Why are Texas Republicans “so terrible”? Why do they abet tyranny and persecute the vulnerable? That was the subject of a January episode of the podcast Conservative Review, hosted by Daniel Horowitz of Blaze News. Horowitz is no bleeding-heart liberal: this criticism was coming from the right. The state GOP, Horowitz said, had left Texans defenseless against “trannies” and the “Fourth Reich executive branch” of Governor Greg Abbott, whose jackbooted state agencies were oppressing Texans in unprecedented ways.

Such discourse is increasingly common on the right. But Horowitz had a guest to give expert testimony: Matt Rinaldi, the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas. Rinaldi laughed at Horowitz’s question and for a half hour gave his diagnoses of why the party he runs had gone rancid in the sun. Elected officials were paralyzed by indecision and cowardice, he said. “A whole lot of nothing is happening while this huge culture war is engulfing the country, and we have a chance to lose it.” 

In suburban areas, true conservatives can be elected, but Republicans in rural areas are too often “swayed by the chamber of commerce and corporations” and special interest groups. Go to many parts of East Texas, he said, and “the school will be the most majestic building you see within sixty miles.” He meant this to be an indictment.

Traditionally, the chairman of the Texas GOP has served as the party’s top cheerleader. Chairmen are elected not by the public but by a small number of party delegates, and they have no real mandate to pursue political change. Instead, they historically have maintained a kind of ecumenical approach to the many differing Republican factions among voters, activists, elected officials, and donors. Part of the reason the GOP took power in Texas is that it was flexible enough to appeal to everyone from John Bircher preachers to Rotary Club presidents: the party was a big tent. 

Rinaldi has a different vision. Instead of tying the factions together, the party organization should be a cudgel with which to bring Republicans in line. With the support of his longtime friends—a right-wing crew that includes billionaire oilmen Tim Dunn, who is a Christian nationalist, and Dan and Farris Wilks—Rinaldi believes he should be the one to do the bludgeoning. For many Texans it has been a matter of some concern that the most-conservative Republican primary voters—some 3 percent of the state’s population—wield so much political power. Rinaldi wants to ensure they have even more.

On the podcast Horowitz asked Rinaldi if the solution to the problem of RINOs—Republicans in name only—might involve doing away entirely with primaries decided by popular vote. Perhaps the party should pick which candidates can run as Republicans, Horowitz said. “Your party is your brand,” Rinaldi replied. Texas’s open-primary system gives hard-liners less influence over who holds office, he added, and that has to stop. It should be “party activists, Republicans, who choose who goes on the ballot.”

In other red states, such as Alabama and Tennessee, Rinaldi noted, “the party has the ability to deny ballot access to candidates they don’t believe represent them.” In Idaho the GOP began holding closed primaries, in contravention of existing state law—and the courts allowed it. There were many ways, he said, that the state GOP could start to limit the number of Texans who have a say in its business.

Texas has effectively been a one-party state for the past two decades, but Rinaldi would have the party’s relationship to the state function a little more like it does in one-party nations such as the People’s Republic of China. It’s a vision Rinaldi may not be able to achieve. But he’s admirably honest about his ambitions. 

Matt Rinaldi, left, then a state representative, exchanging pleasantries with fellow Republican Jeff Leach, in 2017.
Matt Rinaldi, left, then a state representative, exchanging pleasantries with fellow Republican Jeff Leach, in 2017.Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman via AP

Much has been made of the civil war that’s broken out in the state’s Republican Party. You could get away with describing that conflict as being between moderate and right-wing factions, but the party has also cleaved along the lines of temperament and background. 

There’s a meaningful difference between Republicans who grew up in Texas and those who moved here as adults. Converts to Texas believe in it with the zeal that many neophytes express toward their faith—or they believe in their version of Texas, a simplified, politicized interpretation that’s often lacking in context and history. Folks who came of age in Texas are more immersed in the state’s nuances. They remember politics here when Democrats still had some power, and they are more cautious about what the GOP can and should do. And suburban Republicans are often more ideological and uncompromising than rural Republicans, who look a bit like the conservative Democrats of yore.

