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A Texas GOP brawl is heading to a runoff. How the power struggle could push Republicans further to the right

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A Republican power struggle in Texas that could push the state even further to the right in November is showing no sign of slowing down.

The brawl during this week’s Republican primaries in Texas was fought for personal and political reasons and left the insurgent challengers emboldened that more victories were to come. With more than a dozen incumbents defeated or forced into an awkward runoff, the results could reshape the Legislature and have already changed a top state appeals court.

The leaders behind the unrest: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and governor Greg Abbott.

For Paxton, it was personal. He waged war against dozens of Republican lawmakers who were part of the 2023 effort to take off him, especially the Speaker of the House of Representatives Dad Phelan. For Abbott, it was about policy. He spent millions to unseat Republicans who killed his plan to spend taxpayer money on public schools.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake:

WHO OWNS THE TEXAS HOUSE?

In a typical election, a Speaker of the House who led the Republican-majority chamber as it passed some of the nation’s strictest anti-abortion laws, vastly expanded gun rights, would reject Abbott’s highly visible anti-immigration platforms supported and curtailed LGBTQ+ rights. a shoo-in for re-election.

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But Phelan also led the effort to force Paxton out of office and was the attorney general’s biggest target. The party’s hard right forced him into a run-off with oil and gas consultant David Covey on May 28, which was perhaps the biggest result of the day.

Republican activists have railed against Paxton’s impeachment even after he was acquitted in a Senate trial. Paxton labeled Phelan a “liberal.”

“Let this runoff be a rallying cry for all conservatives across Texas,” Paxton said. “The battle lines have been drawn and our resolve has never been stronger.”

Still, Republicans have struggled to pinpoint issues where Phelan has let them down on policy, beyond Abbott’s views on schools. Still, the state party condemned Phelan for the impeachment and a “lack of fidelity to Republican principles and priorities.”

Even if Phelan wins the second round, his hopes for a third term as chairman appear badly damaged. But Republican insurgents may not get what they want in a new leader.

The Democrats still have enough numbers to force a compromise choice for the 2025 presidential candidate, and shut out hard-right candidates.

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“Despite the lies and attempts by my opponents to discredit this conservative record of the Texas House, the facts speak for themselves,” Phelan said.

MOTION IN TEXAS’S HIGHEST CRIMINAL COURT

The Republican brawl was not limited to the Capitol. Three sitting Republican judges on the state Court of Criminal Appeals, which hears death penalty cases and other criminal justice issues, were defeated. Two of them, Barbara Hervey and Sharon Keller, had been on the field for more than twenty years.

This too was part of Paxton’s campaign of revenge, but for different reasons. He targeted the three female judges because they were part of the 8-1 majority that stripped his office of the authority to prosecute election fraud without permission from local prosecutors.

The court ruled that the law violated the state constitution’s separation of powers. Paxton labeled the three as “activist” judges. Trump also played a role on Paxton’s behalf, putting the normally quiet legal campaigns in the spotlight.

Their defeat does not change the ruling or the law, but Paxton’s success in defeating three judges on a panel that will review future cases involving his office attracted attention.

AN OPPORTUNITY FOR CHALLENGES ON THE RIGHT

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Shelley Luther, the salon owner who made national headlines and spent two days in jail for defying Abbott’s COVID-19 shutdown orders in 2020, calling him a “tyrant governor,” defeated a sitting president for the Republican nomination for a seat in the North Texas House. She was endorsed by Paxton.

Brandon Herrera, a gun rights activist who produces YouTube videos and calls himself “The AK Guy,” forced a runoff against incumbent U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzalez in a sprawling South Texas district that covers much of the U.S.-Mexico border , from El Paso to San Antonio.

Gonzales had been rebuked by the state party for a voting record that emphasized an independent streak, including support for gay marriage protections and new gun safety laws after the 2022 Uvalde school shooting in his district that left 21 people dead.

Katrina Pierson, a former presidential spokesperson and Trump campaign adviser, cruised to a Republican primary against incumbent Justin Holland in a House of Representatives seat in suburban Dallas.

Phelan’s race was forced into a runoff in part because of a third candidate: retired hairdresser and postal worker Alicia Davis, who barely spent any money, still picked up enough votes to deny Phelan and Covey a majority.

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