the most conservative in history.

That was perhaps true until last year, when lawmakers approved a bevy of laws like strict border security legislation and a ban on gender-affirming care for minors.

Phelan's failure to win outright would not bode well for him, said Bill Miller, an Austin lobbyist whose firm HillCo supported Phelan through its political action committee. If the GOP primaries get nasty, electioneering in runoffs typically go even further.

“If you’re an incumbent in a runoff, you’ve got trouble,” said Miller.

The runoff election will be held May 4.

Copyright 2024 KUT News. To see more, visit KUT News.

Lauren McGaughy