To pick two examples, Dan Patrick, a Baltimore native, was born Dannie Goeb and rebuilt his life in the Houston suburbs as a conservative talk show host. He first ran for office in 2006. State representative Andrew Murr, who led the impeachment charge against Republican attorney general Ken Paxton, was reared on a ranch in the Hill Country near Junction. His politics are more rooted in the state’s history, in part because he grew up hearing stories about his grandfather, Governor Coke Stevenson, a conservative Democrat.

Matt Rinaldi’s origin story is more like Patrick’s than Murr’s. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1975, Rinaldi attended schools in Virginia and Massachusetts before coming to Dallas to work at a law firm at about the time when Texas Democrats were sliding into occultation. He didn’t win office until after the tea party wave in 2010, when Republican infighting became the order of the day. And he emerged from one of those fertile places in the state for reactionary politics—the northern suburbs in the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex. In the 2010s, men and women with backgrounds like Rinaldi’s reshaped the state. 

Rinaldi’s path to power was circuitous. With a law degree from Boston University, he held jobs at a series of prestigious firms for most of his first two decades in Texas. He didn’t last at any of them for more than five years, never making partner, and he picked up a string of part-time gigs—representing a doctor here, an insurance company there. But eventually he caught a lucky break: he met Monty Bennett, a bumptious Dallas hotelier and billionaire political donor.

Bennett helped fund Rinaldi’s tentative first steps into elected politics. In 2010 Rinaldi ran for judge of a civil district court in Dallas County. He lost by five points. In 2012 he took a shot at a state House seat: he placed third in the Republican primary. One challenger ran as a moderate and drew establishment support; another ran as a far-right-winger. They qualified for a runoff against each other. Rinaldi couldn’t find a lane.

Then, in 2013, Bennett made Rinaldi a director of one of his real estate investment trusts, a company then named Ashford Hospitality Prime (now Braemer Hotels and Resorts), which owns properties across the United States. This was a dramatic departure from Rinaldi’s previous work experience. There are many ways to gain influence in the Legislature. The most straightforward is to provide campaign cash to candidates. But in Texas, it’s also perfectly legal to put a state lawmaker, or a future state lawmaker, on your payroll. State legislators have an annual base salary of $7,200—they need full-time jobs. You can acquire one for less than you might think.

To observers, it was clear what had happened, if only in retrospect. The ambitious Rinaldi, in need of friends, had been made an asset of the Bennett empire. (“What the f— does [he] know about running high-end hotels?” asked a political consultant from Dallas who knew Rinaldi at the time.) Rinaldi was not the only future state representative that Bennett acquired—Republican Stefani Carter, who represented a Dallas-area district in the House from 2011 to 2015, also served as a director at Ashford.

At that time, Rinaldi and Bennett had more in common with the Bush era of Republican politics than with what was coming down the road. But Bennett started to radicalize, in part, observers thought, because of a protracted and expensive fight he waged with the Tarrant Regional Water District board, which sought to lay a pipeline across his ranch. Bennett spent millions of dollars to successfully stop it—even planting a cemetery in the pipeline’s path that included the remains of one Black World War II veteran—and seemed to emerge from the fight with a much more stringent and uncompromising view of politics.

Having lost elections twice already, Rinaldi seemed to adjust his politics. In 2014, as an employee of Bennett’s, Rinaldi ran for a state House seat against Bennett Ratliff, the same candidate he’d lost to before. This time he chose a clear lane. He smeared his opponent as a slave to the teachers’ unions and a RINO. Rinaldi made clear during the race that he would work to unseat the Speaker of the Texas House, Joe Straus, which gave him access to the money of Tim Dunn, who’d told the Speaker he didn’t believe Jews should hold leadership positions. Rinaldi beat Ratliff by just 92 votes.

Rinaldi would accomplish little with the power he attained. His opposition to Straus guaranteed he had weakened influence in the chamber. He fell in with a group of Dunn-funded, ostracized lawmakers, especially Jonathan Stickland, from Bedford, between Fort Worth and the DFW Airport. Like Islamists in prison, shorn of connections to the outside world and forced together, they radicalized.

Rinaldi represented a reddish but potentially swing-voting suburban district that encompassed parts of Coppell and Irving. But in the Legislature, he acted as if he represented a much more right-wing electorate, joining the House Freedom Caucus and sometimes going to war against local officials from his district. His political instincts, in other words, were not always terrific: he preferred strong feelings to strategic thinking.

