What does it mean to be a Texas Republican? This year saw the state GOP tear itself apart over that question. The impeachment and subsequent acquittal of Attorney General Ken Paxton and a protracted fight over school vouchers—a program that would let parents use taxpayer dollars to subsidize their children’s private education—exposed schisms in the party that controls all three branches of the state government. The GOP has broken into warring factions—pro- and anti-Paxton, pro- and anti-voucher—all claiming to represent True Conservatism. The “pro-Paxton” wing accuses its rivals of being Republicans in name only (RINOs) with the ferocity of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee denouncing communist infiltrators, real and imagined, in the 1950s.

Conventional wisdom holds that this civil war is roughly divided between the far-right wing of the Texas GOP and the center-right wing. But a close examination shows that to be too simplistic. Texas Monthly analyzed the relative economic and social conservatism of all 104 Republicans in the Legislature alongside each member’s vote on impeachment. To determine a lawmaker’s social conservatism we used the ratings compiled by Texas Values Action, a group that opposes abortion rights and gay marriage. For economic conservatism we used the ratings published by Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, which champions limited government spending.

We found that the GOP civil war does not break along clean ideological lines. Whether a Republican was relatively centrist or very right-wing didn’t accurately predict their impeachment vote. Some of the furthest-right members of the GOP caucus supported Paxton’s ouster; some of the centrists opposed it. 

You wouldn’t know this from the way the civil war is being described by its combatants. Members of the far right such as Deer Park’s Briscoe Cain, who voted to impeach, have been tarred as RINOs or lumped in with moderates. Meanwhile, some of the most-centrist Republican representatives, such as Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, who famously landed on a right-wing hit list in 2019, have suddenly been anointed “lifelong conservatives.” The pro-Paxton side of the party, led by right-wing billionaire oilman Tim Dunn and his lieutenants, is targeting numerous politicians who until recently were ideological allies. 

The power struggle between the factions is messy—and interesting. Governor Greg Abbott has vowed to support primary-election challenges against all the House Republicans who blocked his voucher bill; Paxton has sworn revenge on those who voted to impeach him. Often, this has aligned the two statewide politicians, but in many cases it has pitted them against each other. 

Below, we take a closer look at eight state lawmakers, many of whom are fighting for their political survival. They include a state representative who supported Paxton but opposed vouchers, as well as several others who voted to impeach Paxton but supported vouchers. Together, they paint a picture of the true battle lines of the GOP civil war.  

The Conservative Wonk Who Crossed Paxton

Dustin Burrows, Lubbock

Burrows, more than anyone else, exemplifies how the battle lines of the civil war are drawn primarily over the Paxton impeachment vote. One of the most socially conservative members of the Texas House, he earned a 98 rating from Texas Values Action. During his eight years in office, he’s been an architect of right-wing policy in the House, on limiting property taxes and building border barriers, and he regrets that more Texans don’t recognize him as such. He sometimes bemoans that others in his party take credit for his achievements, such as passing bills overriding local regulations on businesses, and then receive adulation on TV, while he is stuck in the wonk trenches. 

When he does get recognition, Burrows strives to extinguish any suggestion he might be remotely considerate of the desires of Democrats. In 2021, he took offense when Texas Monthly’s Best and Worst Legislators list named him one of the state’s best legislators. (He bristled at the perception that he’d considered the concerns of LGBTQ groups before letting an anti-trans bill die in committee.) 

This year, Burrows finally achieved apotheosis by passing a law he had long sought to further the Legislature’s micromanagement of city and county governments across the state. The legislation, nicknamed the “Death Star bill,” preempts any city or county ordinance that overlaps with state law, and could lead to the nullification of local measures that require that construction workers get water breaks or that businesses offer parental leave. For his efforts, the right-wing Texas Public Policy Foundation, which Dunn serves on as vice chair, celebrated Burrows. 

Next year should have been a victory lap for the Lubbock lawmaker. But Burrows suffered an intervention of conscience: faced with allegations about Paxton’s corruption that, he said, “everyone I know believes to be true,” Burrows voted to impeach the attorney general. Thereafter, Burrows became a main character in The Texas Heist, a documentary in name only by right-wing activist Michael Quinn Sullivan that claims Democrats, whom Burrows is allegedly servile to, run the Texas House. 

