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Abbott vowed to campaign against anti-voucher GOP House members. Why did these six candidates get spared?

By Karen Brooks Harper, The Texas Tribune

Abbott vowed to campaign against anti-voucher GOP House members. Why did these six candidates get spared?” 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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Joshua Feuerstein, a Forney Republican, met with Gov. Greg Abbott’s campaign team on a Zoom call, seeking an endorsement in his primary challenge to Rep. Keith Bell.

Feuerstein said he’d support the governor’s voucher legislation. Bell, R-Forney, was among the 21 House Republicans who blocked Abbott’s priority voucher bill from passing into law last year.

“They told me I was the perfect candidate,” Feuerstein told The Texas Tribune. But no endorsement ever came.

After Abbott lost his hard-fought battle to pass vouchers last year, he vowed to rain fire on the primary campaigns of nearly two dozen fellow Republicans in the Texas House who defied his demands and joined with Democrats to block passage of his biggest priority.

And Abbott largely made good on his promise, making an unprecedented effort to unseat the disloyal, spending $4.4 million in the past month against incumbent House members and appearing repeatedly in their districts to endorse their opponents.

But, with the March 5 election just a few days away, six anti-voucher House GOP incumbents have managed to sidestep Abbott’s wrath.

Reps. Bell, Justin Holland, Charlie Geren, Reggie Smith, Jay Dean and Ken King face a colorful slate of opponents who are solidly on Abbott’s side of the voucher fight.

But none of those challengers have gotten the coveted Abbott nod, leaving many of them wondering, “Why not me?” as they watch other pro-voucher primary candidates enjoy the spoils of Abbott’s lavish financial backing and star power.

“@GregAbbott_TX ?? Vanished,” Feuerstein wrote on X recently. “Funny thing … I inherited all of the school choice enemies … and not a single dollar of support!”

Abbott’s campaign did not respond to emailed questions about how he makes his endorsement decisions or why a handful of pro-voucher candidates didn’t make the cut.

For at least one of those races, there’s a personal history to contend with.

Smith, of Sherman, is fighting his second primary challenge from Shelley Luther, a Dallas salon owner who was jailed in 2020 for defying Abbott’s COVID-19-era business shut down. Her stand gave her national attention at Abbott’s expense, setting off an avalanche of criticism from Republicans over the shut down. She went on to run for Texas Senate that year, calling Abbott a “tyrant governor.”

Luther could not be reached for comment for this story but she previously told the Tribune she would have welcomed Abbott’s endorsement, even though he has twice denied her the privilege.

“Gov. Abbott has courageously led the fight for more parental empowerment in education and I would be honored to fight alongside him to finally deliver this critical legislation,” Luther wrote in an email.

But trash talking the governor didn’t disqualify Brent Money, who earned Abbott’s endorsement in the North Texas race to replace expelled Rep. Bryan Slaton, R-Royse City. Money has repeatedly bashed Abbott over the border and — much like the unendorsed Luther — on his policies about COVID. And days before Abbott’s contested primary in February 2022, Money called Abbott “weak and spineless” in a tweet comparing him to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Abbott uses a wheelchair due to a 1984 accident that crushed his spine and paralyzed him from the waist down. Money’s tweet has since been deleted. Money is facing off against Jill Dutton. Both candidates say they’re pro-voucher.

Also getting the snub was Katrina Pierson, a Fox news personality and spokesperson for former President Donald Trump who is challenging Holland. Pierson did not respond to requests for comment.

Holland said he wonders if the reason his race was spared was because of his historically good relationship with Abbott’s office, one that was protected last session when he was in constant communication with Abbott while he carried critical legislation to continue agencies such as the Public Utility Commission and ERCOT.

“With the force that he came out against my colleagues who voted the same exact way that I did, I did wonder if he was going to [get involved],” Holland said in an interview. “I don’t know why he left me alone, but I like to attribute it to my relationships with people inside the [Capitol] building. And maybe I’m completely naive or wrong in that, but I tried to build and maintain good relationships, including with the governor’s office.”

Joe McDaniel, an East Texas businessman challenging Dean, said he chose to run against the Longview Republican because of what he described as a liberal voting record, including his school voucher vote. He said in an email to the Tribune that he looks forward to “championing School Choice” if elected, but that he doesn’t know why Abbott has remained silent. Dean’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

“You should probably direct that question to Abbott,” he said in the email. “I have zero control in what the Gov. does.”

