When the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives calls, money comes running. This is the natural order of power asserting itself. The Speaker helps regulate the world’s eighth-largest economy, and he will always be surrounded by those who want favors. But the Speaker, unlike the governor and lieutenant governor, is effectively elected twice, first as a member in his district and then as leader of the House by all the representatives in the chamber. To keep his job and do the business of the House, the Speaker must seek and win votes from members of both parties, and money from all sorts of interest groups. He is fragile in a way other power brokers are not.

On February 16, money has come calling to the Jack Brooks Regional Airport in Nederland, south of Beaumont, where Speaker Dade Phelan is holding a campaign rally. It is the week before the start of early voting in the Republican Primary. Phelan is suffering through an unprecedentedly brutal bid to be reelected Speaker. He faces two candidates in this first round to retain his seat, the most formidable being David Covey, a right-wing Christian conservative and the former chair of the Republican party of Orange County, which straddles the Louisiana state line near Beaumont. (The third candidate, Alicia Davis, a hairdresser from Jasper, has not been showered in attention and resources like Covey has.) The most powerful Republicans in the state have either endorsed Covey or are staying out of the race altogether. Phelan hopes to win a majority of the vote to avoid a runoff and smooth the way to his next Speaker vote. 

The first purpose of the rally is to showcase the endorsement of Phelan by former governor Rick Perry, who has been traveling the state trying to protect old friends and ideological allies from the party’s far right wing. The second, unspoken purpose, is to defend a certain way of doing politics—and a certain understanding of what power is for—that is under assault in Texas today. 

Ever since the state’s founding, the political religion of the state has been economic development. Southeast Texas is littered with its temples. On the night of the rally, moonlight illuminates clouds of water vapor and other emissions rising from petroleum refineries in the distance. The Port Arthur Canal snakes around the airport, which has just one daily flight left, an American Eagle shuttle to Dallas–Fort Worth. The namesake of the airport, Jack Brooks, represented the area in Congress for 42 years as a conservative Democrat—as Perry was once. In his day, politicians gained power to help their constituents. In 1994, in a sign of changing times, Brooks lost the general election to Republican Steve Stockman, a right-wing ideologue who spoke the new vernacular of talk radio and was later convicted of felony money laundering.

The money gets denser the closer you get to the hangar on the northwest edge of the airport where the Speaker and his friends are meeting. Sports cars and luxury SUVs line the road; on the tarmac, private planes loiter. The largest, a gleaming Dassault Falcon 50 trijet, has come from Brenham Municipal, close to Perry’s home in Round Top. (It feels wrong that Perry is commuting via a French jet, but he’s come up in the world.) His jet is flanked by prop planes flown by state representatives who aren’t (yet) able to tap into Perry-level funds. Jared Patterson, who represents Frisco, admonishes me to be sure to print that state representative Cole Hefner of Mount Pleasant owns “the smallest plane here.” (It’s a perfectly respectable Piper Twin Comanche.)

Inside the hangar, attendees pick at a seafood buffet; lobbyists and a hodgepodge of state representatives crowd two open bars. When speakers finally take the stage, they are united in their expressed bafflement that anyone is challenging Phelan. Judy Nichols, the former chair of the local Jefferson County Republican Party, argues that Phelan is “the most conservative leader that we’ve ever had in the state of Texas,” a man who had led the state rightward on abortion restrictions, gun rights, and cracking down on “woke” schools.

When Perry takes the mic, he warns the team running the sound that he’s going to be pacing the stage. “I want to preach a little,” he says. This is Perry in his element. He clarifies that he has no desire to be here “refereeing a fight in the Republican primary.” But he can’t believe Phelan has a challenger.  Voters would be “absolutely out of your mind if you get rid of Dade Phelan,” he says. “I mean, look, we’re going to give all of you a mental-competency test.” 

If Phelan loses his primary, Beaumont would lose the services of the state’s most powerful lawmaker and replace him with a back-bench nobody freshman. “You’re sitting at the table,” Perry says, his voice lowering, “when every big decision is made in Austin, Texas. When you pick up the phone and you call him, he answers . . . because you know him. You go to church, you see him downtown. He’s your guy. He knows how to get things done.” 

This is politics 101, as Perry sees it. “This business of governing is actually not that difficult,” he explains. Keep government small, build a skilled workforce, and then “get out of the way and let the private sector do what the private sector really knows how to do.” This was “the blueprint,” which he had set in motion more than twenty years ago and which he says Phelan follows. 

