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

State Leaders Haul in Huge Contributions

Campaign season is in full swing for the March primaries for all members of the Texas Legislature.  Statewide officials such as the Governor and Lt. Governor are in the middle of their four-year terms, so they are not up for reelection in 2024.  But that hasn’t stopped them from raking in millions of dollars in campaign contributions.

Gov. Abbott reported raising $19 million in the most recent campaign finance reporting period which went from July 1st to December 31st of 2023.  Included in the $19 million is a $6 million donation from a Pennsylvania billionaire that is a leading national advocate for education voucher legislation throughout the country.  Education vouchers were the subject of the last 2 special sessions in the fall when lawmakers failed twice to pass legislation authorizing a voucher program.  In a news release announcing the campaign figures, the Abbott campaign claims the $6 million contribution is the largest in the history of the state.  There are no limits on campaign contributions for state level office holders and candidates.

Lt. Governor Dan Patrick announced he raised $3 million in the last half of 2023 and now has $24 million cash on hand.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan raised just over $2.5 million in the same time frame, and reports having $5.3 million cash on hand.  Phelan – elected as House Speaker by his House colleagues but elected from a single House district – faces two Republican primary opponents.  Both of whom are attacking Phelan for the House impeachment process of AG Ken Paxton.   Paxton has personally campaigned in the Speaker’s district in support of David Covey, one of the challengers to Phelan who served as the Orange County Republican Party Chairman.

Border News

The US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that the state of Texas can keep the buoy barriers in place in the Rio Grande River at least through May when another hearing has been scheduled on the issue.  A three-judge panel of the Court initially ruled in December that the state had to remove the barriers, but the state requested a rehearing of the case, which was granted by the full court this week.  In September, a federal district judge ruled the state had to remove the barriers because the state did not get approval from the federal government to place the barriers in navigable waters under their control.  Now, after the back and forth, the full court ruled the state can keep the buoys in place until the court makes a final decision on the issue.  The 1,000-foot string of buoys has been placed in the river along a popular crossing near Eagle Pass and is being used as a deterrent to address the surge in border crossings.

After the state assumed control of Shelby Park in Eagle Pass last week, the federal government has accused the state of denying border patrol agents access to the park and to the Rio Grande River near the park.  The Department of Homeland Security wrote a cease-and-desist letter to AG Ken Paxton earlier this week and warned of severe consequences from the Department of Justice if the state does not stop blocking the entrance to the park.  In response, AG Ken Paxton defended the state takeover of the park saying the state had every right to defend its territory.  Paxton said the state will admit federal agents only when responding to a medical emergency.  Texas officials have placed a gate at the park’s entrance and at the boat ramp and have control over entry and exit to the park, which is adjacent to the Rio Grande River and has been a popular landing spot for migrants seeking illegal entry into the US.  The Biden administration has asked the US Supreme Court to intervene and force the state to open the park to federal officials.

Court Blocks Texas Book Rating Law

A law passed during the regular session in 2023 required bookstores to rate books for sexual content and prohibited any books deemed “sexually explicit” from being placed in public schools.  National publishing groups and bookstores have sued to stop the state from enforcing the law saying the new law violates freedom of speech.  A three-judge panel from the same US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the publishers and bookstore owners, saying the law is an infringement on free speech.  Furthermore, the court said that the new law would place “irreparable” financial harm on bookstores and publishers and would lead to the possibility of stores going out of business. The legislation was a priority of Republican leadership this session, saying the law was necessary to rid public school libraries of inappropriate sexual materials.  The ruling is a temporary injunction and is in effect until the full court can hear arguments on and rule on the case.

Paxton Loses Appeal

In a ruling last Friday, embattled Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton lost his challenge to a lower court order requiring Paxton and three of his aides to testify in a lawsuit brought forth by former AG agency employees.  The suit was filed in 2020 by several former employees that claim they were fired for taking information regarding Paxton’s abuse of power at the agency to the FBI.  After a state appeals court ruled that Paxton and his aides must provide depositions, Paxton appealed the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.  On Monday, the state’s high court sustained the appeals court ruling and said Paxton must provide depositions relative to this case.

