Texas Republicans who defied Gov. Greg Abbott on school vouchers face mounting primary attacks

A protester, left, pauses to leave a boot at the steps of the Governor’s Mansion during a rally to “boot vouchers” on Oct. 7, 2023. Hundreds gathered to protest two days before a special session was slated to begin on Oct. 9, 2023. Credit: Julius Shieh/The Texas Tribune

By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune

Texas House Republicans who tanked Gov. Greg Abbott’s school voucher agenda last year are facing a growing onslaught in their primaries as his long-promised revenge tour reaches its final month.

A national pro-voucher group, the School Freedom Fund, is launching a $1.15 million TV ad blitz across eight primaries Wednesday, part of a major ramp-up by Abbott’s allies on the issue. Another pro-voucher outfit, AFC Victory Fund, endorsed 13 primary challengers Tuesday and has already sent out multiple mail pieces attacking incumbents. And Abbott himself is set to return to the campaign trial this week to stump for both pro-voucher incumbents — and challengers.

It all marks the long-telegraphed fallout from last year’s legislative sessions, when a group of House Republicans held firm against Abbott’s crusade for letting parents use taxpayers dollars to take their kids out of public schools. His effort came crashing down in November, when 21 House Republicans voted to strip a voucher program out of a wide-ranging education bill, House Bill 1.

Sixteen of those Republicans are now running for reelection, and most are being targeted by Abbott and allied groups. Most are also in the crosshairs of Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is separately working to unseat dozens of House Republicans who voted to impeach him last year.

The School Freedom Fund is an arm of the Club for the Growth, the national anti-tax group, and its new TV ad buy spans broadcast, cable and satellite across the eight districts. The buy targets Reps. Gary VanDeaver of New Boston, Travis Clardy of Nacogdoches, Ernest Bailes of Shepherd, Hugh Shine of Temple, DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, Glenn Rogers of Graford, Reggie Smith of Sherman and Steve Allison of San Antonio.

“Candidates need to realize they can’t claim to be conservative while simultaneously opposing school freedom and taking cash from radical education bureaucrats, and voters will hold them accountable on election day,” School Freedom Fund President David McIntosh said in a statement.

The messaging against the incumbents has been varied. One of School Freedom Fund’s ads specifically goes after Clardy for saying in a November TV interview that his district does not have a problem with “woke teachers.” The narrator then calls Clardy wrong and says the Nacogdoches school district “brought in a critical race theory specialist for curriculum training.”

Other attacks are casting the lawmakers’ votes against the voucher program as opposition to the other components of House Bill 1, including teacher pay raises and increased public school funding.

The advertising blitz is being overwhelmingly funded by one man: Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvania billionaire whose top issue is alternatives to public education. He has been a multimillion-dollar donor to the School Freedom Fund, AFC Victory Fund and — more recently — Abbott, cutting the governor a $6 million check in December.

The incumbents, who mostly laid low after casting their decisive votes in November, are increasingly speaking out against the attacks. Rogers said in a direct-to-camera video released Tuesday that he would not cow to the “out-of-state voucher lobby, which is pumping millions of dollars into Texas to kill public education.”

“I have something important to tell you: I can’t be bought, I can’t be bullied and I can’t be intimidated,” Rogers told voters. “I will only be your representative.”

State Rep. John Raney, the retiring College Station Republican who authored the amendment that removed the voucher proposal, sought to set the record straight in a newspaper op-ed published last week. He said House Bill 1 “undoubtedly would have passed the House” without vouchers if its author had not pulled it down after Raney’s amendment passed.

“Gov. Abbott took his ball and went home shifting his focus to retaliation at the polls,” Raney said. “Shame on you, Gov. Abbott.”

After an economic development trip to India, Abbott was set to return to the campaign trail Tuesday with a series of stops to boost mostly incumbents. But on Thursday, he is scheduled to visit Mineral Wells to rally with Rogers’ opponent, Mike Olcott, Abbott’s first known event for a challenger since early December.

One of the new ads from School Freedom Fund boosts Olcott, highlighting his support from the governor and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Abbott has also made known his anger with another anti-voucher House Republican, Rep. Drew Darby of San Angelo, whose campaign website falsely claimed Abbott’s endorsement up until recent days. Abbott’s campaign announced Monday it had sent Darby a cease-and-desist letter reminding Darby that Abbott has endorsed his challenger, Stormy Bradley — “a true conservative.”

Darby’s campaign has not responded to a request for comment.

AFC Victory Fund has also been getting more involved in primaries. It had already announced opposition to a dozen of the anti-voucher House Republicans before endorsing specific challengers to them Monday.

Its latest mail piece portrays the incumbents in a “Wanted” poster, saying they are being sought for “working against schools, teachers, parents, and kids.” The mailer says they not only denied school vouchers but also “$4,000 pay raises for teachers” and “over $97 million in funding for our local schools.”

The line of attack has put the incumbents on the defensive over the convoluted legislative process that surrounded Abbott’s last-ditch attempt at vouchers in November.

“The removal of the voucher proposal from the bill did not kill the teacher pay raise portion or the section eliminating the STAAR test or any other funding that was appropriately included in the bill or our conservative state budget that we passed this session,” Burns wrote in a Facebook post Thursday. “The bill, and ultimately, those other provisions died because the author killed the bill himself by not allowing it to proceed to a vote once the voucher spending was removed.”

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/01/31/texas-house-republican-primary-2024-vouchers/.

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