The battle over school vouchers is likely to be the latest move in far-right Texas Republicans’ increasingly bitter war on moderation.
The last three years have been marked by a violent shift rightward for the Texas GOP. Chairman Matt Rinaldi has consistently targeted Republicans he feels are not conservative enough for vitriol and primary challenges.
The latter is no idle threat. Rinaldi is close friends with Jonathan Stickland, the white supremacist leader of the Defend Texas Liberty PAC. The PAC, backed by Christian nationalist oil and gas moguls Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, has been the defining source of fundraising in Texas Republican politics. Anger Rinaldi, Strickland, Dunn, or Wilks by voting against their preferred, far-right policies, and watch the money flow to a primary opponent.
No figure in Texas politics has angered Rinaldi and company like House Speaker Dade Phelan. While Phelan is deeply conservative, he has balked at several moves that Rinaldi wants. Particularly, Phelan refused to suspend the long tradition of appointing some Democrats to committee chairs. This has, in turn, caused Rinaldi to label Phelan a Democrat himself.
Now, the fight is over school vouchers. The proposed legislation would allow parents to use taxpayer money to pay for tuition at private, mostly religious schools. School vouchers are a priority issue for Governor Greg Abbott, Defend Texas Liberty, and Rinaldi, who have turned the matter into a culture war. Dubbing it “school choice,” proponents have promoted the idea that the program will enable parents to flee “woke” public schools and enroll their children in places where Christian instruction is part of the curriculum.
Democrats and rural Republicans in the House have voted down the idea every time it has come up for a general call. The loss of students from public schools to private ones will affect funding for those schools quite negatively. Rural Republicans especially fear that it will drain their high schools of resources, robbing community hubs and major employers of much-needed funds.
Phelan has been mostly silent on the voucher issue, but he certainly hasn’t been helping it pass. Abbott announced a deal had been made with the Speaker, but Phelan’s response to that carefully avoided any mention of acceptance of vouchers. Regardless, it’s clear that Rinaldi sees Phelan as an obstacle to getting the legislation passed.
In 2020, the Texas GOP changed the rules to make it easier to censure party members. Once a lawmaker is censured, the Texas GOP is free to spend money against that member in the primaries. When U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Uvalde) voted with Democrats on a gun control bill after the Robb Elementary Massacre, he was censured by the Texas GOP. Immediately, three challengers sprung up.
If Phelan doesn’t shepherd the voucher bill to success, he will almost certainly be censured by Rinaldi and face a challenger. The Texas GOP has been weaponized into a far-right extremist organization that accepts no compromise on any of its values. Whether that weapon is big enough to take down one of the most popular Republicans in Austin remains to be seen.