That deficit became most apparent on the last day of the 2017 legislative session, which featured an ugly debate over a “show your papers” immigration law, which would allow cops to ask motorists and others for proof of legal residency. In the gallery, Rinaldi saw pro-immigration protesters. So he called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on them and then, unwisely, crossed to a huddle of Democratic lawmakers to tell them he had done so. This was online logic in real life: Rinaldi presumably felt impotent, and he was trolling.

A scuffle broke out. Democratic state representative Poncho Nevárez told Rinaldi he would find him in the parking lot later, to which Rinaldi reportedly replied that he would “put a bullet in your head.” It was one of the nastiest moments at the Legislature in modern times.

Rinaldi’s suburban constituents didn’t love it. The 2018 election was a bad year for Republicans, but Rinaldi’s Democratic opponent, Julie Johnson, was a conservative’s fantasy: a progressive trial lawyer. Rinaldi tried to position himself more like Ratliff, taking credit for increasing public education funding, but it was too late. A Republican strategist recalls Rinaldi coming up to him at an election-night watch party to ask: “Do you think I’m gonna be okay?” By a margin of 43 to 57 percent, he was not.

In the next few years Rinaldi loitered on the periphery of the party as a commentator, most notably speaking at protests against Greg Abbott’s pandemic restrictions in 2020. Then Rinaldi caught another break: after a disastrous state GOP convention hosted on Zoom and plagued by technical problems, former Florida congressman Allen West was elected chairman of the state GOP. West was a tea party hero who left the U.S. Army in disgrace after ordering the mock execution of an Iraqi prisoner. 

West clearly wanted to run for higher office—he quit his post within eleven months and ran unsuccessfully for governor—but his reign sent many party regulars running for the hills. Derek Ryan, a data expert who had been helping to maintain the party’s voter file for twenty years under seven chairpersons, said West immediately moved to shut down some of the party’s core functions. Among them was the Voter Engagement Project, a high-profile effort advised by Karl Rove and well-regarded former party chair Steve Munisteri, to register new Republican voters. 

West distrusted the motivations of Rove and Munisteri, but he also seemed to worry about the effects of bringing new, less strident Republican voters into the party. The Voter Engagement Project was eventually saved, thanks in part to the intervention of Abbott political adviser Dave Carney. But “that was the writing on wall,” Ryan said, that “told me that the state party was probably leaning away from [a focus on] getting Republicans elected in November.” 

When West stepped down to challenge Abbott from his right, the party had to elect an interim replacement. The “normal guy” faction of the party offered as its candidate former executive director Chad Wilbanks. He got six votes and came in third place. Rinaldi, aligned with West and bolstered by a year of activism against COVID-19 restrictions, received 34

At first Rinaldi sounded the right notes. In August 2021, shortly after he was elected, he indicated he was ready to make peace with the governor and other party mates he’d antagonized. But the big tent deflated quickly. Instead of representing “every Republican,” Rinaldi settled into long-term trench warfare against Speaker Dade Phelan and House conservatives. 

During the legislative session this year, the state GOP kept a daily log, on social media, of the indignities offered up by House Republicans, sometimes condemning representatives by name for individual votes. (The fighting goes in both directions: as I was reporting this article, more than one ally of the Speaker offered to provide opposition research about the head of their party.) In Rinaldi’s race for the chair, he had reassured the party that he thought intervening in primaries was a bad idea. So did his main opponent, David Covey, a local party chairman from Orange County. Now Covey is running in the Republican primary against Phelan—with Rinaldi’s endorsement. 

Republicans aligned with Phelan see Rinaldi as belligerent. “Matt has been captured and is a full participant in and part of his group of folks that just live off Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks’s money,” said one Republican strategist. “Rinaldi has taken this operation that they’ve been running for years and moved it into the official apparatus of the Republican party.”

Phelan is not alone as a target: Many politicians have earned Rinaldi’s ire. He fought with Abbott during an impasse over a property tax cut plan earlier this year and argued that the governor was not “serious about eliminating property taxes.” (Abbott strongly insisted otherwise.)

The Senate caught flak too. In April, lawmakers debated a bill that would ban hormone therapies for transgender children. The goal was ostensibly to protect kids. But when doctors testified that it would be harmful to cut off treatments for children who had already begun them, the Senate unanimously adopted an amendment to allow those who’d already started treatments to continue them. Rinaldi and the state party raised hell. After barely a weekend of pressure, the Senate returned on Monday and stripped out the measure.

