Republican Texas House races become high-dollar affairs as Tuesday’s primary runoff nears

An empty chair on the Texas House floor last year. This month's Republican primary runoffs for seats in the lower chamber have garnered six-figure campaign finance hauls. (Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune, Michael Gonzalez/The Texas Tribune)

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The Republican primary runoffs for Texas House are brimming with cash as dueling GOP factions scramble to get the last word in for the Tuesday contests.

The only major campaign finance reports in the races were due this week, and they showed that three of the four incumbents who were forced into runoffs each raised nearly half a million dollars or more in less than three months. The reports, which covered Feb. 20 through May 14, also showed that some open-seat runoffs have also become high-dollar affairs, with candidates posting hefty six-figure hauls.

The pricey fights illustrate how much of the action in Texas politics has shifted back to the primary after redistricting dramatically reduced the number of competitive seats in the general election. With few races to worry about in November, Republicans, who control both chambers, are going all out to make sure they get exactly the kind of members they want ahead of the 2023 regular legislative session.

The runoffs have put on display differences of opinion within the party over issues like “school choice” — specifically the use of vouchers which let parents use taxpayer dollars to send their kids to private and charter schools — and whether Democrats should continue to be given leadership positions by Republicans in control.

But more than anything else, the runoffs have been a proxy war between House leadership under Speaker Dade Phelan and anti-establishment forces largely represented by the Defend Texas Liberty PAC. In general, the PAC’s candidates are pushing for the House to go further to the right even after a year in which it secured long-sought conservative wins like permitless carry of handguns and a “heartbeat” law that almost totally bans abortion.

Phelan’s campaign spent $741,000 to help nine of the candidates he is supporting in the runoffs, according to the filings. But that is only part of the spending by the establishment in the runoffs, where groups that mostly align with leadership, like Texans for Lawsuit Reform and the Associated Republicans of Texas, are also pumping six figures into the races.

Phelan also has a helpful ally in Gov. Greg Abbott, who is supporting many of the same candidates. His campaign has given $26,500 in in-kind donations for digital ads to each of at least 11 candidates he is backing — nearly $300,000 total — according to candidate disclosures.

The Defend Texas Liberty PAC, run by former state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, reported raising $2.8 million from Feb. 20 through May 14. In his time in the Legislature, Stickland was one of the most vocal and far-right members of the House. Almost all of the PAC money — $2.6 million — came from the longtime far-right megadonor Tim Dunn, an oil and gas billionaire. The group spent $2.5 million over the same period, directly funneling some of it to candidates, like Jeff Younger, who is running in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs and was one of the catalysts to the statewide push to investigate parents of transgender kids for child abuse.

The PAC’s biggest single expense was a $591,000 consulting payment to Pale Horse Strategies, an LLC whose registered agent is Stickland.

The reports point to a handful of runoffs where the warring sides are especially engaged. Phelan’s team is intensely focused on saving Rep. Stephanie Klick of Fort Worth, the only incumbent who is one of his committee chairs who got forced into a runoff. She raised more than any other candidate in a Republican primary runoff for Texas House, reporting $955,000 in contributions. Of that, $235,000 was in-kind donations from Phelan’s campaign alone.

Her challenger, David Lowe, disclosed $263,000 in contributions. He is also being backed by Defend Texas Liberty PAC, and like Younger, his top issue is opposition to medical treatments for transgender kids.

Phelan’s team declined to comment for this story. Stickland alluded to the massive fundraising for Klick in a derisive tweet Tuesday.

“I knew inflation was high, but have you seen prices on salvaging vintage furniture lately?” Stickland said. “Wow!”

Another incumbent, Rep. Glenn Rogers of Graford, was also a leading fundraiser, reporting $751,000 in contributions. His opponent, Mike Olcott, collected $186,000 in donations and loaned himself $50,000.

There are also open-seat runoffs where the factions are dug in deep. In the runoff to replace state Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, as he heads to the state Senate, Ben Bumgarner has the support of Abbott and Phelan, while Younger is backed by Defend Texas Liberty PAC. Bumgarner raised $266,000 — and got a $65,000 loan — while Younger had $240,000 in receipts.

The top three recipients of Phelan’s financial aid for the period were Klick, Rogers and Barron Casteel in House District 73 in Central Texas. The top three beneficiaries of Defend Texas Liberty PAC’s spending were Lowe, Younger and Nate Schatzline in House District 93 in North Texas. Schatzline is a former pastor who founded a group that works to elect more people of faith in local government.

Not everyone is on the same page across the runoffs. The most striking example is in the race to replace state Rep. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, who is poised to join the state Senate. Abbott and the Associated Republicans of Texas are supporting Patrick Gurski, while Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the powerful tort reform group, is backing Terri Leo Wilson, spurred by Gurski’s background as a trial lawyer. And Wilson’s report showed that TLR is not taking any chances, bankrolling her campaign with over half a million dollars in in-kind contributions.

The filings also showed that some runoffs continue to feature self-funders who do not necessarily need to rely on the typical universe of political action committees. The most vivid example is in House District 84, based in Lubbock, where David Glasheen loaned himself $950,000 as he battled Carl Tepper, who is backed by TLR and Abbott.

Among the four incumbents in runoffs, Rep. Phil Stephenson of Wharton is an outlier. Neither Abbott nor Phelan has endorsed him for reelection, and he disclosed only $54,000 raised on his report, about half via the Texas House Republican Caucus PAC, and far less than the hauls of the three other incumbents. Still, his challenger, Stan Kitzman, raised a similar amount — $52,000.

While the reports saw many of the same players duking it out in the runoffs, there was at least one new group that stood out: Conservative Action for Texas PAC. The group formed earlier this month and spent $183,000 helping candidates aligned with Defend Texas Liberty PAC, including Younger, Schatzline, Olcott and Lowe. Its main funder for the period was Fairmount developer Jim Moyer, who gave $210,000.

Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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