Texas GOP launches radio attack ads against Republican state House speaker

FILE PHOTO: Speaker Dade Phelan, R - Beaumont, gavels the first special session at the Capitol...
FILE PHOTO: Speaker Dade Phelan, R - Beaumont, gavels the first special session at the Capitol in Austin, Texas, on Friday Aug. 6, 2021.(Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP)
Published: Jan. 20, 2023 at 3:51 PM CST
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(TEXAS TRIBUNE) - The Republican Party of Texas launched a striking attack on one of its own this week, state House Speaker Dade Phelan, sparking a backlash from some Republicans in the chamber.

The state party began airing a radio ad that takes Phelan to task for allowing Democrats to continue chairing House committees, a longtime tradition that a small faction of House Republicans sought to end last week as the chamber crafted its rules package. But Phelan and his allies outmaneuvered them, preventing the issue — a state GOP priority — from even reaching a floor vote.

In the minute-long ad, a narrator says the speaker is “teaming up with Democrats to kill our Republican priorities.” The spot started running Wednesday in Phelan’s Southeast Texas district, according to a tweet from Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi.

“Call Dade Phelan today,” the ad tells Phelan’s constituents. “Tell him to be a Republican. Tell him to stop empowering Democrats. Tell him to listen to the 85% of voters who support banning Democrat chairmanships.”

A spokesperson for the state party, James Wesolek, said the party was spending $15,000 to air the spot for two weeks initially.

Phelan’s office declined to comment on the ad. But by Friday, at least two of his allies in the House had fired back on Twitter.

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, tweeted a screenshot of a recent fundraising email from the Texas GOP and wrote, “Wow! [Texas GOP]’s hypocrisy knows no boundaries! They are fundraising off the passage of the Heartbeat and Trigger Bills — to fund their attacks on the Speaker who helped make them law!”

Burrows was referring to the bills that the Phelan-led House passed during the 2021 session that allowed Texas to virtually outlaw abortion following the overturning of Roe v. Wade last year.

“Rinaldi spending more attacking a conservative Republican speaker than he did to help elect Republicans,” Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, added in his own tweet. Rinaldi disputes that the state party did little to help Republicans in the midterms.

The ad represents an escalation in the push to end Democratic committee chairs, which has been building over the past two years. Phelan has defended the practice as a worthwhile tradition that sets the Legislature apart from Congress and its regular dysfunction. While he has not released committee assignments for the current session yet, he has said he anticipates appointing generally the same proportion of Democrats to lead committees as last time.

Supporters of ending Democratic committee chairs always faced long odds in finding enough support inside the House to change the rules, but they hoped to show their ranks had grown when the rules package came up for a vote last week. Instead, Phelan and his allies used points of order, or procedural challenges, to successfully prevent consideration of two amendments to restrict Democratic committee chairs.

Banning Democratic committee chairs is one of the Texas GOP’s eight legislative priorities, and Rinaldi has been one of the most vocal advocates for it.

The rules debate is over, but Rinaldi said in an interview that the state party “wanted to take the extra month that we had” before Phelan announces his committee chairs “and encourage him to make the right decisions.”

Rinaldi responded to Geren’s criticism on Twitter, saying the money the state party spent on the ad “pales in comparison to the millions we spent in support of Republicans this election cycle.” The party has claimed it spent over $6 million in the November election, though critics have claimed much of that sum was money funneled through the state party by national GOP groups and earmarked for certain efforts. Rinaldi said some of the money was indeed so-called “pass-through” money but that the party made a “very, very robust” effort on its own, spending nearly $1 million in its November “victory” program to elect Republicans in the general election and over $1 million on an election integrity initiative.

“Geren doesn’t know what he’s talking about and it’s complete deflection,” Rinaldi said.

Phelan represents a solidly Republican district, District 21, along the Louisiana border. He withstood high-profile intraparty attacks in the last election, including from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former President Donald Trump, and won his primary unopposed.

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