How Texas Speaker Dade Phelan turned the tide to keep his seat (2024)

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BEAUMONT — Statistically speaking, Dade Phelan was the underdog on Tuesday.

In his March primary, the Beaumont Republican trailed in the vote count behind challenger David Covey, forcing him into the May 28 runoff. But second place primary finishers rarely succeed in a runoff, which explains why enemies of the House speaker were so confident his defeat was imminent.

“Tomorrow, the vote of his constituents will now finally remove him from office,” Attorney General Ken Paxton said Monday, who had vowed revenge against Phelan for supporting the impeachment of him exactly a year earlier.

Yet Phelan was able to defy precedent and eke out a 366-vote victory over challenger David Covey. In doing so, he defeated a remarkably well-funded opponent who was supported by far-right megadonors and endorsed by popular Republicans including Paxton, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and former President Donald Trump.

[House Speaker Dade Phelan wins runoff, surviving challenge by Texas GOP’s far-right forces]

Phelan credited his reversal of fortune — he trailed Covey by 3% in the first round of voting in March — to vigorously campaigning during the lengthy period before the runoff.

“(It was) 70 days to go to my voters and tell them the lies and the deceit and the ridiculous mailers and TV from Pennsylvania guys and West Texas against me,” Phelan said Tuesday evening at his victory party, referencing support for Covey by billionaires Jeff Yass and Tim Dunn. “70 days of that actually turned the tide.”

Phelan’s survival was unique among incumbents on the ballot Tuesday. Six of the eight Republican House members in runoffs lost. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, was the only other incumbent who hung on.

Phelan had several advantages his colleagues did not. His family is one of the most prominent in Beaumont, with a long history of philanthropy that flowed from a fortune gained in the Texas Oil Boom. And since he occupies one of the most powerful posts in state government, Phelan’s political donors include some of the wealthiest business executives in Texas who collectively contribute millions of dollars to his campaigns.

Between July of last year and May 18, Phelan had spent $11.7 million, dwarfing Covey’s spend of $2.1 million. He spent nearly a third of the haul in the short period between the primary and the runoff. Their combined expenses almost certainly made the race the most expensive House contest in Texas history.

Renée Cross, professor of political science at the University of Houston, said the amount of money in the state House race is particularly unusual because much of it came from out of state. Yass, the Pennsylvania TikTok investor, bankrolled an ad for Covey while Las Vegas casino magnate Miram Adelson poured money into campaigns including Phelan’s.

“Over $10 million for a state rep race in a very small media market, that just doesn’t happen,” Cross said. “Both candidates took a lot of money outside of Texas and that was something Republicans were always quick to criticize Democrats about.”

Phelan used his cash to blanket the airwaves. He spent nearly a million dollars on TV ads for the runoff period, excluding the race’s final 10 days. He paid 15 campaign staffers $158,000. In his victory speech, Phelan credited an army of volunteers who joined him in knocking on doors and making calls from phone banks.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune in January, Phelan expressed frustration that some voters appeared to overlook that he has routinely delivered local investments in mental health, higher education and disaster preparedness. The crowded March primary field made it difficult to break through with messaging — a fog of war they said benefited Covey. And the marathon special legislative sessions in late 2023 left Phelan with unusually little time to campaign in his district, a four-hour drive from Austin, before the March 5 contest.

The runoff, in contrast, provided the speaker an ideal opportunity: two months to define himself against Covey when voters would not be distracted by any other races. The campaign was finally able to find a way to push back against Covey’s criticisms that Phelan had forsaken District 21 residents to grab power in Austin and that he is a traitor to the conservative cause.

The strategy delivered results — new voters showed up for him in the runoff that weren’t there in the primary.

While May primary runoffs almost always have lower turnout than March primaries — in this case, 8,000 fewer voters cast ballots — Phelan actually increased turnout in Jefferson County. More than 6,500 residents there voted for Phelan in May, compared to 6,100 two months earlier. There he beat Covey by a decisive 2 to 1 margin.

Phelan increased his vote share in Orange County, Covey’s base, by 7 points. Covey, meanwhile, saw a net loss of 2,400 votes in his home county of Orange between rounds of voting.

Jefferson County Republican Party Chairman Joe Evans said residents there understand the value in having a statewide leader from a small city like Beaumont.

“The speaker worked really hard here,” Evans said. “I don’t think the Covey campaign worked as hard here. They relied on vitriol and negative attacks to fuel their campaign.”

Despite trailing by less than 400 votes, within the margin he is entitled to request a recount, Covey conceded in a speech to supporters Tuesday evening. But he was not conciliatory.

Covey and his supporters Paxton and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Phelan only won because Democrats crossed over to vote in the Republican Primary for him. Paxton said Covey’s campaign identified “at least” 1,442 Democrats who voted early in Jefferson County in the primary runoff.

Texas does not have party registration, but a voter’s primary voting history is public. The Covey campaign has not released its methodology behind its claim, but an analysis by The Texan news website found that 9% of Republican voters in the March District 21 primary had voted in one of the previous four Democratic primaries. However, only 5% of that group had voted in all four previous Democratic primaries.

What Phelan’s opponents did not mention is historically Democratic Jefferson County is undergoing a political transition towards the Republican party — the county judge switched his affiliation to the GOP in 2017 — so many residents have a mixed primary voting history. And Phelan’s allies in the House dismissed the idea that liberals swung the election.

"I knocked on doors, hundreds and hundreds of doors, made calls for Dade,” Republican Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, said on Mark Davis’ radio program Wednesday. “I did not speak to a single Democrat down here in HD21. Not a single one."

No Democrat filed to run in the district, meaning Phelan coasts to reelection, save for a challenge from a third-party candidate.

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How Texas Speaker Dade Phelan turned the tide to keep his seat (2024)
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