87th LegislatureElections 2020State HouseStatewide NewsFissure Within the Texas GOP Widens After General Election Successes, Ahead of Legislative Session

Stances taken by Republican Party of Texas Chairman Allen West have spurred irritation among some of the party faithful, but the conflict is emblematic of a broader intra-party dispute.
December 24, 2020
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A fissure within the Republican Party of Texas (RPT) is growing ever wider between its Chairman Allen West, the grassroots faction he represents, and a more conventional portion of the party.

Once the result of Saturday’s contentious GOP runoff in Senate District (SD) 30 became clear, Texas politicos’ congratulations to state Rep. Drew Springer (R-Muenster) flooded social media. Springer defeated Dallas salon owner-turned political force Shelley Luther — famously vaulted to popularity for her defiance of a local shutdown order — by 13 points.

The clash featured a grassroots conservative backed by West Texas oilman and conservative megadonor Tim Dunn versus a more rural establishment-type Republican supported by much of the state GOP House caucus and Governor Greg Abbott.

The latter emerged victorious, adding a tally in the governor’s win column of mixed result involvement in GOP races this cycle.

Republican activist Chad Wilbanks tweeted after Springer’s victory, “It’s been several hours and wondering where the congratulatory tweet from [Allen West] or [Texas GOP] is on the [Governor Abbott] and [NRA] endorsed Senator-elect [Drew Springer]’s crushing #SD30 victory.”

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The Texas GOP’s official account responded, with a screenshot of a Democratic activist’s Facebook post celebrating Springer’s win and her role in it, stating, “Chairman [Allen West] doesn’t need to offer his congratulations since Texas Democrats beat him to it… .”

West then echoed the tweet himself.

Regarding the statement and derivative pushback he received, West told The Texan, “I don’t have any reaction to it. I don’t play around on Twitter and I’m focused on legislative priorities and the municipal elections coming up.”

The episode exemplifies the intra-party conflict permeating Texas’ dominant political party.

Not a new phenomenon, the recent divide stems from the previous administration, and maybe even further back. Under former Chairman James Dickey, the RPT functioned as mainly a support apparatus for its top GOP elected officials and their aspiring candidates.

Dickey focused heavily on fundraising and other more brick and mortar-type functions of a political party. After the 2018 bludgeoning Texas Republicans endured, he accumulated a massive $3.3 million war chest for the party ahead of the 2020 elections and spearheaded the voter registration initiatives with former RPT Chair Steve Munisteri and national political figure Karl Rove that minted nearly 320,000 new Republican voters.

That total amounted to a third of Donald Trump’s margin of victory in Texas and, in specific districts such as Congressional District 24 and Texas House Districts 54, 66, and 112, the number of newly GOP-registered voters exceeded the Republican candidate’s margin of victory.

The broad narrative advanced by Democrats after the 2018 “Beto Wave” suggesting that any exponential increase in Texas voter registration would disproportionately benefit Democrats at the expense of Republicans proved folly.

But discontent with Dickey abounded in grassroots circles after the 86th Legislature when the priority placed on those brick-and-mortar functions out-paced his willingness to hold GOP officials accountable.

With a portion of the conservative base unhappy with the lauded “Super Bowl Session” that featured property tax reform and a boost to school finances, Dickey was criticized for maintaining a backseat role in the legislative agenda that delivered partially on only one of the GOP’s priorities with its “Save Chick-fil-A” bill.

This discontent was further magnified during the quid pro quo scandal involving GOP Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative activist organization Empower Texans’ Michael Quinn Sullivan during which Dickey remained relatively mum.

All that set the table for West’s ultimately successful challenge against Dickey. Marked by convention setbacks and technical problems, West beat Dickey in overwhelming fashion.

Since taking over, West’s focus shifted toward its rhetoric and policy course — not necessarily to the detriment of his other responsibilities, growing the war chest by $7.3  million since taking over in July — not shying away from taking strong stances in opposition to some in his own party.

In a starkly unique move for a party chair, West joined an anti-lockdown protest of sitting Republican Governor Greg Abbott’s various coronavirus emergency measures and then joined a lawsuit against Abbott for his unilateral extension of early voting.

Such direct conflict between the sitting Republican governor and the state party chair hasn’t arisen since then-Governor George W. Bush quarreled with Tom Pauken.

West’s moves galvanized his supporters and appalled his detractors within the RPT.

About this shift in tactics, West said, “As the Chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, I’m supposed to be the voice for, and advocate of the people of the Texas GOP. I’ll continue to articulate our constitutional conservative values and the policies that reflect those values.”

“As RPT Chair, I’m supposed to both work hard raising money to get Republicans elected, which we did, and also to champion those legislative priorities.”

Those eight priorities are approved by delegates to the state party’s convention, and most were approved overwhelmingly on either the 2018 or 2020 primary ballots as propositions. An additional priority was added, dubbed the “chairman’s priority” which constitutes reining in executive, or gubernatorial, power.

Jill Glover, a State Republican Executive Committee member who oversees the party’s legislative priority advocacy, told The Texan, “These priorities represent the will of thousands GOP delegates and millions of Texas GOP voters.”

“We aim to emphasize our legislative priorities and give our Republicans across the state the resources to advocate on their behalf to their own representatives and senators in Austin,” she added.

A weekly legislative priority email update is sent out to the party’s members providing an update and talking points about the party’s list.