Five of the primary challengers have won endorsements from Attorney General Ken Paxton, who vowed to work against Republicans who voted last year to impeach him over corruption charges, of which he was later acquitted by the Senate. Like many of the incumbents they’re challenging, they claim hard-right positions on issues such as immigration, abortion, and the border.

And many of them have gotten considerable funding from pro-voucher forces like the Family Empowerment Coalition PAC, or through a PAC funded by West Texas oil billionaire Tim Dunn, a Paxton supporter and conservative activist. Others are struggling: One challenger, Bonnie Walters, has reported no funding or major endorsements at all in her challenge to Dean.

However, Abbott’s endorsement seems to carry more weight at the voting booth than Paxton’s, according to a poll earlier this year by the University of Houston.

One reason Abbott might be staying out of some of the races is that he doesn’t want to back a candidate who is unable to win against an incumbent considered too difficult to beat.

Abbott is often rumored to be preparing for a run for higher office, and so the stakes are high in terms of how strongly he can control and influence voters, said Renee Cross, senior executive director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, which ran the endorsement poll. A few years ago, he backed a handful of primary opponents for incumbent House Republicans and only won half of them.

“He’s going to want this to be a success,” she said. ”You do have to draw the line at some point. He is being very strategic and cautious because these decisions are being made most likely with more than just the next [legislative] session in mind. If he is looking to run for a different office in the future, backing some of these folks could be detrimental to him.”

Republican primary voters in Geren’s moderate Fort Worth district, for example, have sent him to Austin 12 times in spite of repeated attacks from pro-voucher forces and other hard-right groups. He didn’t have a primary opponent in the last two cycles.

In the most recent campaign finance reporting period, opponent Jack Reynolds, an adjunct professor and a math teacher at a public high school, raised $5,498 — just 2% of what Geren took in. He has been endorsed by Paxton but no other statewide officials, according to his campaign site.

Reynolds said he wasn’t surprised when Abbott’s campaign, after meeting with him for a potential endorsement, decided not to spend his resources in a race where the incumbent has “an iron grip on this district” and where an unknown like him has an uphill battle.

“I can certainly understand the governor’s position,” he told the Tribune in an interview. “I think asking him to crawl out on this limb with me was a bit much, but it was close. I think they gave it some serious consideration.”

He views Abbott’s silence on him as more of a reflection on Geren, whom the governor has endorsed in the past. “That says something,” Reynolds said. “This is a governor who has lost a lot of confidence in Charlie Geren.”

And in other cases where Abbott didn’t endorse, the candidate in question may simply be too politically radioactive or controversial for Abbott to risk his money and reputation, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“If you’re going to come at an incumbent Republican from the right, you’re probably going to be very far right, oftentimes in the fringe,” Rottinghaus said. “So that’s a risk that the governor would be taking if he endorses candidates who seem to be at the margins in terms of their politics, or who have other kinds of personal baggage that can be used against them.”

Feuerstein, who offered to take a militia to the Texas-Mexico border and whose viral videos included a 2015 rant about how the red cups used by Starbucks constituted a war on Christmas, said he thinks he intimidates the political establishment. Feuerstein said he was recruited to run by Paxton.

“Paxton’s the only one who’s kept his word,” he wrote. “I scare the establishment,” he said. “They know they can’t control me. I’m loud and I don’t play by the rules. They want polished cadets … and I’m a Wild West gunslinger.”

But Feuerstein says he’s not bothered by the lack of support from the top because that’s not the support he needs to get to Austin.

“It’s not an Abbott endorsement I’m seeking,” he wrote in a text. “He doesn’t vote in our election. It’s the everyday American I’m seeking to endorse me with their vote. That’s what matters!”

State Rep. Ernest Bailes, R-Shepherd, who killed an 11th-hour attempt during the regular session to shove a voucher bill through the House without a public hearing, said he thinks Abbott’s decision-making is personal — at least in his case.

Bailes is one of Abbott’s top primary targets, having openly defied the governor on several occasions over the issue of vouchers, both in person and in public statements.

“I’m happy for them,” he said of the incumbents who were spared. “I consider every one of those guys my friends. Maybe those guys didn’t speak up as vocally against what his top priority was, and I did. I don’t do well at playing politics. My priority is to do the absolute best job that I can and vote for my district, and then come home be the husband, father and businessman that I need to be at home.”

Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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