Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
About two months ago, Brent Money’s campaign was confident.
He had just gotten the endorsement of Gov. Greg Abbott and Money had internal polling showing him leading by 11 percentage points in the special election runoff for House District 2. A polling memo argued his fellow Republican rival, Jill Dutton, stood “no chance.”
But on Tuesday night, Dutton eked out a narrow win over Money, notching an early upset for allies of House GOP leadership as they approached a March primary facing stiff headwinds.
Money had a lot going for him, including a high-profile cast of endorsers including Abbott, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and Attorney General Ken Paxton. But as Money leaned into those endorsements — and the broader GOP civil war — Dutton doubled down on a more local appeal and zeroed in on a battleground county.
The result was a 111-vote victory for Dutton — and the right to finish the term of expelled former Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City. Money immediately accused Dutton of trying to “steal this seat” by turning out Democrats and vowed he would prevail when they met again in the March 5 primary.
Abbott’s campaign quickly congratulated Dutton on her win Tuesday night, and one of her top funders, Texans for Lawsuit Reform, called for the party to come together Wednesday.
“Now that the voters have spoken, we hope all Republicans will unite behind Representative-elect Dutton so she can begin working on behalf of her constituents and all Texans,” TLR spokesperson Lucy Nashed said in a statement.
Money’s campaign was defiant. In a memo Wednesday, it claimed that 11% of early voters were Democrats and that they “certainly didn’t vote for conservative Brent Money.”
“The tables will turn in the Republican primary on March 5th,” Money’s strategist Nick Maddux wrote, “and HD02 will once again have a conservative Representative in the Texas House.”
Money’s campaign said it based the 11% figure on voter modeling data from the Republican National Committee. Derek Ryan, a Republican data analyst who was not involved in the race, shared an analysis on X, formerly known as Twitter, on Wednesday that suggested the percentage of likely Democrats was smaller.
Texas’ top political power brokers had a lot riding on the contest. Both Abbott and Paxton were out for an early win on their political revenge tours in the March primary, with Abbott looking for more allies for his school voucher agenda and Paxton working to unseat House Republicans who voted to impeach him last year And while it was an open seat, groups aligned with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, knew they had to show the fortitude to beat back the well-funded forces besieging incumbents elsewhere.
Back in September, the Associated Republicans of Texas convened major donors for a meeting where its president, Jamie McWright, said the race would be the "opening salvo" — and set the tone — in the lead-up to the March 5 primary. The group went on to spend nearly $300,000 through the runoff.
Money’s runoff pitch largely centered on being the “true conservative” with the endorsements to back it up. And he did not shy away from the broader party divide, criticizing Dutton for having the support of House Republicans who impeached Paxton and thwarted Abbott’s voucher agenda.
Money’s campaign put up life-size cutouts of his endorsers — from Cruz on down to little-known state representatives from other parts of the state. He also had a large display where supporters could put their head through a hole to be photographed alongside headshots of all the endorsers.
“We’ve got some real independent people down here, and I think it was overkill,” said Donnie Wisenbaker, chair of the Hopkins County GOP, who was neutral in the race. “My county will go 85% for Ted Cruz. We love Ted. But at the same time, when it gets down to a district-level candidate, I think people think, ‘You know, I can talk with these people, I can relate with them, I don’t need someone from the outside telling me how to vote.’”
Without nearly as many flashy endorsements – her best-known endorser was former Gov. Rick Perry — Dutton sought to burnish her local bona fides. Her campaign tailored voter outreach by county, touting different endorsements in different counties and even varying attacks on Money.
For example, Dutton’s campaign especially emphasized in Hunt County — Money’s home county — that as Greenville city attorney there over a decade ago, he was part of a dispute with the county’s biggest employer, L-3 Communications.
The geographic battlelines were clear going into the runoff. Money was from Hunt County, Dutton was from Van Zandt County and Hopkins County would be up for grabs after its native candidate, Heath Hyde, failed to qualify for the runoff. Hyde had dominated in the county — getting 55% of the vote in the six-way November election — so whoever could win over his supporters would be well-positioned.
Hyde never endorsed in the runoff, but Dutton successfully sought the support of local officials and groups who had backed him, like the Hopkins County Law Enforcement Association and the Texas Farm Bureau.
Both runoff candidates had sought the Farm Bureau’s endorsement. But Dutton reached out to local members “several times and visited with them several times and really wanted their support,” according to its associate government affairs director, Billy Howe.
“She worked hard to get it,” he said.
Dutton ended up winning Hopkins County by 246 votes.
On paper, Dutton was also aided by a large fundraising advantage, outraising Money by nearly 3-to-1 on the last major campaign finance report of the runoff. But Money benefited from an untold amount of third-party spending that has not been fully disclosed to the Texas Ethics Commission.
One group, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, sent out at least seven mailers in the runoff, according to Dutton’s campaign. The group has yet to report any of the spending to the TEC.
Education proved to be one of the most fascinating issues in the runoff. Both candidates voiced support for Abbott’s top legislative priority last year — school vouchers — though Dutton was a former school board member who previously felt more conflicted about the policy.
In any case, Hyde had run as a proud voucher opponent, and his loss left anti-voucher voters with two imperfect options.
But Dutton got a boost with public school teachers at their only runoff debate, when Money said he preferred a different way of running their retirement system. He quickly sought to contain the fallout, releasing a video two days later saying his mom is a retired teacher and he would never do anything to hurt her.
Berny Duke, an educator in Van ISD, said she stuck with Dutton throughout the race “even though we may disagree on some of the voucher issues.”
“Jill knows public education, having personally known her for about 15 years,” Duke said. “I know that she truly has our best interests at heart.”
School vouchers have been Abbott’s top issue, though it remains to be seen how supportive he will be of Money going forward. Despite endorsing Money, the governor never visited the district to campaign for him like Cruz and Paxton did, and his tweet congratulating Dutton only raised further intrigue.
An Abbott spokesperson said Wednesday he remains behind Money.
As for Paxton, his intraparty critics especially reveled in Money’s loss. He has endorsed many more candidates in the Texas House primaries than Abbott has, aiming to unseat dozens of members who voted to impeach him.
“[Money] is just the first ship to sink to the bottom with the anchor of [Paxton] around their neck,” state Sen. Drew Springer, R-Muenster, said late Tuesday night on X.
Disclosure: Texans for Lawsuit Reform and Texas Farm Bureau have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
We can’t wait to welcome you to downtown Austin Sept. 5-7 for the 2024 Texas Tribune Festival! Join us at Texas’ breakout politics and policy event as we dig into the 2024 elections, state and national politics, the state of democracy, and so much more. When tickets go on sale this spring, Tribune members will save big. Donate to join or renew today.
Correction, Feb. 8, 2024 at 7:53 a.m.: In a previous version of the photo caption, the location of state House District 2 was incorrect. It is east of Dallas.