Updated on July 12:
The Texas Republican party has a new leader. On Sunday, the State Republican Executive Committee chose as its chairman former state representative Matt Rinaldi, among the most conservative members of the Texas House in his two terms in office. Rinaldi shares the same low opinion of Governor Greg Abbott as his predecessor, Allen West, who stepped down to challenge Abbott’s bid for a third term in 2022. Though Rinaldi has avidly backed another Abbott challenger—the libertarian-esque former state senator Don Huffines—Rinaldi told Texas Monthly before his election that if he became chairman he would not play favorites. “I would treat all the candidates for statewide offices equally,” he said.
Rinaldi, who lives in Irving, bested three challengers. He received 34 votes to 21 votes for David Covey, a member of the SREC from Orange; 6 votes for Chad Wilbanks, a lobbyist and former party executive director, who lives in Bee Cave; and 3 votes for longtime party activist Bill Burch of Grand Prairie. In a short victory speech, Rinaldi promised to foster a climate of mutual respect and shared priorities.
“We are truly fighting for the America we want our children to live in. And the forefront of that fight is happening here in Texas; Texas, the state where everybody who believes in liberty and freedom across the country looks to set an example, to be the bulwark,” said Rinaldi, who grew up in Cheshire, Connecticut, but, long drawn to the idea of Texas, moved to the state in 2001 after finishing law school at Boston University. “We cannot lose Texas, and we will not lose Texas if we work together.” Rinaldi believes Abbott, unlike Florida governor Rick DeSantis and South Dakota governor Kristi Noem, failed the test posed by the pandemic to resist what he considers the terrible overreach of government-ordered shutdowns and mask orders.
Before the vote, Cat Parks, the party’s vice chair, who presided over the election and has had an increasingly tense relationship with West, said, “For the last year we’ve marched to the orders of `We are the storm.’ Today we have the opportunity to select a new chairman to go forward together and provide the light.” Her words seemed to signal a departure from West, who had given the state party a slogan—“We Are the Storm”—redolent of a phrase frequently used by QAnon adherents. Rinaldi’s three challengers all promised a change in tone and approach and a more back-to-business approach with the midterm elections in sight. But Rinaldi, an intense figure in his own right, is unlikely to be a quiet administrator like some of his predecessors.
On the last day of his last regular session of the Legislature, in 2017, he was involved in an altercation on the House floor after telling colleagues that he had just called U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on protesters in the gallery who opposed legislation banning so-called sanctuary cities. That led to a confrontation with Democrat Poncho Nevárez of Eagle Pass, whom Rinaldi warned he was prepared to shoot in self-defense.
Rinaldi was among a dozen Republican members of the House swept out of office in 2018, losing by more than thirteen points a diverse Dallas County district he had won by fewer than two points in 2016. His election as chairman is a comeback of sorts, an affirmation that his brand of unyielding conservative politics still holds sway with the activists who animate party politics. Assurances aside, Rinaldi will continue to be a thorn in the side of elected officials who have to keep one eye on the general election.
Original story: David Covey, one of four candidates to lead the Texas Republican party, has positioned himself as a moderate on perhaps the most pressing issue in the race. On the question of working with Republican elected officials, he doesn’t want Armageddon so much as a reasonable degree of tactical violence.
“I don’t think we need to work hand in hand, but I don’t think we need to nuke them either,” Covey, currently the Orange County chairman and representative of Senate District 3 on the State Republican Executive Committee, said at a June 29 forum in Port Neches. “We have to be able to put pressure on our legislators, like a sniper. We pick our target, we ensure we don’t have collateral damage—even the party itself—and then we pull the trigger to make sure we get our priorities passed.”
Martial metaphors aside, the 32-year-old Covey represents, believe it or not, something of the peace candidate to lead the Texas GOP past the testosterone-fueled, QAnon-inflected tenure of Allen West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former one-term congressman from Florida. For the past year of his short but chaotic reign as party chair, West mostly trained his unfriendly fire on fellow Republicans, including Governor Greg Abbott, whom he characterized as a tyrant for his pandemic response, and House Speaker Dade Phelan, whom he described as a traitor for seeking some Democratic votes to gain the gavel. On June 4, West surprised many by abruptly announcing that he would be stepping down as chairman effective July 11, midway through his two-year term.
A month later, on July 4, West formally declared that he would be challenging Abbott, setting off what is likely to be a brutal primary battle. Though the four-way race to replace West is not nearly as high-profile as the gubernatorial primary, it could help rewire the relationship between the conservative grassroots and Republican elected officials. The next party chair will have to choose whether to continue to wage war against or make peace with those who govern. Though few party chairs reach the celebrity status of West, in a state where general election outcomes are often determined by the conservatives grassroots in the Republican primaries, whoever wins the race will have an outsized influence on the tenor of Texas politics.
The 64 members of the SREC will pick a candidate to serve the remainder of West’s term this Sunday at the Shepherd’s House Church in Lewisville, forty minutes north of Dallas. Covey’s three opponents are Matt Rinaldi, a 46-year-old former two-term state representative from Irving; Chad Wilbanks, a 51-year-old lobbyist and former executive director of the party who lives in Bee Cave; and Bill Burch, a 69-year-old longtime Republican activist from Grand Prairie.