Glover further underscored her support for West’s approach, stating, “It is refreshing and something we’ve needed for a very long time. And, to be honest, I’m surprised at the pushback he’s getting because he’s simply saying that our party platform and principles mean something.”

Wilbanks, a former executive director of the RPT and now a Republican consultant, told The Texan, “The role of the Texas GOP chairman is to raise money, elect Republicans, and support Republicans — and Allen West isn’t doing any of those things.”

“[West] pats himself on the back because Texas had itself a great election year. But the reality is that took 18 months of planning and preparation and he just happened to walk in and is taking credit for what his predecessor and everyone else was doing after we got caught with our pants down in [2018],” he continued.

Further lamenting the chairman, Wilbanks added, “Allen West had so much potential coming into this. He’s well known and great at rallying the troops. But, and as a military man he should know this, he violated the first rule of battle almost immediately: you don’t attack your own troops.”

West oversaw the machine Dickey had built and shepherded it into a successful election night for Texas Republicans. On the election, West stated, “We were able to draw a clear delineation from the progressive socialists and we as constitutional conservatives, and we took that message down to the Rio Grande Valley and look at the success we had.”

Texas Republicans received a dramatic boost in support throughout many of the state’s border counties that had otherwise been staunchly blue for years.

Since the election, West has continued his no holds barred approach.

Displeased with the Texas House GOP caucus rallying behind Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) as its next speaker, West staked out another hard stance, stating, “[T]he Republican Party of Texas will not support, nor accept, State Rep. Dade Phelan as Speaker of the Texas House.”

He even went so far as to call Phelan a “political traitor.”

This drew the ire of many legislators and GOP activists alike who indicated their preference for a diplomatic relationship between the RPT and the next Republican speaker.

Luke Macias, a conservative Texas political consultant who supported West’s bid for chair as a convention delegate, told The Texan, “Allen West really upset the apple cart when he started talking about how the Republican Party needed to pass Republican priorities during a Republican-controlled legislative session.”

“That position is considered radical within the Republican caucus in the Texas House,” he added.

Wilbanks, meanwhile, stressed that, “The Republican Party of Texas is a campaign organization, not a lobbying organization. Their job is to elect Republicans and grow the party, not to pass bills.” 

Going into the session, West has voiced his optimism on outcomes, and pointed to legislation already submitted — perhaps the foremost of which is Rep. Mayes Middleton’s (R-Wallisville) taxpayer-funded lobbying ban.

Macias continued, “When [Dickey] was in power, there was not public pressure for [House Republicans] to deliver results on the GOP priorities.”

West then stirred up another hornets nest when in response to the United States Supreme Court’s dismissal of Texas’ election challenge in four other states, he proffered, “Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a union of states that will abide by the Constitution.”

Many took this as a call for secession, and roundly criticized it. West defended himself, saying he never called for secession explicitly and that “If anyone is out there seceding [from] the United States of America, it’s the states that are violating our rule of law.”

About the latest conflict surrounding West’s SD 30 statement, Macias chalked it up to “a bunch of people who don’t like the fact that Allen West is pushing the GOP priorities jumping on him because he did not immediately jump up and praise the Democrat Party’s choice for the [SD 30] runoff election.”

RPT Vice Chair Cat Parks, in what appeared to be an effort to distance herself from West, tweeted her congratulations to Springer the next day. Those critical of West trumpeted Parks’ statement as an example of that which West should have done, including Wilbanks who stated, “This is how to lead.”

Macias, meanwhile, thinks that West’s dismissive statement toward Springer was meant to “point out that [West] is not the reason there isn’t unity in the Republican Party.”

However, others view these actions to the detriment of the party’s electoral coalition. Wilbanks added, “What West doesn’t understand is that the slash and burn red meat stuff works great for the edges, but not for the center. For Texas to remain a majority [Republican] state, we must control the center.”

“It’s apparent he doesn’t understand the Texas legislative tradition and what makes it the number one state to do business in during the last 16 years. Republicans have been in charge for about two decades and it seems they’ve done a pretty damn good job,” he stressed.

Pointing back to the Bush-Pauken spat, Wilbanks sees a similar situation unfolding to that which led to Susan Weddington’s control of the party through the turn of the century. Pauken outgrew his welcome with some in the party and his vice chair, Weddington, took his place.

Wilbanks concluded, saying, “What West needs to be doing is growing the party and making it stronger, but what he’s doing is accomplishing the exact opposite — making it much smaller, for a small group of like-minded individuals and he’s losing the center and it will hurt Texas if he continues.”

“I don’t know what people expect,” West emphasized, further stating, “I thought this was supposed to be a leadership position and I’ve spent more than a few years of my life being in leadership positions and I’ll continue to do exactly what is expected of me from the Republican Party of Texas.”

He concluded, “This is not a popularity contest. This is about ensuring Texas remains a strong constitutionally conservative red state.”

West is, undoubtedly, a polarizing figure and disrupting the status quo has remained his go-to strategy since assuming office.

But will the focused pressure on lawmakers to deliver legislatively be the calculated blow he intends? Or, come sine die, will the disrupted hornet’s nest offer up nothing more than a stinging knock to his reputation?

The former U.S. Army lieutenant colonel is betting on the former while his intra-party detractors wager the latter.

Only 159 days until the results are in.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the RPT’s fundraising total under West’s leadership.

Update: The fundraising total under West’s chairmanship was updated with the correct number.

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Brad Johnson

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.