Most successful political leaders try to expand their party’s appeal. Across the country, many Republicans have concluded that nominating extreme far-right candidates gets in the way of that goal. But in Texas, where the Republican Party has maintained a thirty-year dominance of statewide races, the party, under the direction of chairman Matt Rinaldi, has concluded that its best path forward is continuing to march further rightward. Nearly a dozen candidates backed by members of the far right prevailed in the March primary over conservative incumbents, with many others forcing their opponents into runoffs, validating the chairman’s plan. 

Soon, however, Rinaldi won’t helm the Texas GOP. On Friday, the surly Dallas lawyer abruptly announced that he would not seek reelection, ending his three-year tenure as chairman. Delegates at the Texas GOP convention will decide his replacement in late May in San Antonio. Historically, there’s been an unspoken understanding that the GOP chairman primarily serves to raise money, remain ideologically flexible enough to keep a big-tent majority of Republican voters happy, and otherwise get out of the way. But Rinaldi, once a pugnacious legislator, took a different tack. While leading the party, he simultaneously worked as an attorney for Farris Wilks, an oil billionaire and prodigious right-wing political contributor. Instead of trying to make the party as appealing as possible to the varying factions of today’s GOP, Rinaldi used his position to bring others in line with the vision of Wilks and Midland billionaire Tim Dunn for what the party should look like; he once even suggested that “party activists” should pick which candidates run on the GOP ticket. 

Rinaldi made it abundantly clear which interests he thought the party should cater to in October, ahead of the second GOP primary he’d oversee. That month, Jonathan Stickland, the former leader of the right-wing Defend Texas Liberty political action committee, which is funded primarily by Wilks and Dunn, hosted prominent white supremacist and Adolf Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes for several hours at his office while Rinaldi was in the building. (Rinaldi, an ally of Stickland’s, denied meeting with Fuentes or knowing he was there.) Many Republican legislators and just less than half of the Texas GOP’s executive committee subsequently called on the state party to cut ties with Defend Texas Liberty. But the PAC had become the state party’s largest donor, and Rinaldi rejected that advice, instead attacking those who dared come for his friends. The chairman reserved special ire for House Speaker Dade Phelan, whom he accused of politicizing antisemitism and called on to resign. 

The chairman backed a primary challenger against the Speaker and against several centrist incumbents in the Legislature who opposed Defend Texas Liberty. Owing to a noncompetitive state Democratic Party, and gerrymandering, those primaries are where the future governance of Texas is decided. And because the 3 percent of Texans who vote in them are far more right-wing than the state at large, Rinaldi’s purge was largely successful: 11 of the 28 House candidates supported by Dunn and Wilks won their primary races outright; another 8 forced incumbents into runoff elections this May. 

Rinaldi has sought to ensure that his exit won’t diminish Defend Texas Liberty’s influence on the state GOP. Twenty minutes after announcing his plans to step down, he endorsed a successor: Abraham George, a software developer and former chair of the GOP in Collin County, northeast of Dallas. Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is a longtime ally of George, followed suit, as did a handful of far-right state lawmakers. One Republican source close to party leaders, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said that George is an ideological protégé of Rinaldi. “When George was in office, he didn’t want to hear anything from anyone who was perceived to be a moderate,” the source said. “He was trying to get all the elected officials to the far right and get rid of the ‘RINOs’ [Republicans in name only] in the party.” (George did not respond to an interview request.)

Collin County was once a GOP stronghold, but the party now clings to a single-digit electoral advantage. Moving further right could cost downballot Republicans—as George found earlier this month when he lost a primary bid for a House seat representing part of the county. But in a party that has lately anointed agitators as its leaders, George is a natural pick of the Defend Texas Liberty faction. 

Ben Armenta, a former schoolteacher and a podcaster from the Houston area, and Weston Martinez, a longtime Republican activist from San Antonio, have also announced bids from the right. A fourth candidate, Houston physician and current Texas GOP vice chair Dana Myers, has built a reputation as a relative centrist and occasional critic of Rinaldi. 

