By the Numbers: Speaker Phelan’s Narrow Runoff Win and ‘Crossover’ Voting

By Jeff Blaylock – Founder & Senior Editor

MAY. 29, 2024

Speaker Dade Phelan was bound to make history last night. He was going to become either the first incumbent Speaker ousted in a primary or primary runoff since 1972, or he would become the first incumbent legislator to win a primary runoff after finishing in second place in the March primary since 1992. 

He accomplished the latter – the first to do since Sen. John Whitmire eked out a 52%-48% victory after finishing second to Roman Martinez by 2.7 percentage points in the 1992 Democratic primary. Unofficial results show Phelan defeating challenger David Covey, 51%-49%, a margin of 366 votes. In March, Covey (46%) finished 1,015 votes ahead of Phelan (43%).

Covey ran strongest in Jasper Co., where he received nearly the same vote total in the runoff (3,214) as he did in the primary (3,302). Phelan saw his support in Jasper Co. shrink considerably. He received half the votes in the runoff (1,271) as in the primary (2,528) there. Phelan ran stronger in Jefferson Co., his home county, running up a margin of 3,145 votes in the runoff compared to 2,043 in the primary. Phelan also closed the gap in Orange Co., which Covey carried by 836 votes in the runoff compared to 2,284 in the primary.

As he did in March, Covey fared better among Election Day voters than early voters. Phelan carried the early runoff vote by 962 votes (53%-47%). Covey carried the ED vote by 596 votes (54%-46%). Early voters comprised 70% of the runoff electorate, an increase of 6 percentage points from the primary.

Covey’s campaign blamed Phelan’s relatively stronger performance on what he claimed were high numbers of Democratic crossover voters. In a statement, Covey claimed Phelan stole the election after it claimed to have “identified at least 1,442 Democrats” who cast early ballots in Jefferson Co.  

Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton echoed Covey, claiming Phelan had “blatantly stolen an election from the hard-working people of his district.” Paxton used the charge to call for a “closed” Republican primary election, which would limit the number of potential voters based upon a partisan registration requirement that does not currently exist in state law.

The rhetoric of a “stolen” election now includes situations where Texas voters lawfully exercised their constitutional rights to vote in accordance with the laws of the state. 

So, was the number of past Democratic primary voters casting early ballots in this Republican runoff unusually high? Let’s look at the data. To be clear, I am neither accepting the Covey campaign’s figure nor challenging it. The question is whether the figure he cited would be an outlier demonstrating evidence of a coordinated effort to draw Democratic primary voters into the runoff specifically to vote for Phelan.

In the March primary, around 4% of the early voters statewide in the Republican primary had recent history (within the past four primary elections) voting in a Democratic primary. Around 4% of the early voters in the Democratic primary statewide similarly had recent history voting in a Republican primary, according to an analysis of primary early voting by Republican strategist Derek Ryan, whose reports we have cited many times in our election analyses. 

A total of 17,664 early votes have been counted in the HD21 runoff. Four percent of those is roughly 700. Covey’s campaign claims a number more than twice that figure. But the 4% measuring stick is a statewide average. What about Jefferson Co.? 

According to Ryan’s data, 12.5% of early voters in Jefferson Co.’s 2024 Republican primary had recently voted at least one Democratic and one Republican primary since 2016, but their most recent primary vote was Republican. Another 6% of early voters in Jefferson Co. either had only Democratic primary voting history (4.7%) or mixed history with the most recent primary election being a Democratic one (1.4%). 

That collective group of voters represented 18.6% of early voters. If the same percentage were applied to the HD21 runoff, we’d expect to see nearly 3,300 EARLY votes cast by voters who voted in at least one Democratic primary or runoff since 2016. That’s more than double the figure Covey’s campaign cited.

Is this an outlier result? No. 

Let’s go back further. In the 2020 Republican primary in Jefferson Co., 9.4% of early voters had both Democratic and Republican voting history with the most recent being a Republican primary (vs. 12.5% in 2024). Another 7.1% had only recent Democratic primary voting history (vs. 4.7% in 2024), and 5.1% had mixed history with the most recent primary election being a Democratic one (vs 1.4% in 2024). Collectively, 21.6% of Republican primary early voters had some recent Democratic voting history, compared to 18.6% in 2024.

I do not have Ryan’s analysis of the 2016 primary, but I would expect to see similar numbers. Why? The 2008 Democratic primary had record turnout statewide because of the close presidential contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It’s likely that a significant number of those voters participated in later Republican primaries as Republican candidates gained strength in the county.

This suggests that the level of crossover voting claimed by Covey’s campaign is neither an outlier nor demonstrative of an organized effort by Phelan to recruit Democratic primary voters to carry him to victory. Jefferson Co. has a demonstrated history of crossover voting, including in years in which Phelan was neither House speaker nor opposed for renomination. 

Also, keep in mind that this particular claim of a “stolen” election does not hinge on allegations of illegally cast votes. This one hinges on legally cast votes from Texans that some would prefer not be able to cast them.