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Matt Rinaldi
Texas GOP Chair Matt Rinaldi told NOTUS the state party became “extremely relevant” during his tenure.
Eric Gay/AP

The Texas GOP RINO Hunts — Will It Stop?

The Texas Republican Party will soon pick a new chair, and some local officials hope it will end the infighting. But the current chair makes no apologies.

Matt Rinaldi has wielded the Republican Party of Texas like a weapon — and not even the congressional delegation is safe.

He did it on purpose, and he has no qualms about it. When he took over as chair in 2021, he had a vision for the party and knew how to get it there.

“I saw the party as being able to be something more, and that’s to actually have a seat at the table,” Rinaldi told NOTUS. “By adopting legislative priorities, and by actually putting money and effort behind passing those legislative priorities, we saw the party over my three-year term become relevant in Texas politics. Extremely relevant.”

But Rinaldi is stepping down this year and will be replaced in an election at the state convention in May. The new chair could ultimately play a huge role in shaping the party’s involvement in races at every level, from the statehouse to Congress, depending on how they decide to wield the influence Rinaldi built.

Rinaldi’s supporters say the party has expanded its role in ensuring Republicans achieve policy goals. But his critics feel the combative relationship the party now has with some incumbents imperils vulnerable seats, and money spent targeting other Republicans is only helping Democrats.

“I feel that the party has imploded on itself. They’ve lost their way completely, and I fear that it’s going to give the Democrats the opening they need to win,” said David Luther, who is party chair for Waller County and president of the Texas Republican County Chairmens’ Association.

One piece of evidence is Rinaldi’s own political failure in 2018, according to people unhappy with his leadership. He lost his state Legislature seat to a Democrat in 2018. Beth Cubriel, a former executive director for the party, said Rinaldi’s mistakes in his own elections are now being played out in a larger arena.

“I think we’re gonna lose seats in November to challengers who beat a conservative incumbent in the primary, just like how Matt lost his race in the general election,” Cubriel said. “Even though a member is the most conservative member that could get elected in that district, they’d rather have a liberal Democrat in that seat than a 90% Republican by their standard if they can’t get a 100% Republican by their standard.”

She says that while Rinaldi’s vision is in line with many of the über-conservatives involved in the party, it doesn’t match the wider array of Republican voters in the state.

“You can’t only have Republican representatives who represent the 4,000 people who go to the state convention,” Cubriel said. “They have to represent their districts, or else they’re going to be unseated, as Matt Rinaldi was unseated.”

Rinaldi is aware that his tenure has been controversial.

“Obviously, there can be a lot of pushback whenever you change the way things are done in a significant way,” he said. “And there was.”

Dade Phelan
State House Speaker Dade Phelan was formally censured by the Texas GOP. Eric Gay/AP

The most contentious of his choices has been to send out information that targets fellow Republicans. He said that the party only sponsors content against incumbents if they’ve been formally censured by the party, including Dade Phelan, the state speaker of the House, and Rep. Tony Gonzales.

That tactic led to messy, public contradictions among conservatives. For example, the party has sent out mailers supporting Gonzales’ primary challenger, but Gonzales recently won endorsements from Gov. Greg Abbott and Speaker Mike Johnson.

Rinaldi was unapologetic about what he viewed as enforcing standards.

“We need to hold our elected officials accountable. They’re getting elected by using our name. Some responsibilities come with that,” he said. He added that moderates still have a place in the party “as long as they stand true to the principle that our party stands for.”

Some Republicans who have not been censured have been on the receiving end of mailers from the state party as well. Rinaldi framed the content as informational for those who aren’t working to pass Republican priorities; his critics have said it’s meant to punish Republicans who didn’t fall in line.

“When we do inform voters during the legislative session, we’re informing them on issues where we perceive that there is such a large deviation from the party platform that they are no longer acting as the Republican anymore,” he said.

The party’s efforts to unseat Republicans who have been sanctioned have at times coincided with revenge campaigns led by Abbott over his school choice agenda and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is targeting those who supported the impeachment effort against him. It has made this election cycle a close mirror to the Republican-on-Republican violence seen in D.C.

There are several candidates running who say they would like to change the party back to what it was. They say the party needs to start spending more time doing get-out-the-vote and expanding its base. There is also Abraham George, who is the Rinaldi-backed candidate.

George and Rinaldi described the old version of the party as a “cheerleader” for elected officials when it should be both a support and enforcement organization.

“A lot of the others, they just want to make sure that we get the Republicans elected. I think that’s just one of the jobs, not the job only,” George said. “Our victory is really not electing just Republicans, it’s actually getting Republican priorities done.”

The fight between Rinaldi-backed challengers and incumbents is still ongoing, but it’s clear both sides of the fight understand that the influence of the party is a major issue in the elections to come and could have a huge impact, even at a national level.

For Rinaldi, the job is done.

“I had come in ready to serve three years and wanted to accomplish two things. One: to win elections … and two: to make the party more influential than ever before,” he said. “I accomplished both those things.”

Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.