It’s not just Congress: Statehouse Republicans battle each other

The issues GOP leaders have faced on Capitol Hill are rippling beyond the Beltway.
Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R), during session at the state capitol in Austin on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The Republican Speaker of the House has come under fire from conservative bomb throwers who want to oust him from power, and the most popular Republican in the area hasn’t lifted a finger to help.

Six months ago, that scenario applied to then-U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who became the first speaker in American history to be booted from office by his own troops, with barely a word from former President Donald Trump.

Today, it applies to Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R), who faces a runoff election against a conservative challenger funded in part by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R). Rather than assist an ally, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has funded primary challenges to other House Republicans who opposed his vision for school choice legislation. The Texas Republican Party in February censured Phelan for his role in impeaching Attorney General Ken Paxton (R).

Phelan is not in a unique position. In statehouses across the nation, Republicans are fighting amongst each other for power and supremacy in the midst of an evolution from a party in the mold of Ronald Reagan to a party fashioned after Trump.

As with Phelan and Patrick in Texas, the leaders of Ohio’s House and Senate are at each other’s throats in an increasingly public fight for control.

House Speaker Jason Stephens (R) won the gavel last year, after he cut a deal with House Democrats to join a minority of Republicans backing him over more conservative Rep. Derek Merrin (R). House Republicans, the majority of whom backed Merrin, voted this week to strip Stephens of control of the party’s campaign account.

Stephens’s real nemesis is Senate President Matt Huffman (R). Facing term limits in his Senate career, Huffman is running for a seat in the lower chamber — and is openly campaigning to replace Stephens. Huffman helped fund primary challenges to four Stephens backers who lost their seats in the March primary elections.

“There’s a lot of head scratching as people look around,” Stephens told the Cleveland Plain Dealer this week. “I think everybody gets the joke that it’s ridiculous that, you know, the Senate president is running for the speaker of the House.”

Wisconsin House Speaker Robin Vos (R) has faced two recall campaigns fueled by Michael Gableman, the former state Supreme Court justice Vos himself hired to review the results of the 2020 elections, which President Biden won.

Having found no evidence to support Trump’s fake claims of election irregularities, Gableman turned on Vos. Vos survived the first recall, and a second attempt fell short of the signatures it needed to qualify for the ballot.

In Missouri, House Speaker Dean Plocher (R) narrowly escaped reprimand from the House Ethics Committee over allegations of ethical misconduct. A report produced by the committee acknowledged a lack of direct evidence of misconduct in the case of a contract awarded to a software firm.

But committee leaders said Plocher refused to cooperate and that other witnesses were too intimidated to speak to the committee. One employee testified to the toxic work environment in Plocher’s office. Reps. Hannah Kelly (R) and Robert Sauls (D), who head the ethics panel, said the report demonstrated “absolute obstruction” of their investigation.

The Missouri Senate has been riven by internal strife this year, too, after President Pro Tem Caleb Rowden (R) stripped four conservative members of the Freedom Caucus of their committee seats, and even their prime parking spots.

In February, Idaho House Republicans took the unusual step of ousting Majority Leader Megan Blanksma (R) from her post. In Connecticut, Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly (R) stepped down in February after he said he recognized he no longer had support from his own caucus. Colorado Republicans deposed Minority Leader Mike Lynch (R) in January, after his 2022 arrest for driving under the influence came to light.

Some of the Republican-on-Republican violence — like that in Ohio — is an old-fashioned political power struggle. Plocher’s plight in Missouri and Lynch’s in Colorado is the result of bad behavior, nothing unique in the world of politics.

But in Texas, Wisconsin, Idaho, Connecticut and the Missouri Senate, there is evidence of a Republican Party in the midst of an historic evolution, away from the shining city on a hill that Reagan promised and toward the bare-knuckle style that Trump makes his hallmark.

John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College and a former top researcher at the Republican National Committee during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years, said the evolution is less about ideology than style.

“In the Republican Party, perhaps the biggest and most consistent source of factionalism is the conflict between the practicals and the purists,” he wrote in an email, citing James Madison’s warning against the rise of factions. “Their basic issue positions might be similar, but their approach to politics is very different.”

“The practicals are willing to compromise and are happy with incremental improvements. The purists want all or nothing,” he said. “The practicals work out differences in committee rooms. The purists wage war on TV and social media.”

Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, said the angst represents a natural tension between an older generation of Republicans who grew up with Reagan and a younger, or newer, coalition of Republicans who see Trump as a lodestar.

“I see this as growing pains of a party that has become more blue collar, more working class, more traditional and also more populist and culturally conservative,” Anuzis said. “Some [state legislators are] trying to survive and be a party in waiting. Others are truing to institutionalize a MAGA-type populist party.”

Most of the intraparty feuds are taking place in states where Republicans have little need to fight Democrats. Democrats remain a substantial minority in Wisconsin, Idaho, Texas and Missouri, while Republicans are in such deep minorities in Connecticut and Colorado that their influence is insubstantial.

And while McCarthy — and now House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) — faced the headaches of an unruly conference where arch conservatives hold disproportionate sway, the intimacy of a state House or Senate, with just a fraction of the membership of Congress, can exacerbate any feuds that might naturally form.

“Because politics is local, it is also personal,” Anuzis said. “In an era where attack politics is the norm, developing long term relationships, looking for compromise and understanding these kinds of things come and go becomes very difficult.”