(Joel Martinez/The Monitor via AP)

A House Defeated? Abbott, Paxton, Patrick Bag Rebellious State Legislators

The heavily contested GOP primaries brought about ousters and uncertainty in the state’s lower legislative chamber and highest criminal court.


In one of the ugliest and most contentious Republican primaries in Texas history, an array of insurgent challengers—sent forth into battle by Governor Greg Abbott, his school voucher allies, and a vengeful attorney general with his radical right-wing base—got what they wanted: change, turmoil, and unease. 

Come the 2025 legislative session, the Republican-controlled state House is likely to be a much different entity. While many GOP incumbents prevailed in the face of well-funded challengers, others did not. By the end of the night, nine incumbent GOP state representatives had lost their races outright—and eight more were forced into runoffs. 

That includes the embattled Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan of Beaumont, who was forced into a runoff after narrowly trailing his main primary rival in his southeast Texas district. 

Phelan has been at war with Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick for months over the House’s impeachment of Paxton, plus various political disputes between the House and Senate. Both Paxton and Patrick prominently backed Phelan’s primary challenger, who was also endorsed by former President Donald Trump. Abbott has left the speaker to fend for himself in that melee, angered that Phelan’s House blocked a school voucher bill. Phelan is the first speaker to face a runoff in their home district since 1972, when Democratic Speaker Rayford Price ultimately lost his seat in a fractious intra-party battle over the ethics scandal known as Sharpstown. 

Overall, Abbott came out ahead in his high-stakes campaign to take down Republican state House incumbents—many from rural Texas—who had the temerity to stand firm against his aggressive voucher push during an onslaught of special legislative sessions last year. At least six of Abbott’s anti-voucher targets lost, with three more forced into runoffs. Only a few won outright. 

Dade Phelan, a white man in a suit and tie, prepares to bang his gavel. Behind him is a light board showing how different representatives vote on the current bill.
Dade Phelan in the House Chamber in 2023 (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Paxton also came up big in his post-impeachment vengeance campaign. Though he didn’t succeed in ousting most of his targeted House incumbents who voted to impeach him—including former allies in his home Collin County—he did pick off a couple. In particular, Mitch Little, who became famous for his ruthless interrogation of witnesses as one of Paxton’s lawyers in the impeachment trial, ousted Denton County incumbent Kronda Thimesch. Still, many of the 30-plus House candidates he backed did not win. 

Paxton’s clearest victory came in the typically low-profile elections for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which he’s had in his crosshairs ever since the court ruled against his power to unilaterally prosecute voting law violations. Three Republican incumbents lost to Paxton-backed insurgents, dramatically remaking the state’s highest criminal court—the same body that, remarkably, could one day assess a criminal conviction against Paxton himself. 

Coming off a sweeping impeachment acquittal, Paxton, who is still under FBI investigation and is set to finally go to trial for criminal securities fraud this spring, has proven yet again that he’s not to be underestimated. In his election night statement, Paxton focused on the uncompleted work of ousting the speaker. 

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“Today’s election results have revealed that the battle for the soul of Texas is far from over,” Paxton said. “While David Covey [Phelan’s challenger] and Dade Phelan are headed to a runoff, it’s clear that our fight against the liberal forces in Austin must continue unabated.”

After failing to win his voucher policy on the legislative merits—despite repeated special sessions—Abbott had embarked on the most expansive and aggressive primary campaign of his tenure. Akin to Patrick’s ironclad grip on the Senate, Abbott is trying to remake the House in his gubernatorial image. The governor set about making the party primary a referendum on his power and rural lawmakers’ resistance to his agenda. He spent over $6 million—thanks to a donation in the same amount from pro-voucher Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass, who is a major investor in TikTok—targeting incumbents.

Yet, in his pursuit of a majority of voucher proponents in the Texas House, Abbott mostly didn’t bother talking about vouchers—which despite his and special interests’ best efforts have not become a broadly animating issue within the GOP electorate. He instead tarred his opponents by tapping into an issue that voters care more about, and which he effectively owns in Texas: border security. Despite the fact that all of his targeted reps voted in lockstep approving every ask from Abbott as he built up his Operation Lone Star empire at the border, the governor took to the airwaves and claimed they were soft-bellied cowards he couldn’t trust to seal off the border. 

Some of those incumbents tried to counter in a similarly tortured and demagogic way, claiming Abbott’s vouchers would mean paying private school tuition for illegal immigrants. Further compounding this inanity, Abbott responded by condemning their repeated support for public school budgets, which under the U.S. Constitution must fund education for kids regardless of immigration status, as a handout to the undocumented. (He ignored the fact that all of those budgets were signed by … himself.) 

The GOP primary battles of 2024 were more grievance-fueled than any other in recent memory. Unlike past campaigns where allegiances and targets were driven largely by broader ideological fights with fairly clear battle lines, this one featured a hodgepodge of special interests and agendas. It was little more than a political spite-fest waged by the state’s most powerful politicians, caring more about scoring points for themselves than what sort of chaos will come after. 

The next two months, leading up to the May 28 runoffs, will be even uglier than what we’ve seen in the prior few months. Phelan’s poor showing Tuesday portends a vicious political battle between the speaker and his mainstream conservative allies and his long list of foes, including Patrick, Paxton, and the Tim Dunn machine

“This runoff is not just another race, it’s the frontline of the battle for the soul of our district. While my opponent hides behind empty rhetoric, dishonest advertising and surrogate voices, I stand before voters with a clear record of service and conservative success for Southeast Texas,” Phelan said in a statement Tuesday. “In the next couple of months, the deceit and vitriol we’ve witnessed from my opponent and his dark money allies is poised to escalate to even greater heights. I urge the citizens of Southeast Texas to meet the coming storm with a critical eye and recognize the external forces desperate to claim what is ours.” 

Phelan’s fate as a powerful House leader is in peril—even if he manages to win the runoff. If he makes it back to Austin, he’ll have fewer friends in the chamber—and many more enemies.