‘The house is on fire’: Texas GOP plots its next chapter amid civil war, depleted staff, funding drops

Outgoing Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Renaldi gives voting directives during the 5th General Meeting of the 2022 Texas State Republican Convention on June 18, 2022. Credit: Briana Vargas for The Texas Tribune

By Robert Downen, The Texas Tribune

In one of his last speeches as chair of the Republican Party of Texas, Matt Rinaldi declared victory.

“We’ve changed the game,” he told members of the Texas GOP’s executive committee in February. “The biggest con that has been propagated against grassroots Republicans is that you have no other job other than to be a cheerleading society for anyone with an R next to their name.”

Rinaldi has indeed accomplished what he set out to do in 2021, when he was first elected chair. Whereas most of his predecessors focused on traditional party duties — courting donors, recruiting candidates and voter outreach — Rinaldi has turned the chair into a bully pulpit, using it to attack and purge more moderate Republicans and help usher in a dark-red wave in this year’s primaries. But when he steps down as chair this week, he will leave behind a deeply divided organization, with a decimated staff, that is increasingly dependent on two ultraconservative megadonors who have played key roles in the party’s ongoing civil war.

Last year, the Texas GOP’s fundraising dropped to its lowest level since 2017, and the number of corporate and individual donors to the party’s state account sank to their lowest levels in at least a decade. The party currently has just five employees — compared to 50 at the same point in 2020, the last presidential election year.

In its most recent federal filing, in April, the party reported having $2.7 million on-hand — three-quarters of what it had at the same point in the 2020 cycle, when adjusted for inflation. And much of the funds reported by the party in April have already been spent to cover the estimated $1.8 million cost of this week’s convention — which is projected to operate at a $38,000 loss for the party, executive committee members were told at a Wednesday financial briefing.

As its donor base has shrunk, the party has increasingly relied on two West Texas oil tycoons, Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, who have for years funded attacks by the far right on fellow Republicans, pushed for hardline restrictions on immigration and LGBTQ+ rights, and faced recent scandals over avowed white supremacists and antisemites working for their political network. In the decade before Rinaldi became chair, the party received $310,000 in donations from Dunn, Wilks or their political action committees. Since then, they have given more than $1.2 million to the party — and last year, as Rinaldi increasingly used his position to attack their political enemies, the billionaires made up a quarter of the party’s total donations.

At the same time, some Republicans say, they’ve seen a noticeable drop in solicitations from the party for donations.

“I have gotten precious little under [Rinaldi’s] leadership asking for funding — precious little,” Andi Turner, a Republican lobbyist, said on a recent podcast. “And having done fundraising for a major organization in this state, I can tell you that if you’re not asking every month, then you get what you deserve.”

The party’s divisions and proximity to Dunn and Wilks have turned the race to replace Rinaldi into a referendum on his tenure, and whether to continue its direction by electing his endorsed candidate, Abraham George, as the party’s new leader. Earlier this year, Texas GOP Vice Chair Dana Myers announced her candidacy for chair, saying the party was in a “state of disarray, fractured by internal divisions and marred by turmoil.”

In his late campaign announcement last week, Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak blasted what he said has been “five years of neglect, dishonesty, self-dealing, and blatant anti-Semitism.” And at a candidate forum days earlier, Houston-area businessman Ben Armenta argued that the party’s “chaos” has come at the expense of voter outreach initiatives and stronger partnership with grassroots groups.

The party “has not gotten the grassroots the resources it needs,” Armenta said. “Everyone is on the frontlines, waiting for the supplies to get there.”

Texas Republican Party Chair candidates Dana Myers, left, and Abraham George. Credit: Campaign websites

Rinaldi did not respond to interview requests, but downplayed some of those concerns on a recent podcast. The party’s tiny staffing levels, he said, are due to cuts to regional employees who were replaced with contract labor. Other employees, he said, were working at the direction of the Republican National Convention, which scaled back in reliably-red states. That’s a “good sign” of the Texas GOP’s strength, Rinaldi said. He has similarly downplayed the party’s broader infighting, saying that it has good relationships with most elected leaders — save for House Speaker Dade Phelan and the Beaumont Republican’s “closest lieutenants.”