And now, Paxton is seeking to put an end to the long-running case against him and avoid sitting for depositions.  Paxton announced yesterday that he was basically folding and would not contest the facts of the case and would accept any judgement issued in the case.  This will enable the trial court judge to enter a final judgement in the case and put an end to the litigation.  With this declaration, Paxton must accept any of the conditions set forth in the ruling.

Electric Grid Holds Up in Winter Weather

The state’s power grid emerged from the season’s first hard freeze largely unscathed.  ERCOT – the grid operator – had predicted 1 in 6 odds of rolling outages in the freezing temperatures, but a healthy surplus of supply helped avoid any outages or emergencies.  ERCOT did ask for voluntarily conservation in the morning hours of Monday and Tuesday when the temperatures were below freezing in most areas of the state.  The agency credits residential and business customers with their conservation measures, and predicted demand fell short of the initial forecasts.  Grid capacity reached 96,000 megawatts on Monday night – one megawatt can power 200 homes – but the peak demand on Tuesday morning was 78,000 megawatts.  The agency also credits grid improvements such as more stringent requirements for providers to winterize their plants, along with added supply from wind and solar as reasons for a more stable and reliable grid.

Political Notes

May 4th has been set as the special election date to fill the unexpired term of state Senator John Whitmire, who was elected mayor of Houston in November.  The current Senate term does not end until the end of 2024, so the special election must be held to fill the remainder of the term.  Also, the election for a full four-year term to the Senate seat will be held this year as well, with the winner of the March primary and subsequent November general election taking office in January of 2025 for the full four-year term.

The seat – which contains areas of central and suburban Houston – is safely Democratic and has several candidates that have filed for the term to begin in 2025.  State Rep. Jarvis Johnson, ER nurse Molly Cook, energy consultant Karthik Soora, attorney Beto Cardenas, attorney/mediator Todd Litton, social philanthropist Michelle Bonton, and real estate agent Joseph Trahan are all candidates in the 2024 election. Trahan is the lone Republican in the race.  If history is any indicator, all of the candidates will file for the special election, and then those performing poorly in the March 5th primary will drop out of the May special election.

After former President Donald Trump’s convincing victory in this week’s Iowa Caucuses, Texas Senator Ted Cruz endorsed Trump in his bid to win the Republican Presidential nomination and retake the White House.  In the announcement, Cruz said he believes the race for the Republican nominee is over, and it is time for all Republicans to unite behind Trump.  Cruz was Trump’s opponent in the 2016 Republican Presidential contest, eventually finishing second in what was a very nasty race between the two.  Cruz however made amends with Trump, and they have been allied on most issues over the last three years while Biden has been President.

US Rep. Colin Allred – one of the Democrats looking to unseat Cruz – raised $4.8 million during the last quarter of 2023, and now has $10 million cash on hand.  This surpasses the $4.7 million he raised during the third quarter of 2023.  State Senator Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio and state Rep. Carl Sherman of Dallas are also in the Democratic primary.  With the huge financial lead, Allred is largely ignoring his Democratic opponents and focuses mainly on Cruz.  It remains to be seen if his nomination is secure.

For his part, Cruz announced he had raised $5.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2023, including money from political action committees related to Cruz’s reelection.  Allred’s numbers include only direct donations to the Congressman.  Direct donations to Cruz totaled $3.1 million in the last quarter of 2023.

Lt Governor Dan Patrick has made his first endorsement in a state House race.  Patrick has endorsed Helen Kerwin against incumbent Republican DeWayne Burns of Cleburne.  Burns voted against the education voucher program during the special sessions and also voted to impeach AG Ken Paxton.  Kerwin previously served as mayor of Glenn Rose and has also been endorsed by Gov. Abbott.  Her daughter Brooke served as a policy advisor to President Trump during Trump’s first term as President.

Harris County Republicans and Democrats have agreed to hold joint primaries during the upcoming March election after years of the parties conducting separate primaries.  Local officials are supportive of the joint primary and predict a much smoother election day process, and will ensure the county has enough workers, machines, and infrastructure to properly conduct the election.

What’s Next??

House committee chairs submitted ideas for interim studies last week, so the House committees could be getting their charges soon.  The Lt. Governor has asked committee chairs in the Senate to submit their interim study ideas by February 15th.

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