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Texas Republican Party censures Speaker Dade Phelan for 'lack of fidelity' to GOP principles

The speaker of the Texas House again draws the ire of GOP activists, but an aide fires back that the organization "has lost its moral authority."

John C. Moritz
Austin American-Statesman

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, already rebuked by former President Donald Trump and no fewer than three Republican statewide elected leaders, has now been censured by his own state GOP for a "lack of fidelity to Republican聽principles聽and聽priorities."

The censure, handed down Saturday by a 55-4 vote of the聽State Republican Executive Committee (with four members abstaining), comes as the second-term speaker is facing two primary challengers for his Southeast Texas House district seat and is hoping to cobble together the majority of votes he'll need to keep the gavel in the 150-member lower chamber when the Legislature convenes in 11 months.

A spokeswoman for Phelan, in a statement sought to marginalize the executive committee's vote, said many of its members are too cozy with conservative fringe groups and out of step with everyday Republicans.

Speaker Dade Phelan was criticized for the impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton and for appointing a handful of Democratic members to chair House committees.

鈥淭his is the same organization that rolled out the red carpet for a group of Neo-Nazis, refused to disassociate from anti-Semitic groups and balked at formally condemning a known sexual predator before he was ousted from the Texas House," said Cait Meisenheimer, a top communication's aide to the speaker. "The SREC has lost its moral authority and is no longer representative of the views of the Party as a whole.鈥

What the Phelan censure resolution says, and why

The censure, only the fourth such formal vote of disapproval in the GOP executive committee's history, leans in forcefully against the House's impeachment last year of Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton. The House voted overwhelmingly to impeach the state's top lawyer on 20 charges, including misuse of office and obstruction of justice in connection with a reported extramarital affair by Paxton and accusations that the attorney general sought favors from a political benefactor.

Although Texas House speakers rarely cast votes on matters before the chamber, Phelan joined two-thirds of Republican members and all but one Democrat to send the impeachment to the Senate for trial.

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Paxton, who was acquitted largely along party lines by the Senate, has called the allegations against him baseless. And the state Republican Executive Committee echoed his claim in censuring the lawmaker from Beaumont.

"Speaker Phelan unjustifiably and irresponsibly wasted Texas taxpayer money in referring and promoting the Resolution to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton, resulting in an expensive and time-consuming trial in the Texas State Senate," the resolution states.

The resolution also chastises Phelan for appointing a handful of Democratic members to chair House committees. Bipartisan committee chairmanships are a long-standing custom in the Texas House that has been followed by speakers from both parties.

According to the Texas GOP, the on Phelan. Last year, the committee censured Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio for supporting a bipartisan gun-safety measure in the wake of the Uvalde mass shooting and it also censured state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, who led the House's impeachment of Paxton.

In 2018, then-Texas House Speaker Joe Straus became the first GOP official to be censured by the state party. Straus, who retired from the House after the 2018 election, was also a practitioner of bipartisan chairmanships and helped put the breaks on Senate-passed legislation that sought to limit public restroom options for transgender people.

The 'insurgent wing' of the Texas GOP

Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor who keeps a close watch on Capitol politics, agreed that the hardcore activists within the party's executive committee are often out of step with everyday Texas Republicans.

"The insurgent wing of the Republican Party hasn鈥檛 met a speaker they like," Rottinghaus told the American-Statesman on Saturday after the vote. "Anyone in leadership roles for the GOP in the House has a target on their back and get the RINO (Republican In Name Only) tag."

Phelan for months has been taking heat from Paxton and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversaw the Senate impeachment trial and later made clear that he believed Phelan misused his power to bring the charges. Paxton has actively campaigned for Phelan's primary election opponent, veteran GOP activist David Covey, in the Southeast Texas House district.

Covey has also gained endorsements from Trump and Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

Gov. Greg Abbott, through a press aide Saturday, steered clear of engaging on the speaker's censure.

The Paxton factor in the Phelan censure

In a post on X, formerly Twitter, Paxton signaled strong approval of the Phelan censure, writing, "Good job, @TexasGOP."

Paxton, who is still under criminal indictment on state securities fraud charges, this year said he will no longer contest the charges brought by his former top aides in a civil whistleblower lawsuit that triggered his impeachment. Retiring state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, who voted to acquit Paxton, said the attorney general's decision to walk way from the whistleblower case was a tacit admission of guilt and the Senate should reopen the impeachment.

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The move by the GOP executive committee, which is largely made up of delegates elected from the 31 state Senate districts, was prompted by a separate censure vote taken earlier by the Republican Party of Jasper County. Under state GOP rules, a county that votes to censure an officeholder may ask for a vote from the whole party.

The resolution also seeks to withhold party funds from Phelan for his reelection campaign.

"No Rule or Bylaw enacted by any division of the Party at any level that demands the Party be neutral in intraparty contests shall be observed with respect to Representative Dade Phelan, and no financial or other support shall be provided to his campaign by the Party except that which is required by law," the resolution states.