When it comes to elected officials, Rinaldi seeks to protect friends and punish enemies.

When it comes to elected officials, Rinaldi seeks to protect friends and punish enemies. This session, when Representative Bryan Slaton, of Royse City, a critic of Phelan’s who belongs to Rinaldi’s preferred faction of the party, plied a nineteen-year-old staffer with alcohol and had sex with her, Rinaldi urged the State Republican Executive Committee to stay quiet about the matter and to “let the process play out,” according to leaked texts. (At the same time, Slaton’s backers, among them Dunn and Stickland, donated $135,000 to the state party.) 

When the same House committee that was investigating Slaton revealed that it had also been investigating Ken Paxton over accusations that he had taken bribes from a real estate developer seeking federal protection, Rinaldi abandoned the pretense of neutrality and redoubled his war against the House. The SREC issued an extraordinary statement that expressed the “sincere desire of the Republican Party of Texas that the State of Texas not become a banana republic” and made the wild claim that the House impeachment, which preceded a trial in the Senate, was “illegal” and violated Paxton’s “presumption of innocence.” The party moved to censure House Republicans who had led the drive for impeachment, promised retribution in the next primary, and blasted out a video it said showed Phelan drunk on the floor of the House.

Rinaldi’s granular interest in the state House did not indicate an overwhelming familiarity with it. State representative Carl Tepper, a freshman Republican from Lubbock, was one of the overwhelming majority of House Republicans who voted to impeach Paxton. Rinaldi released a statement calling the impeachment a sham run by Democrats. Tepper tweeted—aspirationally, it has to be said—that Rinaldi was “the most marginalized and inconsequential RPT chair of my lifetime. A complete interloper.”

Rinaldi shot back. “I just learned you were in the Texas House when I read your bio,” he said. It was hard to say what was stranger: that the two men were talking to each other this way or that the chairman of the Republican Party of Texas freely admitted that he didn’t know the name of Lubbock’s state representative 137 days into a 140-day legislative session. To the extent that Rinaldi has a job, it’s to know his party’s elected officials. What’s going on here?

While some Republicans might fear what will happen if the party takes a more active role in selecting candidates and influencing the GOP primary, there’s a useful counterpoint: what Rinaldi and the party has actually been doing. That’s mostly a whole lot of nothing, apart from irritating Dade Phelan.

Rinaldi’s GOP can count on raising millions from the likes of Dunn and the Wilks brothers. But that’s not enough to run a state party. Rinaldi’s organization, premised on the support of a few local kingmakers, has been rotten at fund-raising: its federal accounts are nearly dry, and most of the money it’s gotten in the past few years has been “passed through” from the Republican National Committee and congressional campaigns.

Nonetheless, Rinaldi is ostracizing those national benefactors. He strongly supported Harmeet Dhillon’s losing campaign for chair of the RNC against incumbent Ronna McDaniel earlier this year. The real elephant in the room is the upcoming presidential election. Rinaldi is a Ron DeSantis supporter. But the Donald seems likely to win the Republican nomination, and he is famously sensitive to slights.

Rinaldi is stuck with a small set of allies, some of whom are discreditable. In October he was photographed by the Texas Tribune entering the office of Pale Horse Strategies, Stickland’s consulting firm in Fort Worth. In the building at the same time was Nick Fuentes, the young, antisemitic, white-supremacist influencer. Rinaldi insisted that he was there for a meeting with someone else. But it placed an uncomfortable spotlight on the views and ethics of his closest allies. In a statement, Rinaldi briefly condemned Fuentes and then accused Phelan (who had condemned Stickland) of “drinking again.” Stickland was eventually forced out of the PAC; Rinaldi’s enemies demanded he resign too.

But if Rinaldi faces challenges on his path to building an all-powerful state party, his opponents face a cliff. Rinaldi will be up for reelection at the state GOP convention next summer. There is not yet any organized Republican effort to replace him, and no one I interviewed thought the party’s base would oust him from office. A few have fantasized about an expensive and laborious campaign to elect new delegates to the state party convention from all over the state, who would bring a new, responsible, and pragmatic style of politics to the party. They dreamed, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, of dissolving their base and electing another.    

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry GOP.” Subscribe today.