Longtime party members disagree.

“His time as chair is going to be seen as the time when the Republican Party no longer came together,” said Derek Ryan, a veteran consultant and adviser to GOP campaigns. “There is a certain portion of the party and electorate that is thrilled by that, and there are financial backers that are thrilled by that. And they may be effective right now at getting their agenda through. But is it coming at a cost in 2024, 2026 and beyond?”

“Win elections and beat Democrats”

As the party’s executive director from 1997 to 2004, Wayne Hamilton was on the frontlines of the fight against generations of Democratic dominance over the state. Hamilton credited the GOP’s rise to close collaboration between the party, Govs. George W. Bush and Rick Perry, and a coalition of business, socially conservative and grassroots groups.

“The party was focused at the time on what the party is supposed to do, which is win elections and beat Democrats,” said Hamilton, who later served as a national political director for Perry’s 2012 presidential bid and campaign manager for Gov. Greg Abbott in 2014. “We worked with anybody who would work with us.”

By 2008, however, the Republican Party of Texas was insolvent, with nearly $750,000 in debt that had accumulated over more than 15 years, as the party borrowed from future election cycles to cover convention costs, salaries or to pay outside groups that assisted with fundraising efforts. Deep in the red, the party and its new chair, Steve Munisteri, spent the next few years beefing up their outreach to donors, consolidating and streamlining its fundraising initiatives and working closely with officials such as Abbott and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“Our teams were always over at their teams’ shops,” Munisteri said in a recent interview. “The way I tried to govern was to bring all the factions together, find the common ground and create good dialogue and cooperation between the elected officials, the donors and the grassroots.”

Under Munisteri, the Republican Party of Texas sent out more than a million mailers each election cycle, created a network of phone-bankers and set up “victory centers” in major cities and predominantly Hispanic regions of the state. Aided by anti-Obama anger and the tea party movement, the party saw stunning results. From 2010 to 2015, Texas Republicans picked up nearly 1,200 seats across the state, grew their narrow advantage in the state Legislature into a supermajority, and zeroed out the party’s debt.

Former Republican Party of Texas Chairman Steve Munisteri at the Texas Republican Convention in Fort Worth on June 7, 2014. Credit: Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

By the time Munisteri stepped down as chair in 2015, that political marriage was showing early signs of acrimony. As tea party lawmakers and groups gained influence — often with major funding from Dunn and Wilks — they increasingly accused fellow Republicans, namely then-House Speaker Joe Straus, of being weak conservatives, and attacked them for working with House Democrats on bipartisan legislation.

Meanwhile, Dunn and Wilks continued to build their influence. In 2015, they were crucial to then-Sen. Ken Paxton’s election to attorney general. And in 2017, Rinaldi and other lawmakers funded by the billionaires formed a new group, the Texas House Freedom Caucus, that continued to attack House leaders from the right, laying the groundwork for the party’s eventual civil war.

Hot topics

At each of the party’s biennial conventions, delegates debate and approve its platform, a sprawling outline of conservative policy priorities which has for years been viewed as a bellwether for broader Republican sentiment.

And for years, party leaders cautioned that the platform should be understood not as an end-all-be-all list of Republican stances, but as a broad set of positions that reflect the party’s diverse coalition of business, activist and grassroots groups.

“It’s false to represent that each one of those platform planks necessarily represents … the view of the majority of the delegates, let alone a majority of Republicans,” Munisteri said in 2014, amid criticism of the platform’s calls that year to repeal the Voting Rights Act, endorse conversion therapy for LGBTQ+ people and end in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. “The Texas Republican Party has millions of people who vote for it, and every individual Republican has their own views on issues.”

That’s changing, however, as the state’s ultraconservatives continue to consolidate power. While the platform has always trended toward the right — the 2014 platform also called for the end of hate crimes laws and the restoration of Confederate symbols — by 2022 it had turned into what Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas-Austin, called a “Frankenstein assemblage of up-to-the-minute GOP hot topics.”