That Burrows is a target of the far right indicates the faction’s chief priority is avenging Paxton, not ensuring passage of its main policy priorities. Consider that Burrows’s main critic, Sullivan, praised the Death Star bill as “great legislation,” and has waged a war against public schools for decades. Burrows was once a skeptic of school vouchers on the grounds that such a program wouldn’t do much for his rural constituents who don’t have many private school options, but this year he “wholeheartedly” supported Abbott’s preferred voucher proposal and voted against an amendment that ultimately killed its passage. His primary opponent, Wade Cowan, the former president of the American Soybean Association, opposes vouchers

Cowan employs the same political consulting firm as Paxton, but as of his first campaign finance filing, neither Dunn nor his lieutenants had contributed to him. That could change as the primary heats up. 

The Moderate Paxton Opponent Escaping Detection

Angie Chen Button, Richardson

One of the few Republican women in the state House, Button, who represents a North Texas district, has never been one for the limelight. Since taking office in 2009, she’s been a consistent Republican vote on hot-button issues such as border security, school vouchers, and restrictions on transgender rights, but her record isn’t that conservative relative to those of her colleagues. During this year’s legislative session, she earned a score of 69 for social conservatism and a below-average 39 on economic conservatism. 

Texas Values Action rated her poorly because she supported various pieces of legislation aimed at legalizing casino gaming and sports betting (legislation that has failed to pass the Lege, in part, because of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick’s staunch opposition.) Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, meanwhile, dinged her for a measure that was sponsored by a Democrat in the state Senate that caps the fee amount that the University of Texas at Dallas could levy on students in order to pay for the construction of new buildings at the school. The bill eventually passed into law with overwhelming bipartisan support. 

Button’s district is considered a toss-up in terms of partisan voting patterns, and a more middle-of-the-road Republican like her might be the only one who could win it. In the 2020 election, the district’s voters favored Joe Biden over Donald Trump by nine points. After “redistricting” (read: gerrymandering), Button’s voters lean Republican, but barely: Trump would have won the new district by less than one percentage point in 2020. It’s the type of seat in which a far-right candidate might struggle to gain a foothold. 

Owing to her success winning moderate voters, Button hasn’t seen many competitive primary challengers during her career. But she faces one this year: Chad Carnahan, a wholesale distributor and entrepreneur who ran in a neighboring North Texas district in 2018 and got trounced in the GOP primary by a more moderate incumbent who ended up losing her seat to a Democrat in that year’s general election. On his campaign website, Carnahan notes that Button’s vote to impeach Paxton solidified his decision to run against her. Notably, Paxton hasn’t yet endorsed him, which could mean that the pro-Paxton wing of the party isn’t confident about its chances here. 

The Rightmost Paxton Opponent

Briscoe Cain, Deer Park

The baby-faced representative from southeast of Houston is full of surprises. Since taking office in 2017, Cain has consistently ranked as one of the House’s most right-wing members. From restricting abortion rights to expanding gun rights, allowing school prayer, and militarizing the border, there isn’t an issue on which Cain hasn’t staked out a position on the GOP’s far-right flank. 

In the wake of the 2020 presidential election, Cain traveled to Pennsylvania to help Trump challenge Biden’s win there. For his work he was rewarded with a chairmanship of the Texas House Election Committee in 2021, which produced a voter-suppression bill so extreme that it prompted a Democratic walkout. He has called diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs “the new Jim Crow.” He served as a lawyer for the plaintiff bringing the first bounty lawsuit over an abortion, and recently threatened to sue Kate Cox’s doctor if she dared to provide the procedure to the mother of two who had a lethal fetal diagnosis that threatened her future fertility. 

During the past legislative session, Cain scored a perfect 100 for social conservatism and an 89 for economic conservatism. He supported the push by Abbott, Dunn, and Patrick for school vouchers.

His record made it all the more notable when Cain broke ranks to support the impeachment of Paxton. “I understand that my vote will elicit both praise and criticism from different quarters,” he wrote in a statement posted to X. “However, my role as a representative is not to prioritize popularity but to act according to what I believe is right.” Cain even joined the bipartisan team of twelve impeachment managers who prosecuted Paxton during his Senate trial. 

That one stand has cost Cain his right-wing bona fides. For only the second time since he’s run for reelection, he faces a primary opponent—who’s backed by Paxton. He has been labeled a RINO by the Dunn-backed Texas Scorecard. If this is what a Republican in name only is, there are few Republicans left in Texas.