Many GOP insiders describe Covey, who also serves as president of the Texas Republican County Chairmen’s Association, as the front-runner. Exhausted by West’s me-first tenure, a considerable faction within the SREC craves a return to competent administration, albeit one with a hard-right edge. Covey, who bears a striking resemblance to Ross Geller, David Schwimmer’s character on Friends, grew up one of eight children, all homeschooled. One brother, Jonathan Covey, is the policy director for the Christian conservative group Texas Values. They both worked for state senator Bob Hall, whose conspiratorial turn of mind led him to promote the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 and to sow the seeds of vaccine hesitancy, but who has been described by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick as simply the most conservative member of the Texas Senate. “You don’t work for Bob Hall unless you’re a bona fide conservative,” Covey said.
Rinaldi is the candidate most closely aligned with West. A former two-term legislator and founding member of the hard-right Texas Freedom Caucus, he promises to run a party apparatus that is loyal to its platform, not elected officials. “We need a Republican party chair who isn’t going to back off. You need a Republican party chair who is very tactfully, very strategically going to apply friction to help get these legislative priorities over the finish line,” Rinaldi said at the forum in Port Neches. For Rinaldi, the signal success in enacting permitless carry and the heartbeat bill this session is evidence that this approach gets results. The failure to enact a ban on gender modification of children is proof the party can’t let up.
As an example of what he admired in West’s tenure, Rinaldi pointed to how the GOP chair publicly chastised Abbott for his measures to combat COVID-19, such as the mask mandate and business closures. The government response to the pandemic was “one of the biggest public policy mistakes in our country’s history,” said Rinaldi, who has referred to masks as “face diapers.”
Rinaldi is also close political allies with Don Huffines, the former state senator who is challenging Abbott. Huffines, who was also elected to a North Texas district in 2014 before losing to a Democrat in 2018, is godfather to Rinaldi’s three-year-old-son, Rush, named for Benjamin Rush, the Founding Father. (Though Rinaldi doesn’t mind if folks think his son’s name is an homage to Rush Limbaugh.) When Huffines announced for governor on May 10, Rinaldi quickly endorsed him. In an interview with Texas Monthly about Huffines’s candidacy in May, Rinaldi complained that “Governor Abbott controls the show like a mob boss.” Yet Rinaldi told me that if he is elected chair he will be neutral. “Ultimately, I don’t see it as a difficulty because we’re in the world of politics,” he said. “We’re all big boys.”
Wilbanks, by contrast, argues that opposition to Abbott is a liability for the party and that corporate dollars won’t flow if Rinaldi is leading the state GOP. He says he knows what needs to be done to restore the party to fiscal soundness after West left the organization in bad financial shape, its convention account virtually empty. His main selling point is his experience working for the Texas GOP from 1999 to 2004.
Wilbanks said the choice of a chair is not about political ideology. “First, everybody should know that politically, I lean to the right of Genghis Khan, or, in modern-day terms, Robert Taft,” he said in a July 5 candidate forum on Austin’s The Trailer Park Show. But like Ronald Reagan, Wilbanks believes that if someone agrees with him 80 percent of the time, he or she is a friend, not an enemy. “We have an opportunity to annihilate the Marxist Democrats in 2022, and we’ve got to be laser-focused to be successful.”
Wilbanks insisted he would not be compromised by serving as chair while working as a lobbyist for various clients, including Wind Energy Transmission Texas, 8Minute Solar, and the Pew Charitable Trusts. “I have spoken with my clients and they are excited I am running. There are no conflicts of interest,” Wilbanks said. He told me that, if elected, he won’t take on any new clients. But, he added, “If you want to pass your legislative priorities, wouldn’t it be nice to have a chairman of the Republican party of Texas that’s a political operative and is also a lobbyist that lives here in Austin?”
Burch is even more old-school, and agrees with Wilbanks that the GOP needs to take a less confrontational role in legislative politics. He’s nostalgic for bipartisanship, which he said produces better results for the public, and he said he has a plan to bring unity to the GOP. “What we do is we scream to the world about how great our governor is and our lieutenant governor is, and then if we have an issue we take him behind closed doors, and he’s going to be receptive because we just complimented him,” Burch said in Port Neches. He pledged to raise $38 million for the party. How would he raise such an impressive sum? “I’ve been involved in the party for 46 years. It takes a long time to develop the friendships … with multimillionaires. I called one up, cellphone, he’s on the beach surfing in the Fiji Islands. Says, `Yeah, Bill, what you need?’”
But the party might not have space for those of the old-school aisle-crossing ilk. A signal moment in the RINO-hunting fervor came in January 2018, when the SREC voted two-to-one to censure Joe Straus, a moderate then in his last term as the longest-serving Republican speaker in Texas history, for impeding the party’s agenda. Both Rinaldi and Covey supported the move. Wilbanks and Burch opposed the censure as foolish. Though Straus “was much to the moderate side,” he could still find common ground with activists and more conservative legislators on many platform priorities, Burch said.
Two thirds of the current members of the SREC were swept into office at last summer’s chaotic virtual convention, when West defeated former chair James Dickey on a wave of anti-Abbott sentiment. Covey, who was already on the SREC, knows this electorate far better than the other candidates do. “I don’t have anyone that came predisposed to dislike me, so that’s a huge leg up,” Covey said.
Covey voted for Dickey, not West. “My concern was that he was using it as a springboard, and while I agree with his positions and his statements, he had never had any experience in the party.”
“So,” I asked Covey, “have you uttered the words, `I told you so?’”
“I have not,” Covey replied. “But I have given the warning that let’s not repeat the past.”