Elections 2021IssuesCandidates Emerge in the Texas GOP’s Frantic Race to Replace Outgoing Chair Allen West

Current RPT Chairman Allen West announced his resignation effective next month, and so far three candidates have jumped into the race to succeed him.
June 16, 2021
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The largest state GOP in the country, the Republican Party of Texas (RPT), is once again looking for a chairman after current chair Allen West announced his departure effective next month.

At the moment, three candidates have declared for the chance to replace West. The first, former state Rep. Matt Rinaldi, declared the same day as West’s announcement. The second, Orange County Republican Party Chairman and President of the Texas Republican County Chairmen’s’ Association (TRCCA) David Covey announced shortly thereafter. And the third, a former RPT executive director and current political consultant and lobbyist, Chad Wilbanks jumped in on Tuesday.

“We need a chair willing to stand strong for the party and ensure that grassroots don’t lose their voice in the political process,” Rinaldi said upon announcing.

“The party also needs a leader with a history of raising money and organizing party activists at the local level, who is also committed to its mission and legislative priorities.”

After announcing his candidacy, Covey told The Texan, “I feel the party needs a leader who understands the RPT nuts and bolts and can begin work immediately on day one.”

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Wilbanks told The Texan while confirming his candidacy, “We’re going to treat the chair position like a utility player on the ball field, for the RPT to make the state better for decades to come.”

Whoever is chosen to replace West will be tasked with navigating the party through at least two special sessions, a redistricting fight, and an already jam-packed primary season.

The replacement will be chosen at a July 11 State Republican Executive Committee (SREC) to finish out the term until the party convention next summer.

Made up of 64 members — a male and female representative from each of the state’s 31 senate districts, plus the party chair and vice-chair — the SREC is tasked with governing the party’s operations. SREC members are elected by party delegates in their respective districts at the biennial convention.

Naomi Narvaiz, an SREC member for Senate District (SD) 21 which stretches from southeast Travis County all the way to Starr County on the border, already sees a clear favorite between the candidates. 

“As I see it at the moment, Matt is coming out to be the stronger candidate,” she told The Texan in an interview. Narvaiz served three terms on the SREC before losing at the 2018 convention and then winning the position back last year.

In the next chair, Narvaiz said she’s looking for someone that is a strong leader, emphasizes transparency, and is available to the grassroots and seeks out their input. Grassroots America: We the People, one of Texas’ most active grassroots conservative groups run by JoAnn Fleming, endorsed Rinaldi shortly after his announcement.

Rep. Matt Schaefer (R-Tyler), rated the 2021 session’s most conservative legislator by Rice University’s Mark P. Jones’ rankings also endorsed Rinaldi.

Covey released an endorsement list shortly after his announcement that includes state Rep. James White (R-Hillister), Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak, and former Lubbock County GOP Chair Carl Tepper.

The grassroots faction of the party has been a focal point for the West regime and something his predecessor, James Dickey, also touted. Both West’s and Dickey’s performances on that front are disputed depending on who is asked.

Narvaiz falls within the camp that believes the Texas GOP chair must be willing to criticize Republican elected officials, not let them take the lead.

Also among that group is Jill Glover, an SREC member from SD 12 who oversaw the party’s legislative priority advocacy during the 87th Legislative Session. “In order to be defined as a party, you have to have principles and a platform — the legislative priorities attract voters,” Glover told The Texan.

Glover pointed to the legislative accomplishments from this session — namely constitutional carry and the Heartbeat Bill — and said, “Those wins absolutely belong to the grassroots.”

She further stipulated that if Republicans can’t get elected, then no progress on those priorities can be made.

There is a brooding fight within the Texas GOP over whether the party’s focus should be on creating and maintaining a political machine, pushing the legislative envelope, or finding a sweet spot somewhere in between.

Each SREC member The Texan spoke with positioned themselves in the third camp.

And in the next chair, members hope to find that balance as well.

Wilbanks is of a different opinion, that the foremost, if not only, responsibility of the RPT is to win elections and communicate a coherent message against their political opponents. Back in December, Wilbanks told The Texan that the party’s hard push for legislative priorities under West, marked by criticism of GOP elected officials, was antithetical to the purpose of the party.

He reiterated that position Tuesday, saying, “There are three responsibilities of the RPT: to elect candidates to public office to repeal bad laws and pass good ones, to raise money for candidate support and training, and to communicate a strong message against radical leftist policies and ideas.”

Scott Apley, an SREC member whose district is located in Brazoria and Galveston counties, said he is far from making up his mind but believes the candidates have strong qualities.

Being on the SREC and chairing the TCCRA, Apley stated, Covey is familiar with the inner workings of the party. “He understands the function of the party and the role that it plays at multiple levels,” Apley emphasized.

Rinaldi, meanwhile, “has something unique in his familiarity with the legislative process, and how he could strongly advocate for party positions with the legislature itself.”

On the latest entry, Apley said he’d hear Wilbanks out as the process unfolds but “as of today, I don’t see him being the next chairman of the RPT.”

Before making the final decision, Apley plans on surveying his district’s delegates for their thoughts.

