Phelan says he is region’s “state rep” and will be “your speaker for the Texas House in 2025”

Published 6:10 am Wednesday, May 29, 2024

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BEAUMONT — Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan emerged victorious Tuesday over a well-funded challenger endorsed by Donald Trump and his allies.

Phelan defeated former Orange County Republican Party chairman David Covey, who also had the backing of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and former Texas Republican Party Chairman Matt Rinaldi.

In doing so, he avoided becoming the first House speaker to lose a primary in 52 years.

With all precincts reporting, Phelan was up 366 votes — within the margin that Covey can call for a recount. Covey, however, conceded in a speech to supporters at his election night party in Orange shortly after 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Phelan, 48, who has seen his popularity plummet among Republicans since he backed the impeachment of Paxton on corruption and bribery charges a year ago, was defiant in his victory speech at JW’s Patio in Beaumont.

“I will be your state rep for HD 21 and I will be your speaker for the Texas House in 2025,” Phelan said to a raucous crowd of more than 100 supporters. “This was a true grassroots effort — not the fake grassroots.”

Covey, a 34-year-old first-time candidate, not only forced Phelan into a runoff in March but secured more votes than the two-term House speaker. That outcome shocked many in the district, as Phelan was previously reelected four times without Republican opposition and hails from one of the most prominent families in Beaumont.

Candidates for the Texas Legislature who trail after the first round rarely win their runoffs. Phelan carried the unique advantage of being a statewide leader with a prolific roster of political donors.


Through May 20, his campaign reported spending $3.8 million on the runoff, more than double Covey’s $1.6 million. Their combined hauls amounted to what was almost certainly the most expensive state House race in Texas history.

It was also an ugly contest — Phelan accused Covey of running on “lies and deceit” — where the candidates attacked each other in a flood of mailers and television advertisements.

“This was a terrible, awful knock-down, drag-out,” Phelan said. “You can now open your mailboxes again. You can watch the 6 o’clock news. It’s over. It’s done.”

Phelan’s win is a major blow to the party’s ultraconservative faction that is led ideologically by Patrick and Paxton and financed by megadonors like West Texas oil magnate Tim Dunn.

Covey called Phelan an “Austin swamp creature” who only secured reelection through the support of Democrats, which he said was a “brazen act of betrayal.”

Paxton, an early endorser of Covey who had campaigned for the challenger as late as Tuesday afternoon, echoed the claim. The attorney general, who had vowed revenge against Phelan for supporting his impeachment, said the speaker had “blatantly stolen an election from the hard-working people of his district” by courting Democrats.

Paxton said Republicans should move to closed primaries — a priority of the far right — and he issued a warning to members of the House.

“To those considering supporting Dade Phelan as Speaker in 2025, ask your 15 colleagues who lost re-election how they feel about their decision now,” Paxton said. “You will not return if you vote for Dade Phelan again.”

Patrick blamed Phelan’s catering to Democrats during the legislative session as the reasons so many incumbents lost. It should cost him his leadership post, the lieutenant governor said.

“He threw them under the bus, but he still wants to drive,” Patrick said in a statement. “That’s not real leadership. That’s a debacle!”

The more business-oriented establishment wing of the party viewed Phelan’s campaign as a last stand to maintain influence — and civility — in the Legislature. That group, led by some of the state’s wealthiest business executives, political strategists like Karl Rove and erstwhile Republican elected officials including U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Gov. Rick Perry, poured millions of dollars into Phelan’s campaign. Phelan’s win was a victory for them, too.

But whether Phelan can hold on to the speaker’s gavel is unclear. One of his own committee chairmen, Republican Rep. Tom Oliverson of Cypress, declared his candidacy for speaker in March. But no members have publicly endorsed Oliverson, and while his reelection was in doubt, Phelan was able to keep the rest of his caucus from open rebellion.

House members had also refrained from expressing public support for Phelan’s return as speaker — there was little political upside in doing so if the man was going to lose his primary — but that excuse evaporated Tuesday.


Politicking for the job will begin in earnest, with Phelan eager to show he still has the confidence of the caucus and other prospective candidates mulling when to declare their intentions publicly. Among the jovial supporters at Phelan’s party were Republican Reps. Jeff Leach of Plano — who cried during the victory speech — Stan Kitzman of Pattison, Will Metcalf of Conroe, Jared Patterson of Frisco, Brooks Landgraf of Odessa and Cole Hefner of Mt. Pleasant.

Stephenville Republican Rep. Shelby Slawson, who voted against impeaching Paxton, published a column this week criticizing House leadership for bringing the charges and arguing the speaker deserved to be replaced over the debacle.

“The architects of impeachment lit the House on fire, and regardless of what happens in the runoff elections, we cannot select an arsonist as fire chief,” Slawson wrote.

Attacked by his enemies as a RINO, Phelan was also widely considered more conservative than his predecessors, Phelan secured passage of the state’s near-total ban on abortion, permitless carry of handguns and several first-in-the-nation border security bills.

Phelan was easily reelected speaker in January 2023 with all Democrats and almost all Republicans in support; conservative rumblings of dissatisfaction amounted to a paltry three votes for another candidate. And he batted away far-right criticism of the House’s longstanding practice of appointing Democratic committee chairs, appointing them to lead eight of 34 committees.

Yet the preceding twelve months were the most tumultuous of Phelan’s political career.

The speaker routinely clashed with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, whose reputation for running the Senate with an iron fist has left many House members with the impression he would prefer to run that chamber, too. (Patrick said this weekend he doesn’t want to run the House but he wants someone more conservative than Phelan to run it.)

But Phelan stood up for the House’s independence — on property taxes, on border security bills — and told The Texas Tribune his relationship with Patrick deteriorated to the point that by August, the men were no longer speaking.

Phelan’s relationship with the governor was cordial but increasingly fraught, again because the speaker stuck up for his members who repeatedly failed to pass a private school voucher bill, Abbott’s top legislative priority.

Phelan, who later told the Tribune he would have preferred some version of the bill to pass, did not pressure the two-dozen Republican holdouts to accept the governor’s take-it-or-leave-it proposal if they were uncomfortable with it.

They left it, gutting the governor’s preferred bill during a dramatic November session. The victory was short-lived, however, as it set Abbott on a course for payback. He supported the primary challengers to many of the Republican holdouts; seven were ousted. And the failure of vouchers in the House may have contributed to Abbott’s decision not to endorse Phelan’s reelection.

But by far the greatest contributor to Phelan’s near-defeat was his support for impeaching Paxton. The impeachment was not his idea — the Republican-led House investigating committee began the probe months before presenting it to the rest of the members. But Phelan said the evidence showing Paxton’s misconduct was far too strong to ignore.

As its representative, Phelan said he consistently secured resources to the often-overlooked and disaster-prone district, which occupies a corner of Southeast Texas that borders Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.

— Reported by Zach Despart 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.