Texas far-right conservatives spent millions to oust House GOP leaders, to little avail

Supporters cheer as Gov. Greg Abbott speaks at his election night watch party in Corpus Christi on March 1, 2022. (Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez For The Texas Tribune)

Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

A multimillion-dollar push to replace Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas House Republicans with more strident conservatives made little headway Tuesday in the primary election.

Recommended Videos

House Speaker Dade Phelan, whose allies were targeted, suffered no incumbent losses, and just a handful of members were forced into runoffs. Phelan, who did not draw an opponent, was overseeing his first primary behind the gavel after a year that brought redistricting and an ample supply of tension inside the party.

“Voters across Texas delivered a resounding message Tuesday that the GOP represents their values up and down the ballot,” Phelan said in a statement. He added that his team’s “hard work has paid off, despite the efforts of some out-of-touch groups that have spent millions in election after election — and still don’t have much to show for it.”

It was overall a good night for the Republican establishment as most statewide officials won their primaries convincingly — Attorney General Ken Paxton was the major exception — and congressional leadership got their way in all but one primary. (U.S. Rep. Van Taylor of Plano got forced into a runoff, but the next day, he admitted to an affair and ended his campaign.)

Phelan’s team scored decisive wins in two of its highest-priority primaries. State Rep. Ryan Guillen, the South Texas Democrat who switched parties in November, won his three-way primary outright with 59% of the vote. And state Rep. Reggie Smith of Sherman crushed his head-to-head challenger — Shelley Luther, an antagonist of state GOP leaders including Abbott — with 59% of the vote.

In the Texas House, the biggest intraparty attack on Republican leadership came from the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, led by former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford. Backed by hard-right donors like Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, West Texas oil tycoons, the group spent at least $5.2 million from January onward.

A majority went to Don Huffines, a Republican primary challenger to Abbott who lost badly and conceded about a half an hour after polls closed Tuesday evening. Huffines was a vocal critic of Abbott’s and campaigned on issues like eliminating property taxes, banning abortion in all cases and blocking Chinese citizens from enrolling in Texas universities. But the PAC also played aggressively in state House primaries, directly donating to some primary challengers and spending on behalf of others.

Luther was the PAC’s top recipient in the House primaries, getting at least $178,000. Luther gained national attention when she was jailed for refusing to shut down her hair salon, violating Abbott’s order early in the pandemic to shut down businesses to stop spread of the virus.

In total, Defend Texas Liberty opposed 19 Republican members of the Texas House, according to its last major filing with the Texas Ethics Commission before the primary. The PAC and its allies assailed the incumbents as insufficiently Republican, attacking them for the chamber’s longtime tradition of having bipartisan committee chairs and the House’s decision to lower the penalty for illegal voting in a hard-fought elections bill.

All of those members who were targeted won their primaries outright Tuesday with the exception of three: state Reps. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, Glenn Rogers of Graford and Kyle Kacal of College Station. A fourth incumbent who was not targeted by the PAC, state Rep. Phil Stephenson of Wharton, also wound up in a runoff.

Four of the candidates that the PAC supported for open seats made it to runoffs.

“Sure are a lot of runoffs,” Stickland tweeted Thursday. “We've got a lot of work to do fellow conservatives!”

Klick is the only member of House leadership in a runoff — she chairs the House Public Health Committee — and it is expected to be especially contentious. Facing four challengers Tuesday, she got 49% of the vote, coming up 137 votes short of an outright win. The runner-up, with 39%, was David Lowe, a party activist from North Richland Hills supported by Defend Texas Liberty PAC. He got $20,000 from the group.

Klick said in a statement that she is “energized and ready to set the record straight” in the runoff.

“We ran a positive campaign focused on defending life, the Second Amendment, religious liberty and many more bedrock conservative freedoms,” Klick said. “Unfortunately, outside groups and my runoff opponent unloaded a late barrage of false attacks during a time that my husband and I were both quarantined at home with COVID.”

Lowe is campaigning on preventing “child transgender modification” — medical treatments for transgender youth — and blames Klick for not doing enough to stop it from her committee leadership post.

“I am not a career politician,” Lowe wrote in an email Thursday, noting his service in Iraq. “My opponent has allowed politics to get in the way of common sense. As your next representative, I will unapologetically stand up for conservatives.”

Rogers’ runoff also holds potential for fireworks. He finished several percentage points ahead of his opponent, Mike Olcott, a well-known conservative activist from Parker County who could continue self-funding in the runoff after loaning himself $300,000 in the primary.

Despite the potential for runoff combat, Phelan’s team was still relieved Tuesday not to lose any incumbents. They got a scare late Tuesday night when state Rep. Lynn Stucky of Denton slipped below 50% against his challenger, Andy Hopper, who had the support of Defend Texas Liberty. But Stucky ultimately recovered and was winning by 102 votes as of Thursday afternoon.

As leader of the House, Phelan also spent seven figures to protect his members. His campaign unloaded at least $1.1 million from January onward to help out incumbents with things like polling, TV ads and mail pieces. He also gave to allied groups like the Associated Republicans of Texas, which along with Texans for Lawsuit Reform, were the other main establishment players on the field.

Phelan is expected to be similarly aggressive in the runoffs, at least when it comes to those involving incumbents.

Some of the open-seat runoffs could pose a challenge for Phelan. The House District 63 runoff pits Ben Bumgarner, a member of the Flower Mound Town Council, against Jeff Younger, a vocal critic of leadership’s perceived inaction on the transgender children issue that Abbott and Paxton have recently brought to the fore. Younger is backed by Defend Texas Liberty.

Some of the incumbent runoffs could be more nuanced given that they were spawned by redistricting, not necessarily fights over ideology or chamber leadership. For example, Stephenson’s district was significantly redrawn, and his runoff opponent, Stan Kitzman, comes from one of the new counties, Waller, where he was a county commissioner.

“We’re not here to criticize Mr. Stephenson,” Kitzman said in an interview Thursday. “We are here to bring representation to the people of this district, especially the newer counties. … They’re used to a certain level of service, and we intend to provide that and even better.”

For multiple election cycles now, Dunn and Wilks have been the top funders of House primary challengers. This time they also chose to give generously to Huffines, who came in third Tuesday with 12% of the vote. Abbott easily avoided a runoff, capturing roughly two-thirds of the vote.

In his concession statement, Huffines claimed credit for pushing Abbott to the right over the past year.

Asked Wednesday morning how much influence Huffines has over Abbott going forward, his top political adviser, Dave Carney, quipped, “Who?”

“I hope he stays engaged,” Carney said more seriously, “and spends some of his money to help candidates win in the general election.”

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Recommended Videos