In his first few months as Texas GOP chairman, Allen West has sued fellow Republican Gov. Greg Abbott for extending the early voting period due to the coronavirus, protested outside the Governor’s Mansion over pandemic-related shutdowns and assailed the likely next state House speaker — also another member of West’s own party — as a traitor.
It’s been an eventful period.
But now, as the legislative session nears and fellow Republicans become more willing to push back against West, the chairman is about to see just how much of an appetite there is for his sharp-elbowed approach to the job.
West is unapologetic, arguing that he has made the party more relevant and given voice to grassroots Republicans who had been searching for a more forceful leader.
“After 22 years in the United States military, one of the things that it has taught me is that leaders have to be held accountable,” West said in an interview Thursday. “If you have standards, if you have a rule of law — that’s what you’re supposed to be accountable to. And so I am just doing what the military taught me to do, which is to be a strong principled leader.”
West’s critics say he is misusing the job of state party chairman to make a name for himself, potentially laying the groundwork to run for another job, maybe governor. And they note he is doing so after moving to Texas from Florida, where he was a one-term congressman, several years ago.
“I’m a bit offended a guy from the East Coast comes waltzing in here and tells us what to think about our elected officials that we’ve been working our asses off for,” said Wayne Hamilton, a veteran Texas GOP operative who was once the state party’s executive director.
“Somebody ought to send him a copy of Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment,” said another former executive director, Chad Wilbanks, referencing the 40th president’s famous declaration that, “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
“I’d like to keep things civilized and respectful, but at the same time we’re gonna let someone move in from out of state and try to dictate things based upon what they think their base is gonna be,” said state Rep. Justin Holland, R-Rockwall. “He’s very clearly trying to excite a certain base.”
At the end of the day, West should be more focused on electing Republicans, according to his critics. He argues he has done just that, crisscrossing the state and raising money to help candidates ahead of the election. He particularly touted his multiple visits to South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, which he traveled to for his first trip as chairman and where he spent the weekend before the election. Those trips “really did pay off dividends,” West said, alluding to the surprising GOP overperformance there in the Nov. 3 election.
At the same time, though, West acknowledged he views his job through a slightly broader lens than his detractors prescribe. When he wakes up the morning, West said, "I have to look at myself in the mirror and know that I maintain my honor, my integrity and my character."
A tipping point
At least for state House Republicans, the tipping point came Nov. 9, when West declared the state party would “not support, nor accept,” Rep. Dade Phelan as the next speaker and called the Beaumont lawmaker a “Republican political traitor” for courting support from the opposition party in his leadership bid. The week prior, Phelan had announced that he had the votes to become speaker in January, and was claiming to have the support of a “supermajority of the Republican caucus” in addition to Democrats.
Elected Republicans who had previously held their tongue on West were livid, and at least five House Republicans responded critically. Holland suggested West “needs a civics lesson in Texas politics.” Rep. Jeff Leach of Plano asked West to “stop the childish name-calling.” And in an increasingly popular refrain, Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio said West “needs to go back to” Florida.
The current House speaker, Dennis Bonnen, who is retiring at the end of his term after a scandal last year, was particularly furious about West’s broadside against Phelan. In a radio interview last week, Bonnen said West needed a "one-way bus ticket back to Florida" and bashed him as a “failed politician ... who we never should've allowed to come into Texas."
In the Thursday interview, West declined to return fire, saying Bonnen’s criticism “doesn’t matter to me” and that the outgoing speaker’s opinion is irrelevant to him.
In his campaign to unseat his predecessor, James Dickey, West did not conceal his intentions to be a more aggressive leader of the state party. And while West did not openly criticize other Republicans while running, West made clear he was not on the same page when it came to Abbott’s coronavirus response, using his final speech to delegates to warn them about the “tyranny” of executive actions related to the pandemic in Texas.
It worked. West won overwhelmingly, carrying 22 of the 31 state Senate district caucuses that decide the party leadership.
Days after taking the helm of the party, West marked his arrival by challenging his Democratic counterpart, Gilberto Hinojosa, to a series of debates before the November election. Hinojosa promptly declined, but the impression left with political observers was clearer than ever: He was not going to be the typical state party chairman.
West went on to grab headlines in other ways. He picked a fight with the Harris County clerk, Chris Hollins, calling him a “partisan hack” over election changes he proposed due to the pandemic. West held an August rally in Bartonville with the McCloskeys, the St. Louis couple who brandished firearms as Black Lives Matter protesters marched past their home. And in a state with no shortage of GOP officials looking to prove their loyalty to President Donald Trump, West has topped the list. Since Election Day, he has made unfounded claims of Democrats cheating in the November election, calling Trump’s defeat a “bloodless coup” and organizing a “Stop the Steal” rally Saturday in Dallas. (Trump and his allies have shown no credible evidence of fraud at a level that would have affected the results of the presidential election.)
