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After Texas Win, School-Choice Groups Eye Other Red States

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Governor Greg Abbott of Texas

The political ground shifted in Texas last week, and the impact of the electoral shakeup could send aftershocks across the nation for months, if not years, to come.

A Texas runoff ousts many incumbents

A wave of Republican incumbents fell to conservative challengers in the Texas House in last week’s primary run-offs, turning an already red legislature crimson and threatening the state House GOP leader’s hold on power. Those who helped lead the intra-party Texas fight now have their sights set on defeating centrist Republicans in other red states, including Tennessee, Georgia, Idaho, and South Carolina.

A concerted joint effort by Gov. Greg Abbott, outside groups, and a deep-pocketed donor flipped the seats of 14 Republicans who had opposed Abbott’s school-choice measure – a state record.

Abbott’s effort to pass school choice died last fall when 21 House Republicans – mostly from rural districts – voted to strip a voucher program out of a larger education bill. Of those 21 voucher opponents, 15 now aren’t returning. The coalition defeated six GOP incumbents in March, then three more in last week’s run-offs. Additionally, the group filled four of the five retiring Republican seats with voucher supporters, and then a voucher backer won a special election run-off.

School choice does the trick

The leading factor in these Republicans’ historic defeats hasn’t been making the most national headlines or even the most local news. It’s unrelated to Abbott’s border fight with President Biden, state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s resentment over efforts to impeach him, or even widespread local protests over the state’s skyrocketing property taxes.

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Those issues all played out in the election, but school choice was far and away the most lethal campaign issue across the Lone Star state. Its impact was especially potent considering the totality of political spending and blitz of advertisements focused on school vouchers and related issues dominating the Texas airwaves and inundating inboxes.

Abbott was determined to make good on his threats to boot anti-school voucher Republicans who have blocked his ambitious crusade to give parents taxpayer-funded options to educate their children outside public schools. After several challengers he backed won their run-offs last week, the governor declared victory and announced that the House “now has enough votes to pass school choice.”

“While we did not win every race we fought in, the overall message from this year’s primaries is clear: Texans want school choice,” said Abbott. “Opponents can no longer ignore the will of the people.”

House Speaker David Phelan, who supported the effort to scrap the school voucher language from the bill last fall, managed to eke out a run-off win by less than 400 votes. But that razor-thin victory likely dooms his chances of holding onto his leadership post next year.

School choice is the key

On the national level, Abbott is best known for his immigration showdown with President Biden, which included the deployment of thousands of Texas Guard members to shut down the border and the decision to send busloads of illegal immigrants from the southern border to places like New York, Washington, D.C., and Texas.

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Texans, however, are well aware that Abbott has made school vouchers his top priority, pouring more political capital into the vouchers than any other issue in his eight years in office. The sometimes-cautious governor campaigned for reelection on the issue in 2022 and made universal education saving accounts a central theme of his most recent State of the State addresses. The ESAs would use taxpayer funds to provide parents a voucher worth $10,500 a year per student to use at a private school.

The Texas legislature cannot vote on any bill until 60 days into its legislative session unless the governor declares the measure an “emergency item.” Abbott gave the voucher issue this expedited status. He held two special sessions devoted to passing the initiative, including the one last fall in which opponents, including Phelan, stripped it from a bill providing $6 billion in additional funds to Texas public schools. Those funds would have boosted teacher pay and other public school funding – key negotiating chips that still failed to attract enough supporters.

Heading into the fight, opponents were well aware that they could face consequences at the ballot box if they continued to oppose Abbott’s voucher language.

Texas parents support the idea

In response to a ballot question in 2022, 88% of GOP primary voters indicated that they support parents’ “right to select schools, whether public or private, for their children, and the funding should follow the student.” Another poll conducted by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs in January found that 66% of Republican primary voters said they would be less likely to vote for an incumbent who rejected school choice last year.

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“[Abbott] made it very clear during the special session that there’s an easy way and a hard way,” Dave Carney, the governor’s longtime political strategist, told RealClearPolitics. “The hard way was we’ll pass it in 2025 with a new legislature. They were informed, well-warned.”

Carney said Abbott has done nearly 100 events on school choice so far this year, cutting television, cable, and digital ads and directing millions of digital impressions to targeted audiences. Abbott’s political action committee also paid for advocates to knock on 400,000 across the state.

Still, Abbott had some powerful help, what Carney describes as a seamless, collaborative effort.

“We’re not taking a victory lap yet, because we still have to get through the general election,” he added. “But we’re anticipating to pick up seats.”

Nationwide help

Last fall’s voucher defeat attracted national groups with deep pockets, including the American Federation for Children, a national pro-school choice group, and the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group. Along with Abbott’s PAC, the groups spent a combined $27 million to back pro-voucher challengers against incumbents.

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A big portion of those funds came from Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvania billionaire and national Republican megadonor who strongly supports school vouchers. Worth nearly $30 billion, Yass is a co-founder and managing director of Susquehanna International Group, a Philadelphia-based trading and investment firm. The firm was an early investor in TikTok, which nearly doubled Yass’ net worth in the years since the pandemic when the app’s popularity soared.

Working with Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a longtime proponent of helping parents subsidize private school tuition, Yass has spent tens of millions boosting the issue, channeling $23 million to the DeVos-backed American Federation for Children’s political action committees since 2021.

