When Mark Montgomery won election earlier this year as chairman of the Dallas County GOP, it was nothing short of a fluke. The Tea Party activist had minimally campaigned for the post — he did spend $30 to print his own business cards — and ended up ousting incumbent Wade Emmert, who just a year earlier was a serious candidate to lead the state party.
On Tuesday, after less than two months on the job, Montgomery announced he was stepping down, leaving behind an organization in financial distress and setting off a breakneck race to replace him. It amounts to an emergency situation for the GOP in Texas' second-largest county, where Republicans are largely out of power but intent on making gains in a tough presidential election year.
Now Dallas Republicans face a quickly approaching meeting — set for Aug. 18 — where the party's executive committee will select a replacement for Montgomery. Attention turned Wednesday to Dallas businessman Phillip Huffines, the first to announce his candidacy for chairman. He was quickly followed by Elizabeth Bingham, who served as vice chair under Emmert.
"2016 is going to be a challenging election cycle, and to put the Dallas GOP back on the right track, I will ... commit 100% of the time, effort, and resources that are necessary for Dallas County Republicans to be victorious," Phillip Huffines wrote in a letter to fellow Dallas County Republicans. "We must meet the Clinton Campaign, Texas Democrats, and Dallas County Democrats head on in order to achieve victory. Our precious liberties as Americans, and as Texans, depend on it."
Bingham, a lawyer from Plano, announced her candidacy on Facebook, saying the party needs "someone who can hit the ground running and not just put money in our coffers, but give us a voice in the Elections Department and provide the infrastructure our ticket needs to expand our margins of victory and get our countywide sheriff candidate elected." Victory, she added, "is a must."
Phillip Huffines is the twin brother of state Sen. Don Huffines of Dallas, who unseated longtime incumbent John Carona two years ago in a vicious primary that divided Dallas Republicans. The memory of that is still fresh to an anti-Huffines contingent in Dallas County, as is that of Don Huffines' involvement in contested primaries earlier this year.
So far, the most vocal critic has been Republican state Rep. Jason Villalba of Dallas, who took to Twitter on Tuesday to air out his grievances against Don Huffines, calling him the "architect of the death of the" Dallas County GOP and a "self serving, short sighted ideological demagogue." Villalba and other critics say Don Huffines had a supporting role in Montgomery's challenge to Emmert; Huffines' team denies that.
Then there is the fact that Don Huffines was a prominent supporter of Dan Morenoff, a Dallas lawyer who challenged Villalba in the March 1 primary. Morenoff ended up losing by 10 points.
Don Huffines "recruited my opponent, he endorsed my opponent and he funded my opponent," Villalba said in an interview Wednesday. "Yes, I’m concerned that if his brother takes the same position he does, you’re looking at primary challengers for people countywide unless they're walking in lockstep with the senator."
"That's completely false," said Matt Langston, a spokesman for the Huffineses. "Phillip is looking at this role to right the finances of the party, and quite frankly, he's going to be a more unifying figure in Dallas County than you have seen in a long time" due to his ability to raise money and defeat Democrats.
Shortly before Phillip Huffines announced his run Wednesday, Don Huffines made clear he supports his brother's bid — and offered an unmistakable message to intra-party detractors like Villalba.
"A businessman with a long history of political activity and giving is exactly who this party needs," Don Huffines said in a statement. "The primary season is over, and the time for family disagreement is past."
Yet there still may be more disagreement to come, with Phillip Huffines and Bingham expected to draw support from different factions within the Dallas County GOP. Precinct chairs will have the final say Aug. 18.
At least one person has removed himself from consideration: Emmert, who tweeted Wednesday that he will not seek re-election. "It was an honor to serve, but my time at the helm is over," Emmert wrote.
"I think the party’s going to want someone who has a real vision for the party, not just somebody who has an allegiance to the Tea Party or the establishment, but somebody who has an allegiance to Dallas County first," Emmert said in an interview Wednesday.
Whoever ultimately enters the race, county Republicans are looking to turn the page on the brief tenure of Montgomery, who was generally liked but said to be in over his head, especially when it came to the key chairman responsibility of fundraising. The party's state account has fallen into the low triple digits, according to Texas Ethics Commission records.
Among those concerned about the direction of the party under Montgomery was U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions of Dallas, who told the Dallas Morning News last week that Republicans "will lose badly if we fail to answer the bell." Like Villalba, he also seemed to put some blame on Don Huffines for the condition of the party, saying he will let the state senator "answer questions about the success or failure of the party."
"In order to strengthen and unite our party, we need a leader who brings stability and sound judgment and will fight for pro-growth conservative values and principles," Sessions said in a statement Wednesday. "During this time, it is critical that we work together to reach common ground on how to implement these policies to effectively defeat pro-government, liberal Democrats on the local, state and national level."
Announcing his resignation Tuesday, Montgomery chalked up the departure to "some recent changes in my personal life that will inhibit my ability to continue to serve." He initially said he will resign at the Aug. 18 meeting but announced Wednesday that his resignation is effective immediately, a move required for the chairman's election to be held Aug. 18.
Watching the drama unravel has been the state party, whose chairman, Tom Mechler, did not get involved until Montgomery expressed a desire to step aside. At that point, the two began talking about the best way to ensure a smooth transition to the next chairman.
Despite the turmoil, some Dallas County Republicans are remaining optimistic. They include Bill Metzger, a justice of the peace who was tapped last month to chair the 2016 Victory effort to boost GOP numbers in November in Dallas County.
Reached Wednesday, Metzger said the party was "in a pretty good spot" heading toward November, with many elected officials already stepping up to fill the void left by Montgomery. Metzger nonetheless expressed some uncertainty about the future.
"I'm not really sure of my status," he said, "but I'm happy to help our party in any way I can."