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Gov. Greg Abbott appears with embattled House Speaker Dade Phelan for first time in heated primary season

Newly-elected House Speaker Dade Phelan greets Gov. Greg Abbott before speaking to the Texas House during opening ceremonies as the 2021 Texas Legislature gets down to work in Austin on Jan. 12, 2021.
House Speaker Dade Phelan greets Gov. Greg Abbott before speaking to the Texas House during opening ceremonies as the 2021 Texas Legislature gets down to work in Austin on Jan. 12, 2021. Credit: Bob Daemmrich/CapitolPressPhoto/Pool

Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan appeared together Tuesday at a public event for the first time since the beginning of the heated primary election cycle where Phelan has been targeted by a powerful group of Republicans who have managed to push him into a primary runoff.

The pair sat beside each other at a brief event in Dallas to announce a consortium to support Texas’ semiconductor industry in Dallas, joined by fellow House Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, a member of Phelan’s leadership team.

The remarks included no mention of Phelan’s precarious situation, and the politicians took no questions, but the governor’s willingness to invite the speaker to be alongside him may signal his tacit support. A University of Houston poll in February of conservative voters showed Phelan was by far the least popular Texas Republican, while Abbott was the most liked.

The timing of the invitation is notable because Phelan is fighting for his political life — after coming in second in the March 5 primary to his challenger David Covey. Since neither of them secured a majority of votes, there will be a runoff for the Beaumont-area District 21. The third-place finisher, Alicia Davis, has since endorsed Covey.

Abbott has so far been silent on his race, even as he endorsed the opponents of 10 House Republicans who last year helped sink his school voucher plan, one of the governor’s top legislative priorities which he largely refused to compromise on. Phelan did not take a public position on the bill at the time but told The Texas Tribune in January he would have preferred some version of it to pass.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has frequently clashed with Phelan and urged him to resign, was unable to attend the event at the University of Texas at Dallas. Speaking with reporters afterward, Phelan criticized the Senate leader for meddling in his race when statewide leaders of the same party have typically refrained from doing so.

“The Big 3, typically we stay out of each other’s races,” Phelan said, referring to the nickname for the governor, lieutenant governor and House speaker. “The lieutenant governor decided not to follow that tradition. He crossed that Rubicon and that’s his issue going forward.”

Patrick, along with other Republican leaders including former President Donald Trump, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Texas Republican Party Chairman Matt Rinaldi, have endorsed Covey while actively campaigning and attacking Phelan in ads and during campaign events. Phelan and fellow House members have come under withering criticism from Republicans for impeaching Paxton last year on charges of bribery and corruption.

No House speaker has lost a primary since Rayford Price in 1972. Typically, the candidates that win primary runoffs in Texas are those who secured the most votes in the first round.

Of the 10 members Abbott targeted, five lost outright, three face runoffs and two survived.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The primary runoffs are May 28.

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