The Most Centrist Paxton Supporter

Travis Clardy, Nacogdoches

Clardy might represent a solidly red part of the state in East Texas, but his voting record suggests that he’s more moderate than most of his state House colleagues. He has a modest social conservatism score (61) and economic conservatism score (41) that place him on the lower end of his caucus on both metrics. Texas Values Action didn’t agree with Clardy’s opposition to vouchers nor his support for legalizing casino gaming and sports betting. And Texans for Fiscal Responsibility were opposed to a bill Clardy authored that sought to clarify which sporting events were eligible to receive money through state-based reimbursement programs. (Texans for Fiscal Responsibility denounced the measure as “expanding corporate welfare”; the measure still passed the House overwhelmingly before dying in the state Senate).

Back in 2019 Burrows and then–House Speaker Dennis Bonnen suggested that Sullivan and the right target Clardy for defeat. But Sullivan notably didn’t include Clardy in his wonky documentary where he called for the ousting of several GOP representatives. That’s because Clardy took one vote that spared him, whereas far more right-wing members like Burrows are in the crosshairs. Clardy was the most-centrist Republican to oppose Paxton’s impeachment. What’s more: he gave a fiery five-minute speech claiming that the pro-impeachment side trafficked in “hearsay upon hearsay” and rushed the process.

Supporting Paxton earned the East Texas representative the attorney general’s endorsement and goodwill. Paxton has applauded Clardy for his “strong work.” Patrick, meanwhile, shared Clardy’s speech from the House floor on his personal website.

The Nacogdoches Republican has become a target of Abbott, however, as he voted against creating a private school voucher program every time a bill came up on the state House floor this year. Abbott is backing Clardy’s primary challenger, Joanne Shofner, the president of Nacogdoches County Republican Women, but hasn’t stopped there in seeking vengeance: the governor also vetoed one of Clardy’s bills, regarding occupational licensing for state-certified fire alarm technicians, in retaliation for his votes. 

The Party Switcher

Ryan Guillen, Rio Grande City

Following the 2021 Lege session, one analysis ranked Guillen, who’s served in the House since 2003, as the most-centrist member of the Democratic caucus (though still considerably less conservative than the most-centrist Republican). Ahead of the 2022 elections, and in the wake of Republican gains in South Texas, his district was gerrymandered to be more favorable to the GOP. Guillen announced that he was switching parties, citing his opposition to defunding the police and his support of the oil and gas industry. 

Abbott and Speaker of the House Dade Phelan celebrated the move, but it was an open question heading into the year how conservative Guillen’s voting record would be. It turns out he did shift—somewhat. Guillen proved to be one of the more centrist Republicans in the House, but not the most centrist on either the social (57) or economic (42) ratings (only San Angelo’s Drew Darby and Fort Worth’s Charlie Geren were rated less socially conservative; nineteen members of the caucus were ranked as less economically right-wing). Guillen supported school vouchers, after having opposed them when he served as a Democrat.

Guillen voted to impeach Paxton, but he isn’t facing a primary challenger. For now, his party-switching is still seen as a coup for the GOP overall. 

The Outspoken Target of the Paxton Wing

Jared Patterson, Frisco

In the early days of the 2023 Lege session, a group of right-wing Texas lawmakers walked into a bar to sing karaoke with Democrats. Briscoe Cain, Jared Patterson, and Steve Toth had been invited by Democrats who were keen to forge alliances with old enemies in a room where not listening to each other’s voices was impossible. All three had been rated among the ten most-right-wing members of the Legislature in 2021. 

Later, some Democrats would seek to kill reporting on the event, fearing their most-partisan supporters would accuse them of consorting with the enemy. But the Republicans exhibited no such fears. Toth fist-bumped the Democratic organizer of the night on the way in. Patterson entertained patrons and colleagues at the pool table. Cain even borrowed a Democratic representative’s cowboy hat. They were confident about who they were. They ban books and drag shows. They enthusiastically vote for abortion restrictions and border crackdowns. Who would ever mistake them as liberal sympathizers or RINOs? 

That self-assured amity didn’t last long. In October, a group affiliated with Paxton and Dunn held a meeting with Nick Fuentes, a neo-Nazi. Patterson returned money he had taken from an affiliated group and took a stand condemning any association of the Texas GOP with white supremacists or organizations that had hosted them. Toth found Patterson’s position disloyal. He called the Frisco Republican’s rhetoric “evil” and accused him of “working for Democrats.”

Others in the caucus piled on. Arlington representative Tony Tinderholt called Patterson a “fraud”; a text message sent by a group opposing Patterson’s reelection labeled him a “RINO.” That makes him one of the main terminological refugees of the GOP civil war: Patterson’s ratings—an 86 on the social conservatism scale, and a 70 on the economic conservatism scale—are those of a solidly right-wing Republican, not a wishy-washy one. 