In what’s become a GOP tradition, many of the nominees to lead the party have proven unpopular at the ballot box. Rinaldi served two terms in a North Texas state House seat before losing his general election to a Democrat in 2018. George lost his primary challenge this year against state representative Candy Noble, of Lucas, who voted to impeach Paxton but was backed by Governor Greg Abbott, thanks to her support for his school-voucher plan. In 2022, Martinez and Armenta both ran for the GOP nomination for land commissioner and netted a paltry 6.6 percent and 3 percent, respectively.  

George’s campaign made errors that Republicans might prefer not to see from a future party chairman charged with raising and managing large sums of money. He missed a deadline to file a campaign finance report to the state ethics commission, punishable by fine. In a potential violation of Federal Communications Commission rules, state senator Angela Paxton, of McKinney, made robocalls to cellphones for George’s campaign. And George angered many supporters of school vouchers, which would divert tax dollars from public schools to private ones. He conceded at one point that Abbott’s voucher program risked “defunding” certain public schools. But he has since insisted that he backs the plan. 

And much like his mentor Paxton, George is beset by controversy. Both the Texas Tribune and the right-wing blog Current Revolt reported this week that one of George’s children called police to the family home last year as George was leaving with a loaded gun, apparently on his way to confront a member of his church who he believed was having an affair with his wife. George was not arrested or charged. He issued a statement saying that his “marriage is stronger than ever” and accusing “activist media outlets and political opponents” of trying to smear him. 

Even if George doesn’t win, the next head of the party is still likely to come from its right wing. Martinez has long disparaged the integrity of election results in Texas. He rose to prominence in right-wing politics after thanking participants of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol for their “service” during an October 2022 speech. In the same breath, Martinez referred to the state’s Democratic counties as “Sodom and Gomorrah,” but was also a critic of members of the GOP. He accused members of both parties of rigging elections. “It’s not Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “It’s patriots and traitors.” And when running for land commissioner—a position that manages 13 million acres of public land—he promised to use the office to help enforce border security by “filling the Rio Grande River up,” rectifying low flows to make it more deadly for migrants to cross. 

Armenta, meanwhile, has built a platform in line with much of Rinaldi’s. He vows to close Texas primaries to preclude Democrats from crossing over to vote for more-centrist Republican candidates, despite data that shows this happens infrequently. He says the party doesn’t raise enough to compete with liberal donor George Soros, tapping into an old antisemitic trope. When asked by the far-right news outlet Texas Scorecard for comment on Armenta’s candidacy for GOP chair, Rinaldi said he did not know who Armenta was. 

For those looking for a more centrist GOP chair, Myers has been an outspoken critic of the state GOP under Rinaldi’s leadership. She was one of the 28 members of the State Republican Executive Committee to sign a statement denouncing Stickland and encouraging the party to cut ties with Defend Texas Liberty after the Fuentes meeting, and has warned that the Texas GOP risks becoming too small a tent. “Recently, our party has strayed from its fundamental mission,” Myers said in a statement announcing her candidacy. “Instead, we find ourselves in a state of disarray, fractured by internal divisions and marred by turmoil.” When Myers announced her bid for chair, Rinaldi criticized her for not appreciating “that the Texas GOP is acting as the voice of the grassroots.” Still, on some issues Myers is courting votes from far-right ideologues: she has, for example, joined Armenta and Martinez in signing a pledge to support placing on an election ballot a nonbinding proposal for Texas to secede from the United States. 

The GOP is likely to continue in the path Rinaldi led. What’s next for him, however, is unclear, but the example of his predecessor, Allen West, might be seen as cautionary. West, a transplant from Florida, served as state GOP chairman for just ten months. He then ran for governor, but was crushed by Greg Abbott. He finally landed, earlier this month, in much-reduced circumstances as the leader of the Republican Party in the heavily Democratic Dallas County, where he’ll helm the area’s local GOP chapter. The party followed his footsteps but seems to have quickly moved on.