From left: West Texas billionaires Farris Wilks and Tim Dunn. Credit: Courtesy Ronald W. Erdrich/Abilene Reporter-News|Brett Buchanan for The Texas Tribune

That year, the platform included calls for a referendum on Texas secession; resistance to the “Great Reset,” a conspiracy theory that claims global elites are using environmental and social policies to enslave the world’s population; proclamations that homosexuality is an “abnormal lifestyle choice”; and a declaration that President Joe Biden was not legitimately elected.

Over the same time — and reflecting the party’s ongoing division and purity tests — the platform has begun to shift from merely a compromise document, and into a vehicle for punishing dissent. In just the last year, it was cited in censures of three prominent Republican officeholders: Phelan and outgoing Junction Rep. Andrew Murr, both of whom were central to Paxton’s impeachment; and U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, of San Antonio, over his vote for a bipartisan gun law in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, which is in his district.

Heading into this year’s convention, a Texas GOP committee also adopted language requiring state and county chairs to reject ballot applications from any official censured in the two years prior, a move that would give the party unprecedented sway over who can run in GOP primaries. “The party apparatus has gone from being the means of sorting out tensions within the Republican coalition to being an ally of the more extreme and ideologically driven factions, interest groups and organizations within the party,” Henson said.

Former state GOP Chairman Allen West speaks at a Texas Republican Party rally on the east side of the Capitol Grounds on January 9, 2021. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

That was evident by 2020. Furious that the party’s convention was virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic, delegates ousted then-Chair James Dickey and replaced him with Allen West, a former Florida congressman who has long flirted with conspiracy theories.

In a recent interview, Dickey downplayed West’s election as a sign of the party’s shift, instead blaming his defeat on elected Democrats in Houston who fought against allowing the convention to be held in person there because of the pandemic. “It was a very unpleasant experience,” he said. “And as happened to President Trump, incumbents don’t fare well in unpleasant experiences.”

West was an immediate lightning rod. He suggested that “law-abiding states” should secede from the United States after the U.S. Supreme Court shot down Texas’ lawsuit challenging the 2020 presidential election results. He pushed for the Texas GOP to have an account on Gab, a social media website frequented by neo-Nazis and other far-right extremists. He appeared at a convention for QAnon conspiracy theorists, and repeatedly used some of the movement’s best-known slogans. He referred to the party’s then-vice chair, Cat Parks, as a “cancer” (Parks is a cancer survivor). And he repeatedly blasted Abbott, at one point leading protests outside the governor’s mansion over his pandemic orders.

In June 2021 — barely a year after he was elected chair — West stepped down, and soon after announced his campaign against Abbott for governor. The Texas GOP’s executive committee met soon after to choose between four potential successors that included David Covey, the former Orange County GOP chair who is currently in a runoff against Phelan; and Rinaldi, a West ally who had remained involved in party affairs after losing his House seat to a Democrat in 2018.

Rinaldi won, and immediately called for unity. “We cannot lose Texas — and will not lose Texas — if we work together,” he said in his victory speech

Rinaldi’s reign

The reconciliation period was short.

After running unopposed for a second term in 2022, Rinaldi began to stoke a broader civil war. As other donors pulled back their giving, Rinaldi further aligned the party with Dunn and Wilks, using his powers to attack the billionaires’ Republican opponents and to help them survive a series of high-profile scandals and potential setbacks.

In March 2023 — and hours after leaving a small, private donor retreat with Rinaldi and Dunn — Rep. Bryan Slaton, a Royse City Republican who was heavily funded by the West Texas oil billionaires, invited a 19-year-old intern to his downtown Austin apartment, plied her with alcohol and had sex with her. Rinaldi was later criticized for what some said was a delayed and muted response to the allegations against Slaton, who the Texas House later expelled unanimously.

