The vote went quickly without a hitch and the incumbent was reelected House Speaker amid near-total bipartisan consensus and hand-shake pledges to work together in the legislative session to follow.
The 145–3 tally to reinstall Rep. Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) to a second term as speaker—the most powerful position in the Texas House—on Jan. 10 was surely a sign that, while Lone Star state lawmakers have differences and divisions, they discard them to get things done.
This is Austin, they said, not Washington. There would be no disturbances here like the discord millions witnessed on live TV on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives days’ before.
There would be no weeklong, 15-vote hullabaloo among Texas Republicans just to appoint one of their own as speaker. And outnumbered Democrats would go along unanimously with the procedural slam-dunk because they know what’s good for them.
The cohesion, collaboration, cooperative spirit was good news in the capital city. It represented everything that is right about the nation’s second-largest state in both size and population with a legislature so cohesive, so collaborative, so cooperative, it need only meet every other year.
It also represented all that is wrong in Texas, and in State Houses across the country, according to organizers of a nascent network of conservative lawmakers unhappy with the order of things in legislatures, regardless which party is in control.
“There are no Republicans” in state capitals, not really, said State Freedom Caucus Network (SFCN) President Andrew Roth. “There are 50 state legislatures and 50 swamps.”
Speaking with Glenn Beck on his Jan. 11 radio show, Roth said Texas is no different, despite being an allegedly deep red state dominated by Republicans who tout conservative credentials while campaigning, but become part of “the uni-party, the ‘establishment’ cartel” when they convene.
For example, he said, GOP lawmakers hold an 86–64 advantage in the chamber but approved a House rules package that allows Phelan to appoint Democrats as committee chairs—a relatively unique Texas tradition.
“All the Democrats came aboard and supported this Republican to be speaker. Ask yourself, ‘Why?’” Roth said, noting that Phelan named Democrats to lead 14 of the House’s 39 committees in 2021, including Rep. Harold Dutton, Jr., (D-Houston) as House Public Education Committee chair.
“We wonder why Texas doesn’t have school choice. It’s because a Democrat runs” the legislature’s most important education panel, he said. “[Phelan] is going to give Democrats committee chairs again.”
Conservatives get elected to change the order of things but, ultimately, as part-time lawmakers, they are no match for the entrenched bureaucracies that run “woke-ified agencies,” special interests, and full-time lobbyists with offices that ring state capital complexes, Roth said.
When meeting in fast-paced legislative sessions, “They don’t have the time to read the bills being jammed down their throats,” he said. “They have no staff, no help. We wonder why we are losing to the ‘establishment.’”
Outmanned—even within their own party—and outmaneuvered by “deep states” within state capitals, Roth said the SFCN was created to support conservative lawmakers and disrupt the order of things that have dominated legislatures for decades.
Creating a Cross-State Conservative Caucus
Fashioned after the 30-plus member U.S. House Freedom Caucus established in 2015, the SFCN was founded in December 2021 in Atlanta with the creation of the Georgia State Freedom Caucus.
The 501(c) (4) entity is supported by the Washington-based Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), which provides state caucuses financial assistance—including paying state director salaries—training, networking events, and policy development through its State Freedom Caucus Foundation.
Lawmakers from Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming attended the Atlanta event. It was headlined by former South Carolina U.S. Senator and Heritage Foundation president, Jim DeMint, who founded the CPI and is its president, and former North Carolina U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, who served as one of former President Donald Trump’s White House chiefs of staff.
Roth, a former Club for Growth executive director who spent 20 years on Capitol Hill as a Republican strategist, coordinates SFCN activities with former U.S. House Freedom Caucus Executive Director Justin Ouimette.
After the seminal Georgia caucus was created, conservative lawmakers in Arizona, Illinois, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and South Dakota formed affiliated caucuses.
During their first legislative sessions, the state freedom caucuses registered significant victories, amending a Georgia mental health bill that would have allowed a clinic to perform transgender surgeries on minors, and killing a Mississippi bill that would have created an agency with the capacity to levy taxes and seize property through eminent domain.
Their successes did not go unnoticed by Congressional conservatives. U.S. House Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) said in a January statement to Fox Digital that the network “has empowered state-level conservatives to fight against local issues that directly affect their daily lives.”
The SFCN is “critical in providing conservatives the resources to challenge the status quo, hold the ‘establishment’ accountable, and serve as the conservative conscience in State Houses across the country,” Perry said. “I look forward to continuing our efforts at the state and federal level to promote liberty, safety, and prosperity for the American people.”
Growth and Resistance From Within
In January, conservative lawmakers in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho formed freedom caucuses, boosting the network to 10 member states.
In announcing the creation of the Montana State Freedom Caucus, chair Sen. Theresa Manzella (R-Hamilton) said in a Facebook post that its 14 members will focus on school choice, medical freedom, judicial reform, election integrity, redistricting, and restricting the capacity to amend the state’s constitution.
“The men and women of the Montana Freedom Caucus are built out of conservative steel,” Roth said in an accompanying press release. “We’re delighted to work with them to help expand freedom and limit the size of government in the Treasure State.”
The Wyoming State Freedom Caucus is a new iteration of the Wyoming House Freedom Caucus, “but now better resourced,” chair Rep. John Bear (R-Gillette) said in a statement.
“The Wyoming Freedom Caucus exists as a reflection of the God-fearing, self-sufficient, liberty loving people across our state,” Bear said. “Numerically, Republicans have a supermajority in Wyoming, but if you examine legislative output, it doesn’t look that way at all.”
Roth said on the Glenn Beck Show that there are now 10 state freedom caucuses “and it is growing” with “more than 100 state lawmakers” signed on. SFCN hopes to establish freedom caucuses in another 10-to-15 states in 2023.
But there is resistance to the conservative network within the GOP in states where Republicans rule, including in Texas, Utah, Alabama, and Tennessee, Roth said.
After meeting with Alabama Republicans, “We can say with no uncertain terms, that there are no conservatives in that legislature.”
Roth said many alleged conservatives in Alabama play a shell game with voters, citing a 2022 bill that allows local governments to raise taxes that “passed in, like, a 6-0 vote. All of them (Republicans) ducked the vote. They do not want to be seen as raising taxes.”
That seems to be a long-established pattern in Alabama, he said. “Looking at voting rolls, the average Alabama House member ducks 70 percent of the votes. One Alabama senator hasn’t voted in three years,” he said. “It is absolutely corrupt. The media outlets that do cover the capital, they don’t mention it.”
Roth said SFCN met in Tennessee “in a room with the most conservative members” to explain “here is what we do in a freedom caucus. We don’t support things like subsidies for a Ford plant, the woke-iest of corporations,” which the Tennessee Legislature did in 2022.
There was a lot of head-scratching in that room of alleged Tennessee conservatives, he said, as if they’d never heard of such standard conservative policies.
“There was a lady in the back, she was against school choice. Another supported the hotel/motel tax. We wondered, ‘Are we in the right room?’” Roth recalled. “They thought they were really good. Some of them said, ‘Well, gosh, we got to start voting better.’”
When 19 South Carolina conservatives formed their state freedom caucus in 2022, they faced backlash from GOP leadership demanding they sign a ‘loyalty oath’ pledging not to “help or encourage someone to challenge ‘our’ incumbents” in primaries, he said.
“This is typical of what the Republican establishment is doing in South Carolina,” Roth said, adding that state freedom caucus members “signed the ‘loyalty oath’ but crossed out all the things they didn’t like—sort of a middle finger” to leadership.