Abbott leads effort to purge opponents in Texas Republican Party

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Texas conservatives, led by Gov. Greg Abbott, are seeking to cement control of the state government by trying to purge rural legislators who have stood in their way.

Abbott, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Attorney General Ken Paxton, have gone on the attack against 16 GOP incumbents.

That attack has been carried out with public statements and campaign ads ahead of Tuesday’s primary — much of it funded with out-of-state money.

The turn of Abbott against his former allies reflects a broader shift in the tenor of state politics. It has always been contentious, but the rhetoric in these races represents the new cast of Texas GOP politics in the era of Trump.

“It’s gotten meaner and more personal,” former Republican state board member Thomas Ratliff told The Hill. “A lot of members will tell you they’re not having fun anymore.”

Publicly, the conservative line of attack centers on the issue of the southern border and the recent impeachment of Paxton — both areas where the Texas elections have drawn the focus of former President Trump.

In January, Trump endorsed David Covey, the primary opponent of House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) — a nemesis of Abbott and Patrick who presided over the impeachment trial of Paxton, which Trump called fraudulent.

Phelan has endorsed Trump. But the former president has said that endorsement does not “mitigate the Absolute Embarrassment” of the Paxton impeachment.

And in his endorsement of Liz Case in her challenge of state Rep. Stan Lambert (R), Trump offered a laundry list of culture war bonafides.

Case would “Champion School Choice, Secure our Elections, Lower your Taxes, Defend our Second Amendment, Advocate for Border Security, and Fight Back against the Woke Mob destroying our Country,” the former president wrote.

Trump’s involvement is a reflection of the stark change in the nationalization of Texas politics — and its new position as a front line in the Republican civil war.

The ads saturating Texas television and filling up mailboxes focus on the border, where state Republican leaders have sought to tar incumbents as overly moderate on immigration — a charge experts argue is incorrect.

Contrary to political messaging, “there is no moderate wing of the party,” said Joshua Blank of the Texas Policy Project, a combined project of the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas.

He clarified: “There’s a share who are more business oriented, more focused on the state economy than social issues,” but added that even those members mostly “vote lockstep with the party.”

But experts told The Hill the border rhetoric covers a deeper ideological conflict: The embattled and largely rural Republicans were critical in killing more conservative Republicans’ plans for school vouchers, which were seen by opponents as an attempt to pull money from the state’s public schools and give it to private — and often — religious ones.

And behind all this lies a question of power. These Republicans have stood as a bulwark against attempts by state executives to take control of the Republican faction inside the House — which is the last bastion of Texas state government outside their control.

That race is leading to amounts of money pouring into the state — much of it from out-of-state PACs and right-wing billionaires.

Abbott, for example, just received $6 million from Pennsylvania businessman and school voucher supporter Jeff Yass. And Paxton-backing Christian oilman Tim Dunn has put in $2.5 million to attack anyone who voted to impeach Paxton, as well as $3.4 million in ad buys, according to the Texas Tribune.

Meanwhile, the AFC Family Empowerment Coalition PAC — a pro-voucher group that took in $2.5 million last month from fewer than a dozen donors — has put three-quarters of a million dollars into pro-voucher incumbents, as well as nearly half a million on direct mailers.

For Abbott, this money funds an attempt to make good on his threat to destroy any Republican legislator who defied him on establishing school vouchers — a unified priority of Abbott, Patrick and Paxton. The effort failed five times against the combined opposition of Democrats and largely rural Republicans in the House.

“The real subtext of this whole thing is a hostile takeover of the Texas House by Christian nationalists,” said Harvey Kronberg, who runs the venerable Austin political newspaper The Quorum Report.

Kronberg characterized the united campaign as an attempt to replace independent Republicans “with ideological folks more on the model of the U.S. Congress.”

Abbott, Patrick and Paxton are a fractious coalition, with competing egos, ambition and priorities — a distinction that can be seen in the many races where the three have endorsed competing primary challengers.

Paxton opposes legislators who voted for his impeachment. Patrick is “at open war with the Texas House and leadership” for its “unwillingness to bend to his preferences exactly — and an ongoing conflict between two chambers,” Blank said.

And Abbott — who has staked his bid for national prominence on defending the border and school vouchers — is attacking legislators who defied him on both.

The irony of the contentious border-themed ad wars playing out across rural Texas is that much of that legislation ultimately passed, like the controversial Senate Bill 4 — which makes undocumented migration a state crime, and which was just slapped down by a federal judge.

But in the debate over those bills, House Republicans often questioned the governor’s priorities and whether it was a good use of resources for Texas to pursue an independent border policy.

“You look at a bill that it takes the Senate 20 minutes to pass — and it takes the House week to pass,” said Sherry Sylvester of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a right-wing think tank that backs the governor on vouchers and the border.

