HOUSTON – The Republican Party of Texas' executive committee voted Monday evening to hold its statewide convention online, concluding a weekslong whirlwind of controversy and legal battles over initial plans to hold an in-person event during the worsening coronavirus pandemic.
After exhausting legal options, the party's State Republican Executive Committee, a 64-member governing board, met virtually Monday to consider moving the convention online. The vote was 53-4.
Monday's vote is the latest development in a saga over whether the party would end up hosting what was expected to be a roughly 6,000-person event in an area of the state that has emerged as one of the country's hot spots for the coronavirus. The gathering, before Houston officials canceled it last week, was scheduled to begin Thursday at the George R. Brown Convention Center.
Earlier Monday, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the party seeking to host the convention as scheduled in a 7-1 ruling. Justices also denied a similar petition spearheaded by other party officials and Steve Hotze, a conservative activist based in Houston. Later Monday, a Harris County District Court also ruled against the party, effectively killing the party’s chances of proceeding with its in-person gathering.
As recently as Saturday, the SREC, considered the party's governing board, reaffirmed the party's commitment to going ahead with the event, holding out hope that court rulings would work in the party's favor. After Houston officials, at the direction of Mayor Sylvester Turner, informed the party last week that the event had been canceled, the GOP argued that its in-person gathering was protected under both the Texas and U.S. Constitutions and should be allowed to continue as planned.
The high court disagreed. In its ruling Monday, the court wrote that while it "is unquestionably true" that the party has constitutional rights to hold a convention, "those rights do not allow it to simply commandeer use of the Center." Justice John Devine filed a dissenting opinion, while Justice Jeff Boyd did not participate in the decision.
In a letter to the party last week, Houston First Corp., the operator of the convention center, pointed to a clause in the contract that allowed either side to cancel the agreement if an occurrence "is beyond the reasonable control of the party whose performance is affected," such as "epidemics in the City of Houston" and emergency government declarations.
In response, the party said it would sue Turner, Houston First Corp. and the city in an attempt to allow the convention to happen as planned. The party argued in its lawsuit that Turner and Houston could not use that clause in the contract “as a magical spell to escape what [Turner] has decided is an unwanted contract.” Soon after the party filed its petition, a state district judge in Harris County declined to order Houston to honor its contract with the party and set a hearing for Monday. The party then filed an appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
Monday's ruling came after the Texas attorney general's office, asked to weigh in on the issue by the high court, filed a brief that argued justices should deny the party's and Hotze's petitions.
"Despite their troubling factual allegations, the petitions do not properly invoke this Court's mandamus authority, and they should be denied on that narrow basis," Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins wrote.
As the debate over whether an in-person convention played out, state party chair James Dickey assured that the party had an “ultimate contingency plan” to move the event online, if needed. And while the SREC voted overwhelmingly to proceed with the gathering as planned, members still tweaked the party’s rules to allow for more flexibility to host the convention online if circumstances required it.