88th LegislatureStatewide NewsIntra-GOP Proxy Fight Comes to House Elections Committee on ‘Ballot Access’ Bill

The GOP Legislature and the State Republican Executive Committee often jockey for territorial positions during policy fights.
March 20, 2023
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Like any large organization, the Texas GOP — the party apparatus, the State Republican Executive Committee (SREC), elected officials, county parties, and run-of-the-mill activists — has competing interests, warring factions.

That fissure was on display in the House Elections Committee this week during consideration of House Bill (HB) 1635 by Rep. Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock) that’d prohibit party officials from “deny[ing] a person eligible to affiliate with a political party … the ability to affiliate with the political party.”

Laying out HB 1635, Burrows said, “The purpose of this bill is very simple: to ensure that primary voters of the State of Texas are the ones who decide who the nominee is on the ballot.”

“It does not allow a party to go beyond the current statutory reasons to exclude a candidate from the ballot.”

The bill also transfers the supervisory role of primary elections from the county executive committee to the county chair — a position that can be appointed by the respective executive committee in the case of a vacancy. It then ties a state party’s rules to its national party’s.

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Burrows said that a committee substitute is being worked on, but was not yet ready at the time of the hearing.

By passing this law, the Legislature would restrict the ability of local parties, specifically the executive committees, to block a prospective candidate from the ballot. The committee left the bill pending, meaning it will come back up at another time for passage.

“While the Senate is busy passing meaningful election integrity reform that will make voter fraud a felony, House leadership has prioritized petty, redundant and unconstitutional legislation designed primarily to attack the Republican Party grassroots,” Republican Party of Texas (RPT) Chair Matt Rinaldi told The Texan in a statement. “If House leadership behaved more like the Senate, it wouldn’t have to be so worried about the Republican grassroots.”

Filed the day before the filing deadline, the bill drew a variety of testimony from proponents and opponents alike.

Former Texas GOP Chair James Dickey testified in favor of Burrows’ bill during the hearing, saying this is an area where the Legislature should step in and set boundaries.

“Ballot access is an appropriate case where the state has a mission in making sure that … a renegade chair [cannot] individually decide what people [may be on the ballot],” Dickey said. He further advised an adjustment to the bill to ensure county parties may still be able to prohibit a legally “inappropriate” candidate from making the ballot.

Another speaker, associated with the Libertarian Party of Texas, opposed the bill and told the committee, “It should not be the state’s responsibility to police what’s going on in the parties and how they select candidates.”

David Luther, a representative with the Texas Republican County Chairmens’ Association, told the committee, “County chairs have two jobs: to hold the primary and then advocate for our party during the general election. Unfortunately, the Republican Party of Texas has taken the position that our job should be something completely different, and I object to that.”

“The committee chairs that have contacted me consistently have had questions about the idea of them being put in the position of them having to limit ballot access or reject applications for ballots. This is not a fair burden to place on these volunteers across the State of Texas.”

Robert Green, a representative with the Travis County GOP, testified against the bill, saying, “Instead of attacking the RPT as this bill does, legislation should focus on how we can run fraud-free elections.”

“My biggest concern is the primary priority given to this bill. Why is this bill one of the first to be brought up for public comment in our Elections Committee — one that reduces the power of our conservative grassroots and the RPT?”

He then said the committee’s first priority should be to pass the illegal voting felony restoration bill by Rep. Steve Toth (R-The Woodlands).

“The Supreme Court has recognized that when political parties become involved in the state-administered primary election, the state acquires a legitimate interest in regulating the manner in which that election unfolds,” attorney Eric Opiela testified to the committee in support of the bill.

Opiela is a longtime party activist who placed third in the 2014 GOP primary for Agriculture Commissioner. In 2021, he filed an appeal with the Texas GOP to remove one Rick Perry — not the former governor — from the following year’s gubernatorial primary ballot. The appeal was dismissed by Rinaldi.

But in front of the House committee, Opiela argued the state has not only a right, but a responsibility to restrict how a party may run its election — specifically in terms of limiting the denial of ballot access.

“This bill is not about who the candidates are,” he added. “It is about who the deciders are. Is it the members of the party who vote in an election or is it a room of people who have never appeared on a ballot to answer to the grassroots?”

That “room of people” to which Opiela referred is the SREC, the group of party activists who essentially run the Texas GOP; it can elect the chairman when a vacancy occurs, votes on resolutions, and considers censure proposals at the state party. SREC members are elected at state conventions by delegates rather than through primary ballots.

Earlier this month, one Republican official found himself on the wrong end of that lattermost factor. Congressman Tony Gonzales (R-TX-21) was officially censured by the SREC after the Medina County GOP censured him for a variety of votes of which the two bodies disapproved.

Gonzales can, and in all likelihood will still, run on the GOP ticket next cycle, but the censure vote allows the party to break from its typical impartiality in primaries.

Cheers and jeers of the decision reverberated throughout the Texas GOP and its activists.

Taken in isolation, the bill is a relatively minor tweak to the current system, but it’s part of a broader dispute within the party. On one side there are those who believe the party’s sole function is to hold primary elections and fundraise for their candidates in the general election. On the other side are those who believe the party should play a larger role in the legislative process, identifying priorities and lobbying for them in the Legislature.

On Burrows’ bill, three RPT officials registered against along with an SREC member, while two former SREC members and the San Jacinto County GOP chair registered or testified for the bill. More similarly-positioned party activists provided input on the bill to the committee in written comment.

It’s very much an intra-party battle.

This difference of opinion has led to various high-profile fights within the Legislature and at conventions.

At the 2022 convention, the Texas GOP opened the door to closed primaries by removing every reference to state Election Code in its rules — theoretically untying it from state oversight of its elections.

The rules it adopted were consistent with those in the Election Code, just without the code citations.

RPT leadership made clear that the move was a response to language tacked onto a proposal during the 87th Legislature that aimed to require party officials to resign their post before running for another office; then-Chair Allen West had announced a primary challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott.

During the bill’s conference committee, language was added that would have put the party chair, vice chair, and SREC on the primary ballot. While the bill passed to engrossment, the primary election provision was scrapped — but some in the party took notice, leading to the actions at the convention.

The conflict is not as simple as Legislature-versus-SREC — there are members in both bodies who oppose the general position they’ve taken — but in broad terms, both entities have tried to counter the other.

HB 1635 is a proxy fight between two competing visions of the relationship between the RPT and the GOP-controlled Legislature — another inch added to the lengthening fissure in Texas’ dominant political party.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated executive committees’ role in electing chairmen. We regret the error.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and 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.