If this is more than a little self-aggrandizing—Perry is responsible for the state’s economic growth in the same way a shaman brings rain—it’s also a fairly accurate description of “the Texas model,” as we’ve come to understand it, with its uglier aspects brushed aside. Texas is for the job creators. The other stuff—polarization, culture wars, demands for political purity—are coming from people who have lost the plot. “I got called a RINO [Republican in name only] last week,” Perry says. “I think it’s kind of sexy, frankly, when you think about it. In Africa, it’s one of the baddest boys on the block.”

Perry’s correct that it would be lunacy for voters to un-elect a House Speaker from their district. But that’s part of the old rules. Jack Brooks brought pork home for forty years, and then his district got tired of it. Under the new rules, who can say? 

Perry yields the stage to Phelan, who has time to make his case before the former governor gets back on his jet and its three engines drown out conversation in the room. The Speaker thanks Perry, whom he describes as the “longest-serving governor in Texas history.” Perry is, but perhaps not for long: One more term and Greg Abbott will have him beat. The state belongs to him and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick now. Neither of them like Phelan very much. The future is up for grabs.

In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells his apostles in the book of Matthew, “the first will be last and the last first.” So it is in the Texas House, where the Speaker wields great power while also being constrained, and at times even imprisoned, by that power. The Speaker can control events and influence policy. But he—all Speakers so far have been men—is merely the voice of the body. If he displeases the House, he can be replaced. At the same time, the chamber relies on him to take heat the governor and the Senate direct at it.

In the best of times, the Speaker’s job is to take punches. But no Speaker in living memory, and perhaps no Texas political figure of any kind, has received a pummeling as sustained and omnidirectional as Phelan has this year. This is all the more remarkable given that Phelan’s House is the most right-wing ever.

Phelan’s speakership was an accident of sorts. He comes from a politically connected family in southeast Texas and runs Phelan Investments, a self-described “fourth generation” investment firm. After college he worked for a year in the office of U.S. House majority leader Dick Armey, who represented a district north of Fort Worth. Phelan later worked as a staffer in the Texas Senate. In 2014 he was elected to the state House. 

In 2019, under then-Speaker Dennis Bonnen, who won the gavel by promising to elevate young guns who felt stymied under prior leaders, Phelan was given the chairmanship of the State Affairs Committee. That body bears a boring name but often hears some of the most contentious issues of a legislative session, from laws targeting LGBTQ Texans to anti-union measures. Phelan earned the job off his reputation as quiet, confident, and popular among members of both parties. He represented a deeply conservative district, but he didn’t regularly reach for the red-meat button. The party should be “done talking about bashing on the gay community,” he said upon assuming the chairmanship, amid a fight about nondiscrimination ordinances. “It’s completely unacceptable.”

Phelan might have continued to toil in the trenches for years, but Bonnen soon stepped into a large, steaming cow pie. The Speaker tried to make peace with Michael Quinn Sullivan, a provocateur who represented the interests of rich, right-wing money men, asking him to target uncooperative House Republicans with primary challengers in turn for the passage of certain pieces of legislation. Sullivan surreptitiously taped the meeting and aired it online, ending Bonnen’s political career.

Phelan took the gavel in 2021 by winning the support of the members who put his predecessor in office. As a relative newcomer to the body, however, he, and his political team, struggled to assert himself against Patrick’s Senate on the one hand and against his veteran committee chairs on the other. Phelan also picked fights—skirmishes that could be viewed as admirable, or unwise. His relationship with Patrick quickly went rancid. The lieutenant governor seemed to deeply dislike the Speaker on a personal level, and he railed against Phelan in public throughout the 2023 session.

Phelan picked his most consequential fight with Ken Paxton, the ethically crippled and multiply indicted attorney general. This move was astonishing. Republicans in the Legislature are not supposed to hold other Republicans accountable. The House impeached Paxton by a vote of 121 to 23. But when the Senate failed to convict the attorney general, Phelan was left exposed. (Andrew Murr of Junction, the Republican who led the impeachment effort, quietly retired.) Paxton’s many powerful and wealthy allies came rushing to support his campaign of revenge.

In this race, Phelan has tried to frame the impeachment as an act that was in the Republican Party’s best interest. “When you have one party rule for three decades, you’ve got to hold each other accountable or you lose that control,” he told supporters at the rally. “You start losing offices statewide.” 

