School choice focus of Abbott in 2024 Texas elections

Gov. Greg Abbott is hitting the campaign trail this week for a handful of events with his endorsed candidates in various Texas House races — multiple of which put him opposite Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Beginning Thursday in order, Abbott will attend events for House District (HD) 56 candidate Pat Curry and state Reps. Jacey Jetton (R-Richmond), Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park), Cody Harris (R-Palestine), Candy Noble (R-Lucas), Kronda Thimesch (R-Carrollton). He then has another scheduled for Wednesday, January 17 with state Rep. Stan Kitzman (R-Pattison).

Of those eight, Paxton has endorsed the opponent of Abbott’s endorsee in each race except Harris’ challenger Jaye Curtis.

Abbott’s sole focus in the 2024 primary is school choice — backing the more than 50 returning House Republicans who voted against stripping education savings accounts (ESA) from the lower chamber’s omnibus bill, opposing the returning GOP members who voted against his preference, and supporting pro-school choice candidates to fill vacant seats.

The issue is one of two pillars of the GOP primaries, along with last year’s impeachment of Paxton, and it’s created a fascinating schism between top state Republicans. Abbott and Paxton are on opposite sides of at least 22 legislative races, including in Senate District 30 where the governor is behind Brent Hagenbuch and the attorney general behind Carrie de Moor; the two are currently duking it out in court over Hagenbuch’s residency in the district.

So far, Abbott has backed six challengers to incumbent Republicans who voted against the voucher proposal: Chris Spencer in HD 1, Joanne Shofner in HD 11, Helen Kerwin in HD 58, Mike Olcott in HD 60, Stormy Bradley in HD 72, and Marc LaHood in HD 121.

The first event Abbott did in this primary crusade was with Hillary Hickland, challenger to state Rep. Hugh Shine (R-Temple) — a race that has focused more than nearly any other on the school choice issue.

This latest wave, however, shows a focus on protecting the incumbents who backed him on the issue.

2023 was the year of Abbott trying to shoehorn school choice legislation into the Texas House that simply did not have the votes — at least, in a form with which the governor was comfortable. The votes to get the initial HB 1 from the third special session through the lower chamber were there; it had an ESA program enrollment cap of 25,000 in the first year and 50,000 in the second. But the governor, and many others who support his school choice push, disapproved of the cap.

The next proposal lost too many Republican votes and went down in a blaze of glory the Friday before Thanksgiving.

And with that, the math is the math in the Texas House. No program that Abbott would currently support will get through the lower chamber without seats changing hands, hence the primary vendetta campaign.

Based on the HB 1 amendment vote, Abbott needs to siphon off 13 votes from the majority to get his preference across the line. Both candidates in the HD 2 special election — currently ablaze in an intra-GOP proxy war — support school choice in some form, moving the magic number down to 12.

In 2022, Abbott’s endorsements didn’t necessarily line up with his state school choice emphasis. He backed state Reps. Glenn Rogers (R-Graford) and Kyle Kacal (R-College Station), then and now two of the most outspoken candidates against ESA and voucher programs; Kacal isn’t seeking re-election this year, and Abbott has backed Rogers’ challenger Mike Olcott, against whom the incumbent ran in 2022.

Rogers edged out Olcott by 300 votes in the 2022 primary runoff, and all signs point to another bruising clash between the pair.

This year, all other concerns of the governor are dwarfed by school choice — and he’ll have plenty of money to disburse in this crusade. Back in July, Abbott reported $23 million in cash-on-hand and is likely to disclose substantially more next week when the January semiannual reports are due.

But now, rather than chiefly going against primary challenging candidates, the governor now has many incumbent Republicans in his sights, most of whom benefit from substantial in-district name ID and their own campaign war chests.

Add the cross-section of impeachment winds — Paxton going after those who voted for it, while Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) and Texans for Lawsuit Reform aim to protect many of them — and it’s the makings of a perfect mess sure to provide quite the spectacle.

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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