He spent the next three months vociferously attacking House leaders for impeaching Paxton, a key ally whose two largest donors are Dunn and Wilks. And when some Republicans publicly worried about the party’s paltry fundraising, the then-leader of Dunn and Wilks’ main political action committee responded with insults and assurances that the billionaires would make up the gap.

“Quit being such an obvious lackey,” Jonathan Stickland, who was at the time president of Defend Texas Liberty PAC, wrote in one social media exchange. “[The party] will have everything it needs.”

In the wake of Paxton’s acquittal by the Texas Senate, Rinaldi, Stickland and other allies of the billionaires’ political network vowed scorched-earth revenge against anyone who supported the impeachment.

Those retribution plans were disrupted two weeks later, when the Texas Tribune reported that Stickland had hosted notorious white supremacist and Hitler admirer Nick Fuentes for several hours. Rinadi was spotted outside the meeting, but denied knowing Fuentes was inside. Subsequent reporting by the Tribune uncovered deeper ties between the network and avowed antisemites. As other Republicans condemned the meeting and called for the party to cut ties with Defend Texas Liberty, Rinaldi attacked critics of Stickland and his billionaire funders — while quietly working as an attorney for Wilks.

State Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, on the House floor on May 25, 2019. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune
Left: Nick Fuentes, center, is seen exiting the offices of Pale Horse Strategies with Chris Russo, founder and president of Texans for Strong Borders, right, in Fort Worth, Texas on Oct. 6, 2023. Right: Texas Republican Party Chairman Matt Rinaldi is seen entering the same offices on the same day. Credit: Azul Sordo for the Texas Tribune

The series of scandals did not hinder Dunn and Wilks’ political network. After spinning off a new PAC, Texans United For a Conservative Majority, ahead of this year’s GOP primary, the billionaires saw massive electoral gains that will likely give them more control than ever over the state Legislature. Rinaldi endorsed most of their candidates and, 10 days after primary day, announced he would not seek a third term as chair.

Hamilton, the former Texas GOP executive director, said the last few years have made him increasingly worried that current infighting and purity tests have made Republicans vulnerable. After seven years as the party’s executive director — the longest-ever tenure — and stints on Abbott and Perry’s campaigns, Hamilton started Project Red TX, a grassroots group that recruits and supports candidates in south Texas, which he says has been almost entirely neglected by the party.

Today’s party, he said, is a “night-and-day” contrast from two decades ago, when a united coalition of Republicans worked together to flip the state’s political landscape on its head and cement a generation of GOP dominance.

“It’s becoming more of an advocacy group — similar to an industry group, business group or sector group — rather than a functioning campaign organization,” he said. ”It leaves a big void. … Meanwhile, the house is on fire.”

When delegates choose this week between six candidates to replace Rinaldi, they will do so at a convention replete with signs of the party’s new alignment. The leader of Dunn and Wilks’ political network, Luke Macias, will lead the group that nominates party representatives to the Republican National Convention; the convention’s sponsors include Wilks’ development company and three other groups funded by the billionaires; and the event schedule features a breakfast hosted by the Dunn family, and five events — by far the most of any other figure — hosted by Sen. Bob Hall, an Edgewood Republican who has received $853,000 from the billionaires.

Among the frontrunners in the race is George, whose endorsements by Rinaldi and his allies have helped him overcome backlash after reports that he was intercepted by police last year as he left his home with a loaded gun to confront a man he believed was sleeping with his wife. George, the former chair of the Collin County GOP, has said that he wants to expand the party’s fundraising and is running on a platform to, among other things, “defeat the Austin swamp.” But Republicans broadly agree that his election would continue the party’s current direction under Rinaldi. And they are, yet again, divided over whether that’d be great or cataclysmic.

“Rinaldi made it very clear that if you think the party has been doing just perfectly the last two years, then George would be the candidate to support,” said Dickey, the former chair who is supporting Mike Garcia in the race. “I think it is clear from the amount of candidates that have stepped up that there are concerns about doing just that.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/05/23/texas-gop-matt-rinaldi-republicans/.

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