Dade Phelan may soon have the distinction of becoming the first Texas House Speaker to lose his seat since 1972, when Democrat Fred Head, one of those rare do-gooder types in state government, knocked off Rayford Price. Phelan’s opponent, oil and gas consultant David Covey, is no Fred Head, and little about this matchup has to do with good government. Still, Phelan’s inability to avoid a runoff against his Republican primary challenger is a political earthquake. Even if he does win his runoff on May 28 and clings to his Beaumont district, his speakership is in jeopardy. The stench of defeat hangs over the two-term Speaker.

The GOP primaries this year were remarkably ill-tempered and contentious. Governor Greg Abbott targeted sixteen House Republicans who voted against his school voucher plan, knocking out six and forcing four more into runoffs. Attorney General Ken Paxton endorsed 47 candidates, part of his fervent campaign to punish House Republicans who impeached him. No one bore the brunt of those efforts as much as the Speaker of the House. In all, nine House incumbents, all but one an ally of Phelan, lost on Tuesday. Eight more are headed to runoffs against challengers who accuse them—as conservative as they are—of apostasy against, variously, the Republican Party, God, the Constitution, and Paxton. Historically, legislative incumbents have had tough sledding in runoffs, losing 27 of 34 since 1996.

The upshot is that the House will lurch, once again, to the right, and the dream of removing the last vestiges of restraint, however modest, will be at hand. The great economist John Kenneth Galbraith argued that capitalism needs “countervailing power”—unions, civic organizations—to function properly. Otherwise, elite business interests grow into behemoths and prey upon the weak. The Texas GOP may soon lack any significant countervailing power: the Democratic Party is missing in action, unions are constrained, outside the fervent Republican grassroots most voters are apathetic, and the more-responsible voices within the GOP are on the retreat. 

The House under Phelan wasn’t much of a guardrail—more of a speed bump worn down by overuse—but even that modest check and balance will be gone soon. In an interview after being forced into a runoff with an Abbott- and Paxton-backed challenger, East Texas Republican Gary VanDeaver was asked how the Legislature could possibly become any more right-wing. VanDeaver, who’s served for five terms, responded: “It’s hard to imagine . . . because really, there’s not much left to do. And what is left to do is probably unconstitutional.”

VanDeaver may be right that much of the far right’s agenda is unconstitutional, particularly efforts to erode the separation between church and state. But he underestimates the insurgents’ appetite for chaos and defiance. Already, with the blessing of Phelan in the Legislature, Abbott has walked up to the brink of a constitutional crisis with his insistence that he can declare that we’re facing an invasion at the border and usurp federal authority in matters of security and immigration. A federal judge recently found unconstitutional Senate Bill 4, legislation passed by both chambers and signed by Abbott that would empower local cops to arrest and deport migrants. 

But the insurgents are upping the ante. Loose talk about openly defying the courts and the federal government is becoming increasingly common. For example, Andy Hopper, a software engineer turned farmer who is in a runoff with Lynn Stucky of Denton, has adopted wholesale parts of the Texas GOP platform—an extreme document that most candidates wisely ignore—that offer ideas for winding the clock back to the 1850s. “Federally mandated legislation that infringes upon the 10th Amendment rights of Texas must be ignored, opposed, refused, and nullified,” he writes. “All attempts by the federal judiciary to rule in areas not expressly enumerated by the United States Constitution should be likewise nullified. Any federal enforcement activities that do occur in Texas should be conducted under the authority of the county sheriff.” Federal land should be seized by Texas. Texans should be able to opt out of Social Security. U.S. senators should be selected by state legislatures. This is Ammon Bundy territory.

Even more extreme: seven candidates who won their primaries, and five more in runoffs, are dabbling in secession. The twelve have signed the Texas Nationalist Movement’s “Texas First Pledge,” a “solemn oath” to support legislation to put secession to a vote and to support the state’s exit from the Union if a majority of voters approve. Between five and nine are likely to make it to Austin next year, significantly increasing the pro-secession caucus at the Lege.

The new guard may not succeed in provoking a civil war, but it will likely win a more tangible, long-sought-after prize: private school vouchers, which would shift taxpayer dollars from public to private schools and mostly benefit upper-income parents with kids already enrolled in private institutions. Much to the frustration of Abbott and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who pushed vouchers through the Senate with ease, a faction of rural Republicans in the House defeated the pair’s plan. Abbott swore vengeance at the polls. And Patrick went to work against Phelan, campaigning for Covey and celebrating with him on Tuesday in Orange. 

The election results put voucher proponents on a glide path to finally realizing their dreams during the next legislative session, in 2025. Corey DeAngelis, a self-described “school choice evangelist” who works for the American Federation for Children, a dark money group, is in full swagger mode. “Last night was a total bloodbath, and this is a mandate for school choice in Texas,” he told Fox News. “This election is going to send shock waves across the country.” One public education source I talked to doubted that a voucher plan would even be paired with a teacher pay raise or additional funding for traditional public schools, a bargain that Abbott unsuccessfully proffered last year when he was short of votes. Relatedly, abolishing school property taxes—fundamentally, an issue of equity for public education and a long-term goal of the right wing—will be taken up in earnest. 

Nine of the seventeen insurgents who either toppled incumbents or forced them into May runoffs have signed an “abolish abortion” pledge. Along with pushing other antiabortion policies, they would advance legislation that would make women and doctors who perform the procedure subject to criminal charges that could result in the death penalty. There still won’t be a majority for such extreme measures in the House, but the chances that fringe ideas—secession and fetal personhood among them—will be given a serious airing have increased considerably. 

Regardless of the particular agenda in the Legislature, the House will become less of an independent body and more of a protectorate of Dan Patrick. With Phelan fighting for his life, the lieutenant governor is trying to deliver the kill shot. If Patrick  succeeds, he will surely have a hand in deciding on the next Speaker—who is selected by a vote of all members of the House—directing his loyalists to his preferred candidate. The lite guv would then hold sway in both chambers of the Legislature, arguably becoming the most powerful politician in modern Texas history, if he isn’t already. 

“The expiration date on Dade Phelan’s Speakership is plainly written on the bottle,” he said in a statement Wednesday. “Dade Phelan failed in his role as Speaker. He led his members to take bad votes on the House floor that cost them dearly at home. The cardinal rule for a Speaker is to protect his members.” This is typical Patrick, ruthless and shrewd. He is delivering a message to every Republican member of the House: Dade can’t protect you, but I can. And he’s probably right.

No doubt there is a great deal of personal animosity between Patrick and Phelan, but the heart of the conflict is that Phelan frustrates Patrick’s ability to do whatever he wants. Patrick was first elected to the Texas Senate in 2006, in a very different era. Back then, the Senate functioned like a country club, a stuffy, full-of-itself milieu where tradition and seniority mattered as much as party affiliation. Republicans and Democrats alike greeted the Maryland-reared Patrick and his revolutionary fervor with genteel contempt. Eight years later, Patrick was elected lieutenant governor and within short order turned the Senate into the world’s most boring legislative body, a virtual dictatorship of compliant Republicans and feckless Democrats. 

In recent sessions, Patrick has laid out his extensive legislative agenda and, after perfunctory debate, it has sailed through the Senate. But some of his preferred causes, such as private school vouchers, have gotten hung up in the House, with its more coalitional politics and a 86–64 split between Republicans and Democrats. But if Patrick can decapitate Phelan, he arguably becomes the de facto head of the House and thus of the Legislature. How far he’s come. And how far have we.