Patterson, who voted to impeach Paxton, drew a primary opponent, former Dallas County clerk Cynthia Figueroa, but she dropped out before the December filing deadline. For now, much of the sniping on social media appears to be hot air; scoring points from ideological allies online is easy but actually convincing others to depose a lawmaker takes effort. Patterson has strong enough bona fides in his district—in spite of his Paxton vote—that targeting him doesn’t yet seem a worthy investment for Paxton-backers. 

The Besieged Speaker

Dade Phelan, Beaumont

As Speaker of the House, Phelan rarely votes on bills, which means he didn’t have a record for the conservative advocacy groups to rate during the last session. Of course, that hasn’t stopped right-wing GOP officials, led by Patrick, from smearing Phelan as a weak-kneed RINO—especially after the Speaker helped orchestrate the impeachment of Paxton and failed to pass Abbott’s school voucher plan. Trump has called Phelan “the RINO Speaker of the House of Texas . . . who is barely a Republican,” a charge numerous right-wingers in the state have been happy to echo. 

Phelan, who represents a slice of East Texas hugging the Louisiana border, indeed is more centrist than many in his caucus. For the 2019 session, his last before being elected Speaker, he received a score of 81 from Texas Values Action and a 49 from Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, which placed him among the least-right-wing House Republicans on both axes. The same year, he was one of only three House Republicans to receive a passing grade from the LGBTQ rights organization Equality Texas—a distinction that right-wing activists seeking to remove him as Speaker have used against him.

In most respects, though, Phelan votes like an orthodox Republican. Before becoming Speaker, he spent three sessions toeing the party line when it came to gun rights, immigration control, restrictions on reproductive rights, and most other issues. During his first session as Speaker, he signed arrest warrants for the 52 Democratic lawmakers who left the state to protest a controversial election bill. Unlike his predecessor, Speaker Joe Straus, who blocked the most noxious culture-war legislation and took a noted stand on an anti-trans “bathroom bill” in 2017, Phelan has helped pass SB 8—which grants bounties to private citizens for reporting violations of the state’s abortion ban—and a slew of anti-LGBTQ bills during his tenure leading the chamber. 

It’s a sign of the state GOP’s ideological extremism that this record is considered insufficiently right-wing. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Phelan hasn’t left the Republican Party; the Republican Party has left him.

The Rare Senate Dissident

Robert Nichols, Jacksonville

Dan Patrick rules the Senate Republican caucus like a feudal lord, lavishing riches (in the form of campaign contributions, committee chairmanships, and opportunities to pass legislation) on his loyal subjects while brutally suppressing any hint of rebellion. Whenever a Senate Republican stands up to Patrick, it’s a big deal. During the 2023 session, Nichols, who represents a largely rural East Texas district stretching from Tyler to Beaumont, demonstrated his independence in dramatic fashion. He was the only Senate Republican to vote against the school voucher bill, the lieutenant governor’s top priority this year, and was one of only two Republicans (along with Kelly Hancock) to vote to remove Paxton from office.

Nichols’s opposition to vouchers, and his handful of other departures from the party line, make him an outlier among Senate Republicans—he places last in the rankings for both social conservatism (88—hardly the score of a wild-eyed liberal) and economic conservatism (54). Fortunately for Nichols, his current term doesn’t end until 2027, which means it will be years before Patrick, Paxton, and Dunn have the chance to take their revenge.

Fiza Kuzhiyil contributed reporting to this story. 

