Shortly before the Texas House convened on Saturday to vote on a list of twenty articles of impeachment for Attorney General Ken Paxton, Donald Trump posted a missive to his followers on Truth Social. “Hopefully Republicans in the Texas House will agree that this is a very unfair process that should not be allowed to happen or proceed—I will fight you if it does,” the former president and current 2024 GOP front-runner warned. Who did Trump blame for Paxton’s woes? “Radical Left Democrats,” “Criminals,” and, critically in the GOP-led House, “RINOS,” or Republicans In Name Only.
Trump has an uncanny ability to bend Republicans to his will. The few exceptions are infamous among the GOP for their resistance—among them former Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney, the late senator John McCain, and former presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Most in the party contort themselves into alignment with Trump, regardless of their past disagreements. This time, though, Trump’s bullying didn’t work. His threat that he would “fight” Texas House members who voted for impeachment didn’t swing many votes—the chamber favored impeachment 121–23, with 70 percent of the House GOP caucus voting in support.
Since then, national political observers have cast this Trump failure as a harbinger that the former president’s grip on the GOP may be slipping. USA Today wrote that “the decision by many Republicans to wave off Trump’s warnings fueled questions about the former president’s political power in one of the nation’s reddest states,” and noted that Trump-backed candidates who succeeded in GOP primaries last year subsequently fell flat in the November general election. Conservatives who’ve grown disillusioned with Trump noticed, too. Dan McLaughlin, a senior writer for the conservative National Review, noted, mockingly, that Trump “display[ed] his influence by persuading 1/7 of the Texas House to vote against impeaching Paxton.” Bill Mitchell, a longtime Trump booster who switched his allegiance to Florida governor Ron DeSantis earlier this year, declared that “Trump has lost his influence in Texas.” On the other side of the aisle, liberal commentators such as Stephanie Kennedy opined, “May the MAGA influence continue to collapse—and die.”
Plenty of Trump opponents have looked for signs that the MAGA era of GOP politics might be ending, but the dynamics of Texas GOP politics don’t necessarily augur national trends. The vote against Paxton was less political than personal. GOP members of the House took umbrage at Paxton arrogantly demanding that they spend taxpayer money on an out-of-court settlement of the lawsuit against him by former senior lawyers on his staff, several of them prominent Republicans in their own right, who had credibly accused him of soliciting bribes and other abuses of his office.
“As far as the Legislature goes, the attorney general asking for the $3.3 million to come from taxpayers to pay whistleblower settlements ended up being the last straw, where they decided, ‘OK, we need to get to the bottom of this,’” said Republican political consultant Derek Ryan, who has worked for a Ted Cruz Senate campaign, several congressional campaigns, the state party, and a slew of GOP state legislators. “A lot of members took their role responsibly and knew that, regardless of the potential of being [challenged in the primaries] next year, this was the right vote for them to take.”
House Republicans have been criticized by their own party before. Trump didn’t come up with the talking point that the Texas House was made up of fake Republicans who were, deep in their hearts, secretly liberals. During the 2023 legislative session, the Texas Senate and its leadership had pulled further to the right than the House, creating fractures within the Texas GOP. House Speaker Dade Phelan, a Beaumont native, got branded “California Dade” by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick (born in Baltimore as Dannie Goeb), seemingly over a dispute around some wonky differences in each leader’s preferred plan to cut property taxes. There was bickering over school vouchers, which the Senate favored and the House rejected. Texas Republicans further to the right bullied their less aggressively MAGA counterparts with epithets, declaring them a bunch of liberal RINO cucks who probably wish they were in San Francisco. Trump was simply the biggest name to claim that the only way to prove their true conservative bona fides was to do what he demanded. By then, House Republicans had gotten used to hearing such foolishness and ignoring it.
After impeachment was brought to the House floor, whatever simmering resentment the Texas GOP’s far-right had for Phelan and the House over relatively minor policy differences boiled over. State GOP chairman Matt Rinaldi released a statement calling Phelan “a liberal Speaker trying to undermine his conservative adversaries” who spent the session “empowering Democrats.” Following the vote, Paxton issued a statement accusing “Phelan’s coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans” of being in “lockstep” with a host of GOP boogeymen—the Biden administration, abortion providers, gun control advocates, and “woke corporations.” Right-wing activist Jonathan Stickland, a former state representative, shared a tweet declaring that “Phelan drinks Bud Light he bought from Target”—arcane references to mainstream American brands that have run afoul of the anti-woke mob.
Most of this has nothing to do with Donald Trump, or even MAGA politics more broadly. Phelan has been a vociferous culture warrior throughout his career in the House. In 2021, during his first session as Speaker, he passed Texas’s SB 8, a groundbreaking restriction on abortion that effectively outlawed the procedure in Texas even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. He responded to the mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa that same session by passing in the House a bill that would allow the carrying of guns without a permit, a cause he championed before he ever got the gavel. He also took up the “anti-woke” cause by banning “critical race theory.” In 2023, he spent much of the session criminalizing transgender kids and their parents, passing aggressive—possibly unconstitutional—immigration laws, and closed out the session by targeting drag shows. Still, Paxton’s impeachment inflamed tensions that already existed between the two main factions in the Texas GOP.
“It’s almost beyond ridiculous that some of the most conservative members in the Legislature, simply because they have the opinion that there’s enough potential evidence to send it over to the Senate, are now being called RINOs,” Ryan told me. Members of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus, for example, voted in favor of impeachment.“Briscoe Cain is the most conservative member of the Texas House on multiple scorecards, and he voted to impeach, and now there are people calling him a RINO . . . I don’t think RINO means what they think it means.”
The issues that precipitated the current split haven’t, for the most part, been the red-meat policies that typically animate conservatives. Most are wonkier: whether public universities should continue to be allowed to grant tenure, or whether taxpayer dollars should be distributed to parents in the form of vouchers that would support private schools at the expense of public ones. Raise your hand if you think the MAGA spell has broken over Texas Republicans who voted for outlawing abortion, banning books, and restricting drag shows, but prefer an appraisal cap on residential property taxes over an expanded homestead exemption!
While it’s been decades since Democrats held power throughout the state, this sort of internecine conflict used to pop up among members of that party, too. Indeed, it still does in local politics in areas such as Austin or South Texas, where Republicans are in the minority and carry little influence, and fiercely fought Democratic primaries are treated like existential battles for the soul of the party—consider the two heated contests between Henry Cuellar and Jessica Cisneros in Laredo, for example.
Statewide, we’ve had one-party rule for nearly three decades, and Democrats have marginalized themselves to the point of irrelevance. As a result, the civil war that matters is among Republicans. That worked out poorly for Ken Paxton, but it doesn’t tell you much about Trump’s hold over the GOP.
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