Naomi Narvaiz, a member of the State Republican Executive Committee who had backed Dickey at the convention, said West has exceeded her expectations for how assertive of a chairman he would be.
“The grassroots conservatives of our party almost gave him like a mandate that they wanted a chairman that was going to be more outspoken, and he has done that,” Narvaiz said. “I think he’s doing very well. I think that he’s doing what the people that elected him at our convention wanted him to do.”
Others on the State Republican Executive Committee are not so sure. Another member, Fernando Trevino, said it is important to have a chairman pushing for the party’s priorities and holding elected officials accountable but that he would “take a different approach to some of these things” than West is.
“We should be working together toward those same goals versus trying to knock people down before they’ve even had an opportunity to serve … like our presumptive speaker,” Trevino said. “It’s good to be aggressive in advocating for the party’s platform and our values, but we also need to work with our elected officials in good faith and give them a chance to work with us in good faith in order to be productive next session.”
West v. Abbott
However, West has made the biggest splash in his dealings with Abbott, namely the governor’s pandemic handling. West has voiced opposition to Abbott’s statewide mask mandate, called for a special session to rein in Abbott’s executive power during the pandemic and joined a lawsuit against Abbott’s extension of the early voting period by six days.
Then there was the protest outside the Governor’s Mansion, which fell three days before early voting began. As part of his speech, West read a resolution calling to “Open Texas NOW” that had been recently passed by the State Republican Executive Committee. West ended his remarks by asking Abbott to “do what is right by the people of” Texas and saying he would leave a copy of the resolution at the gates to the mansion.
By then, intraparty frustrations with West were reaching a boiling point.
“It’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’” said Hamilton, who managed Abbott's 2014 gubernatorial campaign. “Get out and get Republicans elected.”
West defended his appearance at the protest, saying he was “elected as the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, not anyone’s fan club.”
Abbott’s strategy for dealing with West so far has been to ignore him. The governor was not among the statewide officials who congratulated West when he took over the party this summer, and he has hardly acknowledged him in media appearances since then. Asked in August about West’s criticism of his pandemic response, Abbott gave a general defense of his decisions without mentioning the new party chair.
In the hours before the Nov. 3 election, though, Abbott sent an eyebrow-raising signal when his campaign issued a call for poll watchers in Tarrant County, which was having an issue processing absentee ballots. To lead the effort, Abbott tapped West’s predecessor, Dickey.
West’s disagreements with Abbott have quickly made him the source of rumors that he is preparing to challenge the governor in the 2022 primary. West has not ruled it out amid the increasingly open speculation.
Moments before he began speaking outside the Governor’s Mansion, West was interrupted by chants of “West for governor!” He shook his head and waved off the chants, joking that his fans were being “knuckleheads.”
In the interview, West shrugged off critics who say he is posturing for higher office.
“I wake up every day and all I want to do is be a good servant to God, country and Texas — that’s it,” West said, “and critics are gonna criticize, but I just go about living my life.”
The upcoming session
The upcoming legislative session will put West’s intraparty influence to the test.
Noting his own experience as a lawmaker — he served in Congress from 2011-2013 — West said he plans to be “very involved” in advocating for the party’s eight legislative priorities. Those include some issues that enjoy wide support in the GOP caucus — such as banning taxpayer-funded lobbying — while some have more limited appeal, like allowing Texans to carry guns without licenses to do so. Other priorities include the abolition of abortion and bans on sex reassignment surgeries or treatments for children.
How much clout West will have with Republican lawmakers remains to be seen. Bonnen said West would not have an impact on the session because Abbott and Phelan are “smarter than to listen to the noise of a child.” Holland said he has “zero concern about what Allen West thinks the session should look like.”
“He doesn’t matter to me” during the session, Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, said during a radio interview Friday.
But to the chamber’s most conservative Republicans, the upcoming session is an opportunity to refocus on some hot-button issues that were deemphasized last session as GOP leaders sought to protect their House majority ahead of a challenging election. The party ended up beating expectations and losing only one seat out of nine that Democrats needed to capture the majority — while winning back a seat they lost two years ago.
“Based on Tuesday’s election outcome of Republican wins up and down the ticket the message is Texans want Republican governance and policies,” Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, wrote last week on Facebook. “We should respect those wishes and respond accordingly.”
Rep. Matt Krause of Fort Worth, a member of the hard-right Freedom Caucus along with Toth, agreed — and said the party’s platform should at least be a consideration.
“I think anybody who’s a Republican who runs on the Republican banner, who wants to put in place Republican policies, should be concerned with or should have on their radar what the state party wants and is interested in,” Krause said. “It’s not just Chairman West and the SREC — it’s all the grassroots folks who took the time to weigh in at our convention. … I think it would be unwise for us to just look past that and not care about that.”