Here’s a quick recap of what happened over the last week:

Trump Endorses House Speaker’s Opponent

Earlier this week former President Donald Trump endorsed David Covey, who is challenging incumbent Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan in the March Republican primary.  The announcement was done on Truth Social, where Trump accused Phelan of overseeing a fraudulent impeachment of Attorney General Ken Paxton.  Phelan has endorsed Trump, and the former President recognized that in his statement.  But Trump went on to say that “words do not mitigate the embarrassment Speaker Phelan inflicted on the state of Texas and the Great Republican Party!”

In response, Phelan took to twitter to say that his opponent sought the endorsement of Trump in an attempt to get retribution for “holding public officials accountable and defending the House against outside interests.”

Having the presumptive Presidential nominee endorse against a sitting House Speaker of the same party is unprecedented to say the least.  AG Ken Paxton has also endorsed Covey and spent time in the district campaigning against Phelan.  Lt. Governor Dan Patrick – often at odds with Phelan – has said he will not get directly involved in the race. Gov. Abbott has made no endorsement in the race.

House Special Election

In a special election that is a perfect example of the ongoing Republican party civil war, Jill Dutton narrowly defeated Brent Money in Tuesday’s vote.  The Texas House District 2 special election was to fill the unexpired term of Bryan Slaton, who was expelled from the House last year for carrying on an inappropriate relationship with a Capitol intern.  Dutton lives in Canton and is a former Van ISD school board member.  Money is an attorney and former city council member from Greenville.  Dutton has received endorsements from the more traditional wing of the Republican party including former Governor Rick Perry.  Money has received the endorsements of Gov. Abbott, AG Ken Paxton, and US Senator Ted Cruz.  The district is solidly Republican and covers the counties of Hunt, Hopkins, and Van Zandt in northeast Texas.

When all of the 13,500 votes were counted, the margin of victory was only 107 votes for Dutton.  Contributions have poured into this race from across the state, with Dutton raising over $800,00 and Money raising over $350,000.  By winning this special election, Dutton will be sworn in as soon as the votes are canvassed and will serve until the end of the year.  The two candidates will face off again on March 5th, where voters will decide who to send to Austin for a full two-year term to begin in January of 2025.

Border News

The Take Our Border Back Convoy has arrived in Texas.  Organizers of the group left Virginia on Monday, met briefly in Florida, and then headed towards the southern border.  Their cause is to force the Biden administration to take action on border and immigration enforcement issues.  The group claims to be made up of ordinary citizens and plans only peaceful protests and gatherings.

The convoy arrived in Dripping Springs – southwest of Austin – late Wednesday night and made their presence known on Thursday with several gatherings and parade like convoys through town.  All were peaceful with no incidents of violence.  The main event in Dripping Springs was held Thursday afternoon at a local restaurant and featured the former Alaska Governor and GOP Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin and rocker Ted Nugent.  An estimated 1,000 people showed up for the event in Dripping Springs.

The group will head to Eagle Pass, planning to arrive there on Saturday.  On Sunday, the group will be met by Gov. Abbott and 14 fellow Republican governors, who will then head to Shelby Park in Eagle Pass to show party unity and meet with reporters.  This will be day four of the two-week long protest to raise awareness of the situation at the border.  From Texas, the group will eventually make its way to Arizona.  The group estimates they will have contact with at least 700,000 people during their stops and gatherings.

Texas Leads Nation in Healthcare Exchange Enrollments

More Texans than ever before have signed up for free or affordable health care through the system established by the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare as it was commonly known during the years of debate.  Texas has the highest number of uninsured residents in the nation.  Figures for enrollment for the 2024 enrollments show that 1 in 9 Texans are now enrolled in the health plan subsidized by the federal government. Enrollment by Texans in the federal health care plans has more than doubled since 2020, with approximately 3.5 million Texas residents now taking advantage of the program.  According to the report issued by the White House announcing the state and national figures, Texas residents saved an average of $560 on annual health care premiums issued under the ACA.

National enrollment reached a high of 16.3 million enrollees.  Experts in the state health care policy attribute the rise in enrollments by Texas residents to the nearly 2 million residents that were removed from Medicaid rolls in the wake of the pandemic.

