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David Covey forces runoff with Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, who led AG Ken Paxton's impeachment

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan headed to a primary runoff against challenger David Covey, bruising one of the state’s most powerful figures and emboldening state Attorney General Ken Paxton in his revenge campaign to
FILE - Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan presides over the House at the Capitol in Austin, Texas, on May 23, 2023. The Texas attorney general who survived a historic impeachment trial last year made a Super Tuesday primary a bitter Republican-on-Republican brawl, targeting the House speaker and dozens of other lawmakers who had sought his ouster. (Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP, file)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republican Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan headed to a primary runoff against challenger David Covey, bruising one of the state’s most powerful figures and emboldening state Attorney General Ken Paxton in his revenge campaign to oust GOP incumbent lawmakers who sought his impeachment.

Phelan advanced to a May 28 contest with Covey, an oil and gas consultant and party activist endorsed by Paxton and former President Donald Trump. Neither candidate could win a majority for outright victory in Tuesday's race that included retired hairdresser Alicia Davis.

“Let this runoff be a rallying cry for all conservatives across Texas,” Paxton said. "The battle lines are drawn, and our resolve has never been stronger."

Paxton was acquitted of corruption and abuse of office allegations in a historic Texas Senate trial in 2023. But he blamed Phelan for leading that effort and mounted a political revenge campaign to oust the House leader and others who supported the unsuccessful attempt to drive him from office.

Paxton's campaign to defeat rivals in his own party was a test of his own clout and that of his biggest backer, Trump. Paxton, who won a third term in 2022, was not on the Super Tuesday ballot. Yet his attempt to overthrow the House leadership was being widely watched as an attempt to push an already conservative chamber further to the right.

Paxton's overall success is yet to be determined. Paxton-endorsed challengers in more than 30 House races and his candidates had ousted at least five House members and forced at least five more into runoffs. Yet several of Phelan's House leadership team fended off challenges.

The runoff, nonetheless, struck is a heavy blow to Phelan, who through two terms led the Republican-majority House as it passed some of the toughest abortion restrictions in the nation, supported Gov. Greg Abbott’s nationally watched anti-immigration policies and ended diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in public higher education.

But that wasn’t enough for some state Republicans. The state party censured Phelan last month for his vote to impeach Paxton, accusing him of a “lack of fidelity to Republican principles and priorities.”

After Paxton narrowly survived allegations of corruption and abuse of office, the attorney general quickly pivoted to fierce, bare-knuckle campaign attacks on dozens of Republican lawmakers.

Phelan fought back in blunt and often personal terms against Paxton, with campaign ads reminding voters of the corruption and abuse of office allegations that gave rise to the impeachment trial. Additional spots reminded voters of a Paxton extramarital affair.

“The barrage aimed at our campaign over the past year was meant to be my undoing, and yet here I am, emerging from the most contentious and expensive primary in state history still fighting and more determined than ever,” Phelan said.

Besides drawing support for his endorsed candidates from Trump, Paxton’s intensive and broad campaign of political revenge also prompted third-party groups to pour in millions of dollars of donations into the campaign.

“Today’s election results have revealed that the battle for the soul of Texas is far from over,” Paxton said.

Paxton still faces ongoing legal issues. He is scheduled for trial in April on felony securities fraud charges that could land him in prison for 90 years if convicted. He also is facing an ongoing federal probe involving some of the same allegations raised in his impeachment.

Paxton wasn't the only Republican attacking fellow Republicans in Tuesday's primaries. Abbott targeted nearly two dozen incumbents who helped defeat his plan to spend tax money on private schools, putting some lawmakers in the crosshairs of both men as targets for removal.

Paxton also mounted a campaign to oust three female judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals. They were part of an 8-1 majority that stripped Paxton of the power to prosecute voter fraud without permission from local prosecutors. Paxton accused them of being “activist” judges after the court majority ruled the law had been a violation of the state Constitution’s separation of powers.

Judge Barbara Hervey, who was first elected in 2001, was defeated by attorney Gina Parker. Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, who was elected in 1994, was defeated by attorney and former appeals court judge David Schenck.

Also in Paxton's sights was Judge Michelle Slaughter, who was elected in 2018.

“The Court follows the law, period,” Slaughter responded to the attacks in a pre-election post on X, formerly known as Twitter. “We cannot and will not be partisan political activists.

Jim Vertuno, The Associated Press