By Patrick Svitek, The Texas Tribune
“Border security overpowers school vouchers and Paxton impeachment in Republican Texas House primaries” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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Turn on the TV in northeast Texas, and it would be hard to guess it has become a battleground in the GOP war over school vouchers.
State Rep. Gary VanDeaver of New Boston — one of nine Republicans that Gov. Greg Abbott is trying to unseat over their opposition to vouchers — is running an ad bragging about boosting border security funding as a House budget writer. His Abbott-backed challenger, Chris Spencer, is airing a spot promising to work with former President Donald Trump to “make our Texas border secure again.” And another Abbott-endorsed challenger in the region, Joanne Shofner, is running a commercial that pitches her as a “true border hawk.”
Those ads, exclusively about the border, are underscoring a key dynamic in Texas’ extraordinary primary season: Despite all the hubbub about vouchers and Ken Paxton’s impeachment — it’s still about the border, stupid.
Immigration is dominating the primaries far more than anything else, overshadowing the issues that initially set the stage last year for a high-octane primary. Abbott is endeavoring to unseat the House Republicans who joined Democrats to kill his school voucher plan, while Attorney General Ken Paxton set out to defeat the House Republicans who voted to impeach him last May.
In a recognition of the dominance of border concerns, some vulnerable House Republicans are now trying to tap into those concerns to explain their opposition to school vouchers.
“Last year I stopped a bill that would have handed out school vouchers — your tax dollars — to illegal immigrants,” VanDeaver says to the camera in a new commercial.
Rep. Glenn Rogers, R-Graford, is also running a TV ad that accuses his opponent, Mike Olcott, of supporting a voucher program that “gives taxpayer dollars to illegal immigrants.” It is an apparent reference to the lack of citizenship requirements for the recipients of the proposed initiative last year.
Pro-voucher groups say the argument reeks of desperation. Abbott’s chief strategist, Dave Carney, said Friday on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the talking point was “nonsense” and suggested his side already has a counterargument.
With less than a month until the primary, Abbott has kept the border center stage, visiting Eagle Pass on Thursday with nearly two dozen House Republicans who he has endorsed for reelection. While his office promised a “border security announcement,” they had no such announcement and Abbott said he was there to applaud the lawmakers’ for their help in passing his border agenda.
“The wire that you see preventing illegal entry … the soldiers that you see, the Texas Department of Public Safety that you see — none of that would be here but for the people who stand with me today,” Abbott said.
Abbott has been battling the Biden administration in court to install razor wire at a park in Eagle Pass along the border.
Abbott has spent the past month crisscrossing the state to stump for House incumbents and challengers he has endorsed in the wake of the defeat of his school voucher plan. And while he mentions the plan briefly in his stump speeches, it is often his national-headline-making efforts on the border that get more words — and crowd reaction.
The House GOP does not have many political vulnerabilities on the border given that they virtually all backed Abbott’s proposals. But pro-voucher groups are still seizing on the issue as a means to an end.
The Family Empowerment Coalition PAC recently co-opted the issue in a wave of digital ads against anti-voucher House Republicans. In the spots, a narrator introduces the incumbent and says they “brag he helped close the border, even though he didn’t.”
“That’s why Greg Abbott didn’t endorse him,” the narrator says.
One of the ad’s targets, Rep. DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, recently expressed frustration with the tactic in a Facebook post, saying “these FECPAC characters created an attack ad against me using an A.I. generated voice without any sources or citations.”
Leo Linbeck, one of the PAC’s leaders, said the strategy is simple: They are playing to win, and that means messaging against incumbents beyond just one issue.
“For people who oppose us on school choice, we will use the issues that are most important to voters to communicate our preference,” Linbeck said.
Another pro-voucher group — a national PAC, the School Freedom Fund — is leveraging multiple issues beyond education. It has even launched a TV ad against House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, touting his primary challenger’s endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Phelan declined to stake out a personal position throughout the voucher fight last year.
The polling was clear going into primary season: For Republican primary voters, school vouchers may be popular but not nearly as popular — or top of mind — as securing the border. The border regularly ranks as primary voters’ top concern — often by a wide margin — and they overwhelmingly back specific proposals.
A University of Houston poll released Tuesday found that Republican primary voters support “tax-funded school vouchers to all parents” 64% to 29%. But when it came to empowering state authorities to arrest undocumented immigrants — a new Texas law — the support widened to a gaping 89% to 9%.
“With a Republican primary voter, you can’t go wrong with stressing the border,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at UH involved in the polling. “They literally all support the same position.”
The ads in northeast Texas are not an outlier. In Central Texas, the first House Republican who got an Abbott-backed challenger, Rep. Hugh Shine of Temple, is also running a TV ad solely about the border, boasting about how he “passed the strongest border security bill in the nation.”
That is a reference to Senate Bill 4, which Abbott signed into law last month. It allows Texas law enforcement authorities to arrest undocumented immigrants anywhere in the state and has already drawn a constitutional challenge from the Biden administration. Every House Republican voted for it, as well as for bills to ramp up state funding for a border wall and to increase penalties for smuggling immigrants or operating a stash house.
It all underscores a great irony for Abbott: As he kept lawmakers in Austin last year for five sessions trying to pass school vouchers, he also tasked them with tough border measures that they are arming themselves with in their reelection campaigns.
To be sure, school vouchers and Paxton’s impeachment are still coming up in primaries — at forums, in mailers and even some TV ads. The most striking example came earlier this week, when Phelanreleased a commercial addressing Paxton’s impeachment head-on, saying “Vengeful Paxton” is the only reason Trump has endorsed Phelan’s primary challenger.
But Phelan has been airing TV ads in his southeast Texas district for over two months, and the earliest ones were exclusively about the House’s border efforts.
For other TV ads, if they even mention school vouchers, the reference is glancing.
“Backed by Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz, LaHood is running to close down our border,” a narrator says, “and protect our kids from woke indoctrination.”
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2024/02/09/texas-republican-primary-2024-house-border-ken-paxton/.
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