“I hope we can avoid making this election a proxy war for the different factions of the party,” Apley said.

An SD 11 SREC member, Tanya Robertson, told The Texan that she intends to strongly weigh her delegates’ thoughts on the candidates before reaching her decision. But she further stated, “What Matt [Rinaldi] told the SREC at the meeting last week, that he will ‘allow the SREC to govern the state party and that he’d act fair and impartially’ is exactly what we need.”

For Fernando Treviño, an SREC member for Travis County’s deep blue SD 14, the choice is a tough one. 

“The decision here is much more difficult than in this situation four years ago when Tom Mechler stepped down,” he stated. Both being from Travis County, Treviño found it easy to back James Dickey in that election.

But this time, Treviño said of the current dynamic, “[Rinaldi] being a great conservative legislator and then [Covey] being an SREC member and county chair — they both come with two different but equally important perspectives.”

Reached after Wilbanks jumped into the race, Treviño said his overall undecided position still stands. But he further said, “I think Chad brings an interesting perspective given his experience and knowledge of the state party’s history and function.”

“We need to find a good balance between advocating for our values and for the party platform, but not losing sight of the ‘boring’ aspects of running a party like training volunteers, raising money, and turning out voters.”

Apley stated, “Electing Republican officials is a means to an end: solidifying the party’s beliefs into legislation. But not everything can be a nail.”

Whether Covey, Rinaldi, or Wilbanks, the next Texas GOP chairman is destined for baptism by fire trying to get up to speed on the party’s efforts and shifting the organization in their own respective direction.

And that directional change, to whatever degree, will be influenced by the current status of the dominant political party in Texas. Their soon-to-be predecessor’s tenure began with a chaotic entry, and in the end straightforward political triumph, which was followed by West’s brazen conflict with elected Republicans in the state and resounding GOP victories throughout the state.

But displeasure with West among certain factions of the party bubbled up after January’s semi-annual state campaign finance reports were filed. The party reported well under $100,000 in cash-on-hand in its state account.

Now with less than a month remaining in West’s tenure as RPT chair, the party is on stronger fiscal footing than in that last report. According to internal party figures provided to The Texan, the party has brought in $1.6 million in gross income from the beginning of this year through the end of May — most of which is federal money.

According to the party, that includes nearly a month of lost fundraising — first due to a switch of email fundraising services after their previous service flagged copy for terms like “voter fraud,” and then a fundraising standstill during and after the winter storm.

Email fundraising has been strong, bringing in $219,000 through the first five months of 2021 — 38 percent above the same period in 2020 and 87 percent above the entire 2019 haul. Total net revenue through May exceeds the 2019 period by $100,000.

The SREC members have varying opinions on the fiscal health of the party. Glover and Robertson see the current totals in a good light while Apley and Treviño have neither a buoyant nor a bleak outlook.

“We’ve definitely got to raise a lot of money, especially with the pending lawsuit over the convention’s cancelation last year,” Apley said. According to the party, the SREC’s Officials Committee has voted to continue the legal action first pursued against the City of Houston over the city’s cancelation of the RPT convention — which means more money in legal fees on top of the already spent $150,000 to $160,000.

The state party convention looming about a year ahead, Apley stated, is also a point of concern — hoping the organization can get back on track toward its preparation.

He continued, “We need to be ready to go with the resources necessary to ensure the Republican Party in Texas has a successful midterm.”

Apley’s SD 11 counterpart, Robertson, said she believes the party’s fundraising is largely dependent on “what’s happening in D.C. because that’s what most donors pay attention to.”

“Coming off of the COVID year, I think we’re doing pretty darn well,” she added.

A chief reason for the RPT’s 2020 success was its massive voter registration drive — started under Dickey’s tutelage and continued by West — which minted around 320,000 new GOP voters. With Texas Democrats increasing focus on voter registration and other get-out-the-vote strategies, the Texas GOP will likely have to try and repeat its successful strategy from the previous election.

According to the RPT, rather than downsize its field staff after the 2020 election, it kept all five on who then helped with various local elections across the state — including the Fort Worth and McAllen mayoral races, both of which the Republican candidate won.

“What we should realize,” Robertson said, “is that it is those [legislative] priorities that drive voters to the polls more than anything else.”

Robertson thinks the race will ultimately finish closely and likened it to the 2017 campaign between Dickey and Houston businessman Rick Figueroa to finish the term of outgoing chair Tom Mechler.

Before Wilbanks’ entry, Treviño said he believed one-third of the SREC is likely decided on Rinaldi while another third is in Covey’s camp and that it’d be the final third that would swing it one way or the other. But Treviño said it’s unclear how the third candidacy will affect that division.

Other party figures are rumored to be mulling a run for the position as well, but none have at this moment jumped in. There is no filing deadline for the race, so prospective candidates could jump in up to the last minute.

West told The Texan that he doesn’t plan on endorsing a replacement at the moment but did not quell the possibility.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed an insight to Scott Apley from a party official on the ongoing legal situation concerning last year’s convention cancelation. We regret the error.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.