While the border is the major issue that has galvanized Republican primary voters, vouchers are what is pulling that flood of money to Texas — and motivating Abbott himself.

It has forced Abbott into a grinding counterinsurgency against popular incumbents, who portrayed vouchers as an attempt to take money from local schools and give it as subsidies to the tony Houston and Dallas neighborhoods of River Oaks and Highland Park.

In contrast, conservative proponents have argued vouchers were an effort to open up to competition districts dominated by what TPP’s Sylvester called “the educational industrial complex.”

In the contentious ad battles across Texas, the themes of border and vouchers have merged — both from incumbents and challengers.

“Last year I stopped a bill that would have handed out school vouchers — your tax dollars — to illegal immigrants,” incumbent state Rep. Gary VanDeaver (R) of North Texas said in a TV ad obtained by The Texas Tribune.

In a press conference, Abbott shot back that all the representatives he’s targeting “have used state $$ to support public education for illegal immigrants. So, they’re just a bunch of hypocrites.”

But the question of whether to educate undocumented children is out of the hands of local governments — a 1982 Supreme Court decision makes it illegal to do otherwise.

One representative of a pro-voucher PAC told the Texas Tribune that the border rhetoric was cover for vouchers.

“For people who oppose us on school choice, we will use the issues that are most important to voters to communicate our preference,” said Leo Linbeck of the Family Empowerment Coalition PAC (FECPAC), which the Tribune reported had taken in $350,000 from a pair of billionaire investors.

In an interview with North Texas news station KXI, VanDeaver told reporters his vote to oppose the governor on vouchers was one he knew “the governor was not going to be happy about. His staff had told me, you take that vote, we’re coming after you.”

In his campaign against the 16 incumbents, Abbott has targeted in hostile terms members he once endorsed. He has filed cease-and-desist letters against members like state Rep. Travis Clardy (R) — whom he once endorsed — for not removing those endorsements from their websites.

Abbott has given $405,000 to Clardy’s primary challenger Joanne Shofner — five times larger than Clardy’s war chest. He called Shofner the kind of new conservative voice “we need in Austin to help deliver key Republican victories that are important to Texans,” including border legislation and vouchers.

In interviews, Clardy has been defiant. “Right now, the price to get [Abbott’s] endorsement was I had to bend the knee and kiss the ring and say that I will vote for vouchers and vote against the best interest of the people I represent,” he told Capital Tonight.

In its turn against the rural incumbents — many of whom are longtime allies of Abbott’s, the state party finds itself “in a place where we’re doing purity tests — the same thing the Democrats were doing in the 1970s and 1980s — rather than building a broad coalition,” former state board member Ratliff said.

That’s an idea echoed by some retiring legislators. Retiring East Texas state Rep. John Raney (R) wrote an op-ed in the Waco Tribune attacking Abbott for backing challengers to “members of his party who could not, in good conscience, vote for his voucher plan.”

“Shame on you, Gov. Abbott,” he added.

The big question on Tuesday is whether Abbott’s attempt to pick off members is going to work — a question on which polling is wildly inconsistent.

In her work in Austin, TPPF’s Sylvester told The Hill, “I’ll talk to one group of people — had Phelan, and Phelan was 6 points down. And another group — could be close 5-6 points off. And both sides are citing exit polling. So who knows?”

Ratliff argued that Abbott’s flood of money was largely going into easily ignored mailers and TV spots — and that the anti-establishment cast of contemporary Trump-style politics played much better against Washington, or even Austin, than it does against local incumbents.

“There’s no anonymity in these rural districts. And those guys, generations of families know those people — they see members in Walmart, they see him in Lions Club, and people start seeing commercials saying a bunch of stuff, a lot of which is not true or half true — people get pissed off.”

The motivation behind Abbott’s focus on vouchers — which polling suggests motivates few voters — is “a hard question,” Texas Policy Project’s Blank told The Hill.

“It’s very unclear why this session Abbott decided that vouchers — and establishing a voucher program — was such a priority,” he said.

One possibility is that Abbott is trying to avoid being outflanked by Patrick, whose far-right credentials are far stronger.

But another is that it is simply about the exercise of power.

“He decided that this was an issue, he was going to focus on this session. And then ultimately, maybe he got dragged into a much bigger conflict than he originally expected,” Blank said.

“At some point, when you say you’re gonna punish people who go against you, if you don’t punish them — your word doesn’t really mean anything.”

But the decision to go all in on ousting his voucher opponents puts Abbott in a precarious position, said Ratliff, the former Republican State Board of Education member and voucher opponent.

“This is Abbott’s legacy election, and if he doesn’t pick off a bunch of these members that he’s gone all in for, then he’s going to have a tough time going forward — because members are going to know he can’t hurt them.”

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