In December, Yass cut Abbott’s PAC a $6 million check, the largest single donation in Texas history. He’s also a multi-million dollar donor to the Club for Growth, which has long supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Chip Roy, who represents Austin and San Antonio.

Kudos for Governor Abbott

The Club for Growth, through its School Freedom Fund, spent roughly $4 million in the Texas primary and $4 million more in the run-offs, including $1.5 million against Phelan. David McIntosh, the group’s president, credited Abbott with the leadership to take on his fellow Republicans, who blocked school-choice options for Texas’ 5.4 million public school students.

“I give Gov. Abbott a lot of kudos for his leadership,” McIntosh said in an interview. “Many Republican governors don’t want to take on sitting members of their own party and would not have done the same … that was a crucial factor in us being able to win.”

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Early in the effort, McIntosh told his team that big victories in Texas would build momentum for similarly aggressive campaigns in other red states, including Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, and Indiana.

“Texas now shows that you can’t be a conservative Republican and oppose education freedom,” he said. “It’s now a marker for whether somebody is a genuine conservative or not. It’s going to be something the Club and our School Freedom Fund champion for years to come.”

McIntosh says the school choice initiatives align with the group’s conservative economic agenda because giving parents more alternatives to public school creates market pressure in the education system.

Texas hears from more voices

“That benefits the kids,” McIntosh said. “They get a better education, and it benefits the parents who have more control over the resources, and [it] takes the education bureaucracy out of the equation. Schools start operating like a business world, saying, ‘Who’s my customer?’ Right now, they don’t have that pressure.”

The American Federation for Children’s Victory Fund, another key group in the school-choice fight, spent $7 million on the Texas primary and run-offs alone – boosting Texas challengers’ campaigns and helping establish school choice as a GOP litmus test.

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“The primary election results in Texas – the Lone Star earthquake – represent the single biggest movement in favor of school choice in modern history, a result that will prove life-changing for countless Texas families,” Tommy Schultz, the group’s CEO, told RCP. “Republicans lost the moment they chose loyalty to unions and corrupt establishment over students.”

Schultz said he and the coalition of school-choice proponents “anticipate that many other states will remember the Lone Star Earthquake ahead of their own primaries and legislative sessions.”

“If you’re a candidate or lawmaker who opposes school choice and freedom in education – you’re a target,” he added. “If you’re a champion for parents – we’ll be your shield.”

School choice destroys effort to turn Texas blue

Some Texas insiders are already making comparisons to Colorado’s rapid transformation from a Republican-dominated state in the mid-2000s to a Democratic one over a four-year time frame. For years, progressives have touted their success in Colorado in turning a red state blue, an effort by Democratic politicians and outside groups taking advantage of new campaign finance laws and working with donors willing to commit unprecedented resources to promote progressive policies and win local races.

In a book titled, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado,” the authors hailed the joint effort as a model for creating permanent Democratic majorities across the country.

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Texas was already a solid red state before the school choice fight, but now its legislature has shifted even further to the right, undermining years-long Democratic efforts to cast it as trending purple based on its growing Latino population. Instead, t he school-choice coalition’s Texas successes have sparked a conversation over whether they’ve developed a “redprint” model that can help solidify permanent conservative majorities across the country.

Yet, Carney points out that Abbott isn’t the first governor to target GOP incumbents opposed to school vouchers. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds started the trend in 2022 when the Iowa legislature tried to pass school choice but failed by one vote. It was an election year, and Reynolds and school choice advocates challenged six school anti-school choice incumbent lawmakers. They unseated all nine and passed the measure during the next legislative session.

Other State governors are watching

After the string of defeated GOP incumbents in Texas, other governors are already pledging a similar political litmus test. Late last week, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee vowed to vet future GOP primary candidates in the next election cycle to determine whether they support school choice, although he didn’t commit to working to defeat Republicans who oppose school choice.

“This year what I’m talking to candidates about is education freedom and choice for parents,” he told a local broadcast station late last week. “I want to know where new candidates stand on that issue because it’s so important to me, so you’ll see me talking to candidates.”

Earlier this year, Lee said he expected a school choice “revolution” to take place in Tennessee, but those hopes were dashed in March when a school-choice bill died in the state legislature. But given strong GOP voter support for the issue, the state Republican Party is poised to adopt a strongly worded pro-school-choice platform over the next few months, which will ratchet up the pressure on Republican legislators with a history of opposing voucher programs.

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The Club for Growth and the American Federation for Children are monitoring Tennessee closely to see if Lee will follow in Reynolds’ and Abbott’s footsteps.

“It’s a hard decision for governors to make, and you hope you can persuade people to do the right thing, and you don’t have to take out incumbents, but I will have to see what they decide to do,” McIntosh said.

The teachers’ union shot themselves in both feet

Yet, the most effective advocate for school choice wasn’t Abbott, Reynolds, or any other GOP governor or outside group, Carney argues. That honor, he says, goes to American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who fought children’s return to public school during the COVID pandemic and used the global health crisis to extract union concessions for teachers, sparking a parent revolution in the process.

“Most families can’t afford to make that choice to give their kids a different option,” Carney remarked, decrying what he called the public education system’s “Praetorian Guard” who try to keep parents at bay while implementing “woke” programs and teaching methods while students’ test scores continue to plummet.

This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

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White House/national political correspondent at | + posts

Susan Crabtree is a political correspondent for RealClearPolitics. Shepreviously served as a senior writer for theWashingtonFree Beacon, and spent five years asa White House Correspondent for theWashington Examiner.

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