Dade Phelan’s critics blame Democrats for his GOP primary win. Here’s what the data says

By Taylor Goldenstein, Austin Bureau–originally run in The Houston Chronicle

June 5, 2024

Speaker of the House and presumptive run-off winner in the District 21 Representative race Dade Phelan is celebrated by supporters at his election party at JW’s Patio on Tuesday, May 28, 2024.


Hardline conservatives are seizing on House Speaker Dade Phelan’s razor-thin victory in last week’s runoff as support for their growing effort to close the GOP primaries, contending that Democrats are turning out to sway results.

Phelan’s right-wing challenger David Covey said “at least 1,442 Democrats” voted early in Jefferson County — more than enough to swing the election to Phelan, who won by 366 votes, according to unofficial election results.

“It’s clear that Phelan understood his only path to reelection was through the support of Democrats in his district,” Covey said in a statement the night of the election.

He added that Republicans could have unseated every moderate House incumbent if the GOP had done away with its open primary system, which does not require voters to register with a party, allowing them the choice of either party’s primary year to year. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton echoed the sentiment, saying Phelan “knew he couldn’t win on his own merit.”

Closing the primaries is a growing priority for activists and hard-right party leaders, who called for such a measure at their biennial convention a week before the runoffs. It came after voters in the GOP primary in March overwhelmingly supported a ballot proposition recommending the same.

Supporters of closing the primaries say it’s necessary to guard against moderate candidates. Experts say that’s exactly what they’ll get with that kind of system.

“It would make the voters in the Democratic primary more consistently liberal and those in the Republican primary more consistently conservative, and the candidates would have to respond in kind to that,” said James Nelson, an associate professor of political science at Lamar University in Beaumont.

Asked about his critics’ claims at his victory party, Phelan told reporters: “I don’t know what he’s talking about. People vote in elections, it’s a democracy, and they decided to elect me.”

Covey’s claim about his race was at least partly accurate. About 6%, or 1,473, of all votes cast in the District 21 election were by people who had most recently voted in at least one Democratic primary out of the last four, according to Derek Ryan, a GOP strategist who analyzes election data.

That was higher than all other contested statehouse runoffs in which the average crossover was about 3.2%, Ryan said. But it was “not alarmingly above what I saw in some of the other statehouse races,” Ryan said.

And, he noted, just because someone votes in a Democratic primary, that does not mean they are a Democrat, and vice-versa for Republicans.

A voter could have wanted to sway the results, or they could have genuinely switched their affiliation. Or they may be in a heavily Republican district and felt like they’d have more of an impact by voting across the aisle. In Phelan’s heavily Republican district, for example, there is no Democrat running in the November election.

It’s also impossible to know who those crossover voters selected on the ballot.

Of the crossover voters in District 21, 42% had voted in just one of the last four Democratic primaries, 25% had voted in two of the last four, 19% in three of the last four and 14% had voted in all four, Ryan’s analysis showed.

Jefferson County, which includes just over a quarter of the district, has shifted from being reliably Democratic to more purple over the last couple decades, according to Nelson, who noted that former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump each won the county twice.

Statewide, the amount of Republican primary voters whose latest primary vote was in a Democratic primary has remained roughly the same over the last four cycles, Ryan said, hovering between about 2% and 5%.

‘That’s not what democracy is’

In Texas and many other states, primaries are increasingly becoming more consequential than general elections as political maps are redrawn to reduce competition and retain party dominance. And with Texas’ primaries coming so early in the year, turnout tends to skew toward party loyalists over moderates and independents.

Most states have at least some degree of open primary. Texas is one of 15 with fully open primaries, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Some others allow voters to cross party lines as a form of registering or open their primaries to unaffiliated voters. Just 10 states have fully closed primaries.

It’s uncommon for states to change their primary systems, and the dozen that have since 2000 were mostly moving to make them more open, NCSL research found. In recent years, though, a handful of Republican states have strapped down their primaries in some way.

Critics like Jeremy Gruber, senior vice president of Open Primaries, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, say closing primaries is antithetical to their original purpose.

In the early 20th century, political parties primarily used caucuses or conventions to select candidates. But states slowly began moving toward primaries after Americans grew tired of party bosses making backroom deals and wanted more say, Gruber said.

“The irony, of course, is that the parties claim the primaries are theirs, that they’re ‘their’ nominating contests,” he said. “But primaries were created because of the corruption of the party leadership in the first place.”

The makeup of the electorate has changed significantly in recent decades, and independents are now the largest and fastest-growing group of voters in the country, Gruber said.

If the Coveys of the world have their way, Gruber said, independents would be disenfranchised, politicians would be pulled to the extremes and turnout would decrease.

“That’s not what democracy is,” he said. “You should be able to vote for who you want in every election. That’s what democracy is. And that’s what open primaries are.”

The rule passed by the Texas GOP last month essentially allows anyone who has voted in a Republican primary or runoff in the last two years, or who files a certificate of affiliation, to register with the party and vote in its primary. Anyone who has voted in a Democratic primary or affiliated with the Democratic Party in the last year would be barred from registering for that election cycle.

Jim Pikl, vice chair of the Texas GOP executive committee’s rules committee, who authored the party plank on closed primaries, explained the proposal to members last month with an analogy.

“You ever notice how no coaches let the other teams coach pick their starting quarterback? It never happens,” Pikl said. “Why should the Democrats be allowed to select our team?”

Pikl didn’t see polarization as a drawback but rather a benefit of closed primaries. It “purifies the candidates and enhances the issues,” he said.

“Between you and me, I want to see less purple,” he said. “I want to see more red and blue. Because I think that if the citizens see more red and blue, they’ll flock to the red.”

The Secretary of State’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the logistics of moving to a closed primary in Texas.

The Texas Legislature would need to change the state election code and set procedure for a closed primary; current state law allows any registered voter to affiliate with a party by voting in its primary.

Pikl said he expects that the Legislature would move to change the law after seeing that the party passed its own rule. If not, he said the party could sue to try and strike down the election code as unconstitutional for violating Texans’ right to freedom of association.

June 5, 2024

Taylor Goldenstein


Taylor Goldenstein is a state bureau reporter covering the Attorney General and federal courts among other topics. She can be reached at She’s previously written for the Austin-American Statesman, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Tampa Bay Times. She hails from the suburbs of Chicago and earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2014, she was a visiting fellow at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.

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