Supreme Court Delays Paxton Depositions

After another round of unsuccessful appeals to quash the mandate that he provide a deposition in the wrongful termination lawsuit brought against him, AG Ken Paxton this week asked the Texas Supreme Court to again consider overturning his court-ordered deposition.  This is part of the continuing lawsuit and saga surrounding the case brought forth by four former AG office employees who claim they were fired after taking evidence of misconduct by Paxton to the FBI.

Just hours after former President Trump publicly called on the court to end the case, the court placed a pause on the depositions scheduled to take place this week until at least February 29th, when they have asked both sides to submit more comprehensive legal arguments regarding the need for the case to continue.  The Texas Supreme Court has previously twice affirmed the trial court’s ruling that compels Paxton to provide a deposition in the case.  Even though Paxton last week announced he would no longer fight the case and would accept any ruling put forth, the trial judge in the case had kept in place the earlier mandate that Paxton and other agency employees must testify under oath about the allegations that led to the former employees being fired.  This is a huge victory for Paxton that further casts doubt on whether he will have to testify under oath in this case.

However, just as the Supreme Court was handing Paxton a victory, a trial level judge in Travis County was handing him a defeat.  Last week, Paxton basically threw himself at the mercy of the court and said he will no longer contest this case and would accept any judgement handed down by the trial court.  But agreements like this always must be signed off on by the judge in the case.  On Wednesday, the trial judge rejected Paxton’s proposition to end the case and said it must move forward.  In a nutshell, the judge ruled the plaintiffs in the case have a right to seek discovery in the case and that Paxton and his aides named in the case should be deposed. The plaintiffs will now turn their attention to the Supreme Court order that called for a hearing regarding the case later this month, while Paxton’s attorneys will again try to quash any order to have him provide a deposition in the case.

Democratic US Senate Candidates Debate

The three leading Democrats battling to challenge incumbent Republican Senator Ted Cruz in November held a debate last Saturday in Austin.  The debate was hosted by the Texas Chapter of the AFL-CIO.  Congressman Colin Allred – leading in the polls and in the contributions – was joined by state Senator Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio, Allred’s closest rival.  State Rep. Carl Sherman of Dallas also participated in the debate.  Only candidates that have received a 5% polling average in recent surveys were allowed to participate.

Gutierrez continually attacked Allred for pandering to the Republicans and represented himself as the only true progressive in the race.  The contrast between the two was definite.  Allred touted his ability to reach across the aisle and work with members from the other party, while Gutierrez said the party cannot move to the middle but must fight for its core belief system and motivate Democrats to get out and vote in November.  Sherman mostly stayed away from the conflicts between Allred and Gutierrez.  He simply made statements about being the best candidate to fight for social justice and focused on his background as a pastor.

While Allred has been leading in the polls released regarding this race, nearly 60% of likely Democratic primary voters claim to still be undecided.  That huge number leaves the door open for any of these three candidates to prevail in March.  However, with a field of 13 candidates in the Democratic primary, this race will likely go to a runoff.  Of note, both Allred and Gutierrez have polled in a statistical tie with Senator Cruz in a hypothetical November matchup, with still nearly 20% undecided in their choice for the general election.

After the debate, the AFL-CIO awarded their endorsement to Congressman Allred.

A new poll released Wednesday by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs shows Allred continuing to lead in the Democratic primary, but there are still a substantial number of undecided voters.  Allred led the field of Democrats as the choice of 40% of likely Democratic primary voters.  Gutierrez came in second with 12%.  The rest of the field all polled in single digits with still 40% undecided.  The poll also surveyed a potential one on one matchup between the two front runners, with Allred leading Gutierrez by a 46% to 26% margin, with 28% undecided.  In what is good news for Cruz, the UH poll showed the incumbent leading both potential challengers by a wider margin than earlier polls.  This poll showed Cruz leading Allred by a 48% to 39% margin and leading Gutierrez by a 48% to 38% margin.

