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Four Texas House Republicans censured for campaigning against incumbents


Four Texas House Republicans censured for campaigning against incumbents

Jun 11, 2024 | 1:03 pm ET
By James Barragán
Four Texas House Republicans censured for campaigning against incumbents
A silhouette of the state of Texas near the stage at the 2024 Texas GOP Convention in San Antonio, on May 23, 2024. (Eddie Gaspar/The Texas Tribune)

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Ronald Reagan called it his Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.

In 2019, the Texas House Republican Caucus took it a step further and codified a rule to bar campaigning against fellow GOP incumbents.

But as turmoil between factions of the Texas GOP continues, four Republicans have now been reprimanded for violating the rule.

On Monday night, the Texas House Republican Caucus executive committee censured Reps. Brian Harrison of Midlothian, Nate Schatzline of Fort Worth, Tony Tinderholt of Arlington and Steve Toth of The Woodlands for campaigning against fellow Republican incumbents.

The four censured members announced the punitive measure against them in an email late Monday night with Harrison deriding the action as a “joke” on social media.

A caucus staffer confirmed that the group’s five-member executive committee voted unanimously to censure the four members.

The four censured members faced a fine, suspension or expulsion from the caucus until the end of this legislative session. The caucus’ executive committee, however, chose to censure the four members. The censured members and the entire caucus was notified by email Monday night, said Jordan Wat, executive director for the caucus.

“We believe the situation is now closed and the matter is no longer active,” Wat said.

In their statement, the four censured members said they had been punished for campaigning against “liberal incumbents” alongside statewide elected officials like Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller.

“We are proud to have helped many true conservatives join the Texas House; something we will continue to do, regardless of any absurd caucus rules designed to protect the uniparty swamp,” the statement read. “At a time when Republicans should be unifying against Democrats, the Caucus is divisively punishing conservatives.”

The four members publicly disobeyed the ban on campaigning against fellow Republicans, joining a bus tour orchestrated by Gun Owners of America to campaign against Reps. DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, Justin Holland of Rockwall, Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, John Kuempel of Seguin, Lynn Stucky of Denton and House Speaker Dade Phelan of Beaumont.

Toth had also donated $500 to the campaign of Andy Hopper, who successfully ousted Stucky, and Tinderholt gave $1,300 to Matt Morgan who took out another Republican incumbent Jacey Jetton of Richmond.

Paxton, a member of the party’s right-wing who is politically aligned with the censured members, criticized the executive committee’s action.

“The outrage slowed you down from kicking them out of the caucus. Then, you show such cowardice and believe that censuring them is the best way to save face,” Paxton said on social media. “The establishment Republicans in the Texas House have not learned their lesson even after 15 incumbents were sent packing.”

Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, told the Tribune he was the one who filed the complaint.

“[Farris] Wilks and [Tim] Dunn candidates have a history of getting away with things with just a slap on the wrist, due to fear of retribution,” he wrote in a statement. “The House has been the only body to ever hold them accountable. Imagine the loss of accountability with [the] election of a compliant speaker.”

Wilks and Dunn are West Texas oil and fracking billionaires who have powered the GOP’s right wing for the last decade and a half, often ousting GOP incumbents who don’t align with their stringent religious views. All four of the censured members have received funding from the billionaires.

Rogers lost his reelection campaign in March to conservative activist Mike Olcott. Political action committees funded by Wilks and Dunn, spent heavily against Rogers in his district.

But as the intraparty fighting in the Texas GOP continues, the four censured members pledged to push the issue, deriding the caucus rule prohibiting campaigning against incumbents and pledging to “continue fighting for Republicans in November.”

“We would’ve happily been expelled from the Texas House GOP Caucus, which worked with Democrats to help re-elect liberal [House] Speaker Dade Phelan,” they wrote.

Phelan, a Beaumont Republican who leads the chamber, has become a lightning rod for the party’s right wing who blame him for the failure of school voucher legislation and for the chamber’s impeachment of Paxton. In retaliation, Paxton and other statewide leaders like Abbott targeted Phelan and his allies in the chamber, knocking off 15 GOP incumbents and replacing them with candidates whose policy views more closely align with them.

Phelan survived his primary challenger but was forced into a runoff in May and had to spend millions of dollars to survive the onslaught in what has been deemed the most expensive Texas House race in history.

The complaint raised even more intrigue because two members of the caucus’ executive committee have announced their plans to challenge Phelan for the speaker’s gavel. Those members are the caucus chairman Tom Oliverson of Cypress and caucus treasurer Shelby Slawson of Stephenville.

Oliverson and Slawson have criticized Phelan for being insufficiently conservative and working too closely with Democrats, despite Phelan overseeing the passage of some of the most conservative legislation in state history on abortion and guns. They have pledged to run a more conservative chamber and would likely rely on the votes of the censured members and their allies to build a winning coalition.

The ban on campaigning against fellow GOP House members had been a long-standing practice, intended to bar Republicans from going after their own in an effort to keep a majority in the House.

Rogers, who lost his reelection campaign in March after being deemed insufficiently conservative by the party’s right wing, said in filing the complaint that he just wanted to see the bylaws enforced.

The censure may be the start of a new fight, however. Following criticism of the rule by some in the party's right wing, Oliverson said on social media he would vote to get rid of it.

"I am hearing from a lot of members who would like to revise or even eliminate the rule," he wrote. "Personally I think it fails to meet its stated objectives of deterrence and unity and I would vote to repeal it as a member."

Just in: Former U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming; U.S. Sen. John Fetterman, D-Pennsylvania; and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt will take the stage at The Texas Tribune Festival, Sept. 5–7 in downtown Austin. Buy tickets today!