House GOP Support for Paxton Impeachment and School Vouchers

representative social conservatism rating economic conservative rating Paxton Impeachment vote School voucher support
Steve Allison 69 37 Yes No
Charles “Doc” Anderson 93 46 No Yes
Trent Ashby 75 49 Yes Yes
Ernest Bailes 58 40 Yes No
Cecil Bell Jr. 86 50 No Yes
Keith Bell 90 71 Yes No
Greg Bonnen 92 53 Yes Yes
Brad Buckley 77 46 Yes Yes
Benjamin Bumgarner 75 52 Yes Yes
DeWayne Burns 92 47 Yes No
Dustin Burrows 98 48 Yes Yes
Angie Chen Button 69 36 Yes Yes
Briscoe Cain 100 89 Yes Yes
Giovanni Capriglione 91 45 Yes Yes
Travis Clardy 61 41 No No
David Cook 71 51 Yes Yes
Tom Craddick 88 50 No Yes
Charles Cunningham 75 40 No Yes
Drew Darby 53 39 Yes No
Jay Dean 65 53 Yes No
Mano DeAyala 82 57 Yes Yes
Mark Dorazio 92 77 No Yes
James Frank 92 47 Yes Yes
Frederick Frazier 66 38 Yes Yes
Gary Gates 89 65 Yes Yes
Stan Gerdes 90 56 Yes Yes
Charlie Geren 46 39 Yes No
Craig Goldman 66 52 Yes Yes
Ryan Guillen 57 42 Yes Yes
E. Sam Harless 75 40 No Yes
Caroline Harris 92 59 No Yes
Cody Harris 79 61 Yes Yes
Brian Harrison 82 96 No Yes
Richard Hayes 100 89 Present Not Voting Yes
Cole Hefner 90 66 Yes Yes
Justin Holland 72 53 Yes No
Lacey Hull 66 62 Yes Yes
Todd Hunter 59 36 Yes Yes
Carrie Isaac 96 80 No Yes
Jacey Jetton 72 42 Yes Yes
Kyle Kacal 62 37 Yes No
Ken King 64 42 Yes No
Stan Kitzman 68 44 Yes Yes
Stephanie Klick 90 49 Yes Yes
John Kuempel 67 45 Yes No
Stan Lambert 57 37 Yes No
Brooks Landgraf 75 48 Yes Yes
Jeff Leach 77 63 Yes Yes
Teresa (Terri) Leo-Wilson 96 84 No Yes
Janie Lopez 71 43 Yes Yes
J.M. Lozano 76 37 Yes Yes
John Lujan 83 40 Yes Yes
Will Metcalf 96 63 Yes Yes
Morgan Meyer 71 36 Yes Yes
Geanie W. Morrison 66 40 No Yes
Andrew S. Murr 69 54 Yes No
Candy Noble 100 63 Yes Yes
Tom Oliverson 100 55 Absent Yes
Angelia Orr 68 42 Yes Yes
Jared Patterson 86 70 Yes Yes
Dennis Paul 100 57 No Yes
Dade Phelan No Record No Record Yes Present Not Voting
Walter “Four” Price 86 45 No No
John Raney 63 38 Yes No
Glenn Rogers 74 46 Yes No
Matt Schaefer 100 90 No Yes
Nate Schatzline 96 84 No Yes
Mike Schofield 69 56 No Yes
Matt Shaheen 100 71 Yes Yes
Hugh D. Shine 79 41 Yes No
Shelby Slawson 93 79 No Yes
Reggie Smith 71 51 Yes No
John Smithee 86 49 No Yes
David Spiller 86 79 Yes Yes
Lynn Stucky 93 57 Yes Yes
Valoree Swanson 100 74 No Yes
Carl Tepper 93 61 Yes Yes
Kronda Thimesch 79 52 Yes Yes
Ed Thompson 83 48 No No
Tony Tinderholt 93 98 No Yes
Steve Toth 100 94 No Yes
Ellen Troxclair 97 68 Yes Yes
Gary VanDeaver 73 47 Yes No
Cody Thane Vasut 94 84 Yes Yes
Terry M. Wilson 94 82 Yes Yes

Senate GOP Support for Paxton Impeachment and School Vouchers

senator social conservatism rating economic conservatism rating Paxton Impeachment vote school voucher support
Paul Bettencourt 99 63 No Yes
Brian Birdwell 90 56 No Yes
Donna Campell 100 59 No Yes
Brandon Creighton 100 65 No Yes
Pete Flores 95 55 No Yes
Bob Hall 99 91 No Yes
Kelly Hancock 98 61 Yes Yes
Joan Huffman 95 56 No Yes
Bryan Hughes 100 91 No Yes
Phil King 100 63 No Yes
Lois Kolkhorst 100 67 No Yes
Mayes Middleton 100 90 No Yes
Robert Nichols 88 54 Yes No
Tan Parker 100 65 No Yes
Angela Paxton 100 61 N/A Yes
Charles Perry 98 59 No Yes
Charles Schwertner 97 62 No Yes
Kevin Sparks 93 61 No Yes
Drew Springer 100 68 No Yes

Sources for Conservative Ratings: Texas Values Action’s “Faith and Family Scorecard”; Texans for Fiscal Responsibility’s “Fiscal Responsibility Index”

Correction, January 3, 2024: A previous version of this story noted the Young Conservatives of Texas had once labeled Briscoe Cain a RINO. This was done in jest; the group has endorsed Cain.