That’s proven a tougher sell to the 3 percent of Texans who decide low-turnout primary elections in Texas—most of whom are far to the right of the typical general-election voter. The state Republican Party censured Phelan for his role in Paxton’s impeachment, condemning one of its major state officials during his reelection bid for the first time in the party’s history. Then Donald Trump, for whom Paxton tried to help overturn the 2020 election results, endorsed Covey. Abbott stayed neutral, but, on the stump in other legislative races, offered criticism of Phelan’s leadership. The Speaker was left nearly friendless.

What are the arguments against Phelan? They cannot be made effectively in terms of Republican policy preferences. Phelan strikes a stark contrast with his predecessors. Joe Straus, Abbott’s first Speaker, was a centrist Republican who once told the New Yorker in the year he killed an anti-transgender bill seeking to limit who could use what bathrooms that no matter how much political capital he had to expend, he didn’t want “the suicide of a single Texan on [his] hands.” Bonnen, Abbott’s second Speaker, presided over what’s known as the “kumbaya session” of the Lege, without many right-wing bills, working to surreptitiously kill contentious legislation such as “constitutional carry,” which would have allowed the unlicensed carry of handguns.

As his campaign now touts, Phelan’s House passed constitutional carry and every important anti-trans bill that came its way. Phelan has repeatedly been asked to eat turds by the state’s other leaders, and he has happily acceded. He passed a law placing a bounty on those who help women get abortions. He passed a show-your-papers law for those suspected of being here illegally. He helped the governor ramp up his border-security initiatives which, while expensive and ineffective, provide good political theater. When a poisonous and mean-spirited election-security bill pushed by Patrick and Abbott caused House Democrats to flee the state in 2021, it fell to Phelan to clean up the mess. He dutifully issued arrest warrants for the Democrats and became the face of the “stop the steal” movement in Texas. When a ban on gender-affirming care for trans kids that Patrick wanted came before the House in 2023, Phelan ordered state police to clear the public and some protesters from the House gallery, a highly unusual action, and got the bill passed with a minimum of indignity. 

Right-wing critics of Straus and Bonnen, of whom there were many, should be ecstatic. And while it’s true that the House didn’t pass a school-voucher plan last year that would use taxpayer funds to subsidize private-school tuition—a priority of the governor’s—Phelan is not exactly to blame. Enough of Phelan’s members, who elected him Speaker and represented districts with few if any private schools, simply did not want to pass the bill. Phelan couldn’t make them vote yes even if he wanted to.

But instead of giving Phelan his due, the right wing is fired up over what Freud called the narcissism of small differences. The biggest small fissure is that Phelan gave a few Democrats—mostly conservative ones—committee chairmanships. Patrick does the same in the Senate and all Republican Speakers have done so too, in part because the buy-in of the other party is necessary to pass many bills. It’s telling that the right’s case is never made by giving examples of bills that Democrat chairs stopped that the House would otherwise have passed.

To generate grievances against Phelan, his opponents have reached deep for minutiae. On February 21, Patrick criticized the way Phelan’s house passed constitutional carry. The Senate had to “rewrite the whole bill,” Patrick said, because the House version would have been subject to legal challenges. State representative Matt Schaefer, a right-winger who has bashed Phelan on other issues, called Patrick’s account “pure fiction” the next day. But the gripe is also irrelevant. Given that the bill ultimately passed the House, who cares?

A mailer sent by Covey to voters in the district also complains about Phelan’s choice of parliamentarian, who helps the Speaker interpret the rules of the House on the floor. Hugh Brady, who was appointed to the role by Bonnen, served as general counsel for the White House Office of Administration from 2014 to 2017, when Barack Obama was president, and is tainted by the association. But complaints about the parliamentarian are as inside-baseball as it gets. There are perhaps a few thousand voters in the state who could adequately describe what the job is for. If this is one of Phelan’s biggest crimes, he’s a saint.

Then there’s the looney-tunes criticisms. Over Christmas, a right-wing rodent named Cary Cheshire sent a mailer to Republican voters in the district wishing them a “happy Ramadan,” the Islamic holy month, in Phelan’s name. The driving motives here are mostly cynical. For members of the right-wing faction funded by Midland oilman and Christian nationalist Tim Dunn and the Wilks brothers of Cisco, the M.O. is to push wherever they think they can gain leverage. Straus represented a genteel district in San Antonio and was popular enough to be impervious to a primary challenge. Bonnen wasn’t in office long enough to get one. Representing a deep-red district, Phelan is vulnerable in a way his predecessors weren’t. If the billionaire oilmen can beat him—or even knock him into a runoff—that would be one of the most valuable scalps they’ve ever taken. 

