Get ready for Republican vs Republican primary war in Texas

Gov. Greg Abbott has more than $20 million burning a hole in his campaign’s pocket and a new excuse to use it in next year’s primaries.

Last Friday, 21 Republican House members joined the whole of the present Democratic caucus in stripping Abbott’s top priority school choice program from the body’s education omnibus. It was a long-anticipated vote after more than a year of browbeating by the governor and negotiating by House members tasked with the impossible job of fitting a square peg into a round hole.

“Today’s vote is just another step on the path to provide school choice for parents and students across Texas,” Abbott said after the dust settled. “I will continue advancing school choice in the Texas Legislature and at the ballot box, and will maintain the fight for parent empowerment until all parents can choose the best education path for their child. I am in it to win it.”

“The vast majority of Texans — and Republicans in the Texas House — support school choice. The small minority of pro-union Republicans in the Texas House who voted with Democrats will not derail the outcome that their voters demand.”

Back in September, Abbott said he would call at least two special sessions to get the creation of an education savings account program (ESA) across the finish line — which he described as “the easy way.”

Should that fail, which it did last week, Abbott suggested the “hard way” of backing primary challenges to House Republicans who voted against his priority item.

Now for Abbott, the “hard way” is really the only way. The delta on the vote was significant, with 11 more votes needed to preserve the ESA section and kill state Rep. John Raney’s (R-College Station) amendment.

On Monday, Abbott endorsed the 58 Republican House members who voted to keep ESAs in HB 1 and are running for re-election. He added that more endorsements beyond incumbents will be coming in the following weeks.

The bill’s author, Chairman Brad Buckley (R-Salado), said before the vote, “The reality is, if we strike this provision, this becomes not an either-or bill, but a none of it bill…if ESAs go, school funding/teacher pay are not long for it.”

How the Legislature picks up those pieces of school funding and the teacher bonuses — or even if they make another go at school choice — is yet to be seen. But the unwelcome fact of that delta remains, and barring something unforeseen, the only way Abbott makes a dent in it is by way of the 2024 primary.

If he does go all-in on that, it’ll pit the governor against eight members he endorsed during the 2022 midterm elections:

Steve Allison (R-San Antonio)
Justin Holland (R-Rockwall)
Kyle Kacal (R-College Station)
Ken King (R-Canadian)
Andrew Murr (R-Junction)
Glenn Rogers (R-Graford)
Reggie Smith (R-Sherman)
Gary VanDeaver (R-New Boston)

At the time of their endorsements, Kacal and Rogers were two of the most vocal members against any kind of school choice or voucher program.

Should Abbott jump in, it will be an interesting dynamic at play with the governor potentially going head-to-head against Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont), who in addition to his own re-election will want to protect his majority.

Other more Phelan-aligned groups to watch include Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which reported $35 million in cash-on-hand back in July, and the Associated Republicans of Texas.

Throw in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s revenge tour against the 60 Republicans who voted to recommend articles of impeachment against him, and the 2024 primary will be a perfect mess; one of Paxton’s most recent endorsements, state Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches), was one of the 21 that stripped ESAs.

Abbott's endorsements put him opposite of Paxton in 11 primary races, whose incumbents are:

Ben Bumgarner (R-Flower Mound)
Dustin Burrows (R-Lubbock)
Mano DeAyala (R-Houston)
Frederick Frazier (R-McKinney)
Jacey Jetton (R-Richmond)
Jeff Leach (R-Plano)
Candy Noble (R-Lucas)
Matt Shaheen (R-Plano)
David Spiller (R-Jacksboro)
Lynn Stucky (R-Denton)
Kronda Thimesch (R-Lewisville)

Each of those members voted for impeachment and against stripping ESAs.

The collection of pro-school choice groups rallied to the governor’s call essentially admitted defeat on the issue following the vote — for now. But they have also turned their attention to the primary.

The Family Empowerment Coalition PAC announced after the vote that it would expand its campaign efforts from just protecting pro-ESA incumbents to targeting that group of 21.

“The vote to remove ESAs in the Texas House of Representatives makes it clear which members are impeding the passage of this important bill,” said Leo Linbeck III, chairman of the PAC. “The public — both statewide and in their districts — overwhelmingly supports school choice, so it is now important that these members be held accountable for their vote to block this effort.”

The table is set for a brutal slate of Republican-on-Republican violence, and it’s not a given that when the dust settles Abbott will have his school choice-friendly margin in the Texas House.

To accomplish that, the governor must hope the rage among GOP voters over the school choice vote exceeds the potency of incumbency and the competing thorny issues.

If not, then next session Abbott will be right back where he is now: up a creek without a paddle.

Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher (aka HP Pundit) is not a Democrat or Republican. He is a free thinking independent bringing you news and commentary with a dose of much needed common sense.

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