House Chamber Closing for Renovations

For anyone coming to Austin and wanting to tour the Capitol, the House chamber will be off limits for the remainder of 2024.  The House Administration Committee informed members this week that the chamber will be closing on February 12th and will remain closed for the remainder of 2024.  The chamber will be getting a much-needed upgrade to their sound system, as well as upgrades to their live-stream system used for internet broadcasts of the House sessions.  Members will also have their desks refurbished and adjustments will be made to the light fixtures and systems in the chamber.  The House chamber has not had a full upgrade since 1994 when the entire Capitol was closed for a complete renovation.  The chamber will be ready for the start of the next regular session in 2025.

Political Notes

Gov. Abbott continued with endorsements against Republican House incumbents this week when he endorsed Alan Schoolcraft over Rep. John Kuempel of Seguin.  Kuempel – a target of Abbott for his opposition to education vouchers – has served in the House since 2010 representing Guadalupe and Gonzales counties.  Schoolcraft served in the Texas House from 1981 to 1992, and most recently served 17 years on the Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City school board in the fast growth area of far western Guadalupe County.  Kuempel currently serves as Chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.

There is a 3rd Republican in this primary race.  Greg Switzer of Selma is a retired Lt. Colonel, having served 31 years in the Marines.  He now practices law.  Switzer’s candidacy is being challenged by Kuempel, who claims Switzer is ineligible to run for office due to a felony conviction for impersonating a Department of Defense police officer.  Records show Switzer pleaded guilty to that offense.  Kuempel is also claiming that Switzer is lying about his military service, saying he can find no retired Marine Colonel by the name of Greg Switzer in official records.  Kuempel has asked the Republican Party of Texas to declare Switzer ineligible.

And more news on Abbott and the endorsements.  Incumbent Republican Drew Darby of San Angelo is facing a stiff primary challenge from Stormy Bradley, the owner of a steel manufacturing business in Big Spring and member of the Coahoma ISD school board.  Darby is a staunch opponent of vouchers, so Bradley has received Abbott’s endorsement.  However, in a now deleted page on Darby’s website, Darby claimed to have the endorsement of Abbott.  Abbott did endorse Darby in his 2022 primary election campaign.  But now, since Abbott has endorsed Bradley, Abbott this week sent a cease-and-desist letter to Darby to instruct him to no longer claim Abbott’s endorsement.  As mentioned, Darby has updated his endorsements page.  Bradley also has the endorsements of US Senator Ted Cruz and AG Ken Paxton.

Abbott sent a similar letter to incumbent Republican Rep. Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches.  Abbott has endorsed Clardy’s opponent, Joanne Shofner, since Clardy is opposed to education vouchers.  Clardy fought back, saying there is absolutely no mention of an Abbott endorsement anywhere on his campaign website or social media accounts.  Abbott also endorsed Clardy in 2022, but the Clardy campaign clarified that the current websites were updated for this cycle and contain no mention of Abbott.  The Abbott campaign did not respond to the allegations against Clardy and why there was a need for the cease-and-desist letter.

On the Democratic side, another challenger to a House incumbent is gaining significant endorsements for the primary election.  Lauren Ashley Simmons of Houston is a union organizer and education activist challenging incumbent Shawn Thierry in the Democratic primary.  Thierry has been the target of Democrats for her vote against a bill outlawing gender affirming care for transgender youth and for her support of a bill banning certain books in public libraries.  Simmons this week announced several high-profile endorsements including AFL-CIO, Houston Federation of Teachers, Houston LGBTQ political caucus, three incumbent Democratic House members, and two Houston City Council members.  The district is solidly Democratic and comprises areas of south and western Harris County.

And finally, the latest Rasmussen Reports polling shows former President Trump with a huge lead nationally over former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, his last remaining rival in the Republican primary.  Their poll released yesterday showed Trump was the favorite of 56% of likely Republican primary voters nationally, comparted to 23% for Haley.  11% named another candidate while only 10% remain undecided.

What’s Next??

House committee chairs submitted ideas for interim studies in early January, so the House committees could be getting their charges soon.  Senators have until February 15th to submit ideas for interim studies.

With the primaries now just a month away, fundraising by members and candidates is in full swing and will continue up to the March 5th primary date.

The deadline to register to vote is this Monday, February 5th.  Early voting starts February 20th.  The primary election is March 5th.