Watch CBS News

Texas House primaries highlight divides within state Republican Party

Bruising GOP primaries amid Republican infighting in Texas
Bruising GOP primaries amid Republican infighting in Texas 06:06

Top Texas Republican leaders are waging some bruising and brass-knuckle battles — against their own.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, the third-ranking Republican at the Texas Capitol, is in the bullseye.

"I think the issue is from personalities here in Texas who have a problem with me personally," Phelan said in a recent interview in Beaumont.

Paxton vs. Phelan

In October, Attorney General Ken Paxton began campaigning against Phelan.

"I'm going to be out campaigning for [two groups of people:] Texas house members who will not support Dade Phelan," Paxton told hundreds of supporters during a rally in McKinney.

Another high-ranking Republican, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick was sharply critical of Phelan during the regular and special sessions of the Texas Legislature.

"The House is totally dysfunctional. Dade is incapable of leading the House," Patrick told CBS News Texas in December.

At a recent campaign event, Phelan expressed his displeasure with the state of his primary race. "This is the nastiest, most negative campaign I've ever seen in Texas legislative history."

Phelan is in a fight to hold onto his House seat in Beaumont, where his family name is known through real estate and business ventures and has carried a lot of weight.

Former Gov. Rick Perry is supporting Phelan, while Gov. Greg Abbott has stayed silent publicly on this race.

Paxton, Patrick, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi, and former President Donald Trump have all endorsed one of Phelan's challengers, David Covey.

"President Trump's endorsement of my campaign shows just how far the incumbent has fallen," Covey told supporters after the endorsement came out.

"This is Ken Paxton going in there and asking a buddy for a favor," Phelan said of Covey's high-profile endorsers.

Paxton is going after Phelan after he okayed a secret House investigation last year into allegations by the attorney general's former top lieutenants that he ran his office to benefit a campaign donor.

That ultimately led to his impeachment in the chamber.

The Senate cleared him after a trial, and since then Paxton has repeatedly argued that it was all a waste of taxpayer money. 

"Dade Phelan hasn't disclosed how much he spent. Why doesn't he disclose that? Because he doesn't want you to know before the election how much it was," Paxton said on one such occasion at a rally last month.

Patrick released multiple ads for Covey, after telling CBS News Texas last December that he wouldn't get involved in Phelan's race.

Patrick's spokesman says what changed is that as chair of the Trump campaign in Texas, it's his job to speak on behalf of the former President's endorsement.

Former Gov. Perry has pushed hard for Phelan.

"I don't know why I need to be in Beaumont, Texas telling you you'll be absolutely out of your mind if you get rid of Dade Phelan," Perry told the crowd at a recent event.

"Every single day, I'm going to do the right thing. Sometimes when you show political integrity, you get criticized for that," Phelan said in an interview.

He has raised millions of dollars, according to state records, which show he has donated money and supported numerous House Republican incumbents, including those in North Texas who voted to impeach Paxton and who are now facing primary challengers of their own.

Collin County

One such race has Daren Meis, a former member of the Allen City Council, challenging six-term incumbent Jeff Leach in the Republican primary in the 67th House District in Collin County.

"This is the divide you see in the party right now," Meis told CBS News Texas, referring to the Paxton impeachment.

Leach said he's focused on his time in the Legislature. "Look at our record of accomplishments the past few sessions, accomplishing what Republicans elected us to do," he told CBS News Texas.

House District 67 is just one of the Republican races in Collin County that finds Paxton and Abbott on opposite sides of the endorsement game.

Abbott is supporting Leach and three other Republican incumbents in Collin County, while Paxton is supporting Meis and three other challengers.

At a rally in McKinney last month, the governor praised Leach to supporters. 

"He's a powerful conservative leader that I need back in Austin, Texas to work side by side with me as we continue to keep Texas the number one state in the United States of America," Abbott said.

The other Collin County incumbents backed by the governor are Matt Shaheen, Candy Noble and Frederick Frazier. They all support Abbott's school choice plan which would provide taxpayer-financed education savings accounts or vouchers for families to send their children to private schools.

Those incumbents also voted in favor of Paxton's impeachment, drawing him to endorse their primary challengers: Wayne Richard, Abraham George, Keresa Richardson and Chuck Branch (both Richardson and Branch are vying to unseat Frazier).

"I want to endorse everyone who came to the stage because of their courage and willingness to step out," the attorney general told his supporters at the Collin County GOP meeting in McKinney in October.

When asked what he thought about Abbott's endorsements and Paxton's endorsements in Collin County, Meis laughed as he put up his fists as if in a boxing match.

What's driving him to run, Meis said, is Leach's vote to impeach Paxton. 

"Collin County isn't going to stand for it, Texas isn't going to stand for it," he said.

Leach said Paxton's endorsement of Meis doesn't worry him. 

"Honestly, not concerned about it, I believe I did the right thing. What I'm talking to the voters about is what we've accomplished and what we still need to do to make the state of Texas more safe, more strong, more free."

It's a similar story in Denton County, where the Governor is backing three House Republican incumbents, including Kronda Thimesch in House District 65. Paxton is supporting her challenger, Mitch Little, who was one of his attorneys during his impeachment trial last year.

Paxton is supporting two other Republican challengers in Denton County.

In Dallas County, Abbott is endorsing House Republican incumbent Morgan Meyer while Paxton, along with Patrick and Trump, is backing challenger Barry Wernick.

The Abbott-Paxton split

I recently asked Abbott about the fact that he and Paxton are backing different candidates and what conservatives should think of that.

Abbott emphasized the importance of school choice to Republicans during the primaries two years ago.

"About 85 percent of them said, yes, they want school choice. They need a champion fighting for what they supported. I am their champion, working in every precinct across the entire state of Texas to make sure they have a voice championing their goals to see school choice get passed in the state of Texas," Abbott said.

The incumbents in these contested races have outraised their challengers.

Most of the incumbents have received at least five-figure sums from the group Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC.

Those receiving support from Paxton and Patrick have received major financial backing from Texans United for a Conservative Majority PAC, funded by West Texas billionaires Tim Dunn and Faris Wilks.

So what is going on here?

I spoke with Michael Williams, the former railroad commissioner and first Black Republican to win a statewide seat in Texas. He also served as Texas Education Agency Commissioner under former Governor Perry. 

Williams said the divide can be tied to the decades of success of the Republican party in the state.

"I think, what many of the top-level folks, the governor, lieutenant governor, the AG are doing, they want to be surrounded by people who think like them."

Watch "Eye On Politics" 7:30 a.m. Sunday on CBS News Texas on air and streaming. Follow Jack on X.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.