In just the last month, the primary Dunn-affiliated political action committee, Texans United for a Conservative Majority, gave Covey nearly $200,000. Phelan’s advisers express confidence, nonetheless, that he will avoid a runoff and beat the challengers in the primary. The Speaker has raised more than $2 million in the last month and almost $6 million in the last year. But Phelan’s advisers are anxious about how Trump’s endorsement of his chief rival might factor in—and want to run up the score as much as possible. Some Republican representatives are wondering whether it might be better to pick a member slightly less hated to lead the chamber—and if Phelan struggles to dispatch his enemies, folks will wonder more.

Even if he wins and returns to the speakership, the election may prove to have hardened Phelan. The vitriol from his enemies has reached alarming levels. On February 12, two men accosted Phelan’s wife at their home. A few weeks earlier, state police announced they had arrested a man who threatened to kill Phelan. “ONE SHOT… ONE KILL,” the Orange County man wrote on social media, adding that he would place the shot in Phelan’s “RIGHT TEMPLE.” The would-be assassin endorsed “Mr. Covey, [who] is a Godly Man,” in the same breath.

Two days after the Perry bash, David Covey joins his flock at a church in Port Arthur. This is a confusing place for him to spend the last Saturday before early voting: the church is not in the district. Most of the folks in the audience are members of North Texas Conservatives, a group that has come to southeast Texas to knock on doors to promote Covey.

Pastor Brandon Burden, from North Texas, has borrowed the church to bestow his blessing on Covey. This event is close to the opposite of Phelan’s big-money party. Few riches are on display in the parking lot and no tartar sauce is available inside. One of the few decorations in the evangelical church is an Israeli flag beside a shofar stand. Burden brings Covey to the stage. 

Covey is the beneficiary of millions of dollars of spending by donors outside his district, but he is fairly unassuming, even bashful. He starts his speech with a Bible passage that he stumbles over, asking the audience for help. “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,” Covey says. “God is the one who’s going to give us victory on March fifth. And all of the glory will go to God when we win, because he is taking down evil strongholds” and annihilating “evil forces.” The House is often stupid and members pompous. But evil?

Covey doesn’t talk about policy or issues at all. He describes himself purely as an instrument of God’s will, and explains that God hates the Speaker. One part of this is true: Covey is indeed an instrument. If he wins, he would be an unimportant figure in the House. His backers are interested only in damaging the Speaker, not in what Covey would do differently. “We’re going after the head of the snake,” Covey says of Phelan. “This is the top evil worker in Texas that we’re going after, that we’re going to defeat in two weeks.”

Reverend Burden takes over again. He announces that Covey will now be “anoint[ed] with frankincense from Young Living essential oils”—inserting a bit of product placement. He gets emotional. His voice breaks and gets quiet. “From the very first moment that I met this man at Cheddar’s in November”—that’s Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen, the Irving-based restaurant chain—“you said, Father, his name means covenant. Covey means covenant.” Burden says it’s a sign that God was offering a new covenant through David Covey that would start here in Port Arthur and resonate throughout the land.

Then Burden announced that Phelan had already lost the election. “David, yesterday the Lord had us do a prophetic act in Lions Park, by the library. He had us take a gavel and he said, ‘Gavel out Dade Phelan, and gavel in David Covey.’ And he said, ‘It’s sine die for Dade Phelan. It’s David Covey’s seat now.’ ” The block-walkers, then, would simply have to announce to voters that God’s will had been decided.

On the way out, I grabbed a copy of a book the pastor wrote—an exhortation to the faithful to be more active in secular politics, a tale as old as time. The first chapter, “The Capital Riot,” recounts Burden’s experience in Austin last session as the ban on gender-affirming care for trans kids was being debated. “I wasn’t trying to harm them,” he writes. “I was trying to save them—from themselves, if necessary.” 

Burden writes of his disgust and fear at seeing transgender protesters in the House gallery. But someone comes to his rescue. It’s Dade Phelan. The Speaker clears the gallery of protesters and then passes the bill. Burden has won, only now he doesn’t seem to know it. The distance between the godly and the “evil-workers” has shrunk so much they’ve become nearly indistinguishable.