Mar 4, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Inside the Texas GOP's primary revenge tour

Illustration of an elephant with the GOP logo stuck on its tusk.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

In Tuesday's Texas primaries, the GOP is going after its own — a microcosm of the infighting across the Republican Party in the age of Trump.

Why it matters: Primaries are traditionally when incumbents work to protect their colleagues, but this year has become an intraparty revenge tour for Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

  • Paxton is working to undercut a fellow Texas Republican, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, in his bid for Senate GOP leader.
  • It all mirrors how former President Donald Trump has targeted Republicans around the country who have crossed him.

Zoom in: Abbott has spent more than $6 million between late January and late February against Texas House Republicans who defied him on school vouchers.

"This is a war," said Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan last month, per the Houston Chronicle. He supported the Paxton impeachment and allowed his members to torpedo Abbott's voucher proposal.

"This is the nastiest, most negative campaign I've seen in Texas legislative history," Phelan said. "They're going to lose on March 5, and they're going to regret every damn dime they spent."

  • He has spent roughly $1.3 million since late January to protect his fellow incumbents.
  • Paxton, Abbott and Phelan have not responded to Axios' requests for comment.

What they're saying: "Infighting is common in a state like Texas with one-party domination," Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor, tells Axios.

  • "But in the past, the divide among Texas Republicans was about policy. At present, it's about personality, and that's Trump-driven."

Between the lines: While Abbott is targeting incumbents who didn't support his school voucher proposal, he's publicly attacking them on border issues. That's even though House Republicans have consistently funded his border security operations.

  • Only about 2% of Republican voters polled by the University of Texas named school choice or a related issue as something they cared most about this year. 64% mentioned border security.
  • No voters mentioned the Paxton impeachment.

The intrigue: The intra-party fights do not fall along the same lines. Some of Paxton's biggest targets have the backing of the governor.

The bottom line: These races have made many incumbents miserable.

  • "It's not fun having statewide elected officials disparage your character," state Rep. DeWayne Burns, a Cleburne Republican who voted against Abbott's school choice bill, said at a campaign event in February.
  • "But I tell you what, you got to stand up for what you believe in and I'd do it again knowing all of that, every bit of that."
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