It was supposed to be the first shot in Governor Greg Abbott’s electoral campaign of revenge for House Republicans not passing his school voucher bill last year. Instead, his chosen candidate went down in flames.
Texas House District 2 in North Texas is a small, mostly rural district of about 200,000 people that encompasses Greenville and Royse City. It’s also exactly the kind of place that thwarted Abbott’s voucher plans during both the regular and special legislative sessions. Rural Republicans rejected the proposal to use taxpayer money for private school tuitions, fearing it would drain resources from their local public schools. Districts like Texas House 2 only have a single private school, while their public schools usually serve as major employers and social hubs.
The district seat has been vacant since Texas Rep. Bryan Slaton (R) was removed in May following an incident where he got a 19-year-old aide drunk and had sex with her. Two Republicans competed to replace him, former Greenville city attorney Brent Money and former Van Zandt GOP chair and school board trustee Jill Dutton. In a Tuesday special election, Dutton prevailed by a little over 100 votes.
The election was a test case for the upcoming March Republican primaries. Money was endorsed by Abbott, and spent most of his campaign talking about border security and school vouchers. The former issue has proven to be a potent talking point in state and federal politics, but meant little to the communities nine hours away from the closest port of entry. Vouchers, as established earlier, tend to be frowned upon by rural Texans who see them as a way to funnel money from their communities to wealthy urban and suburban Christian academies.
Money was also backed by the Defend Texas Liberty PAC, a powerful group funded by the bottomless oil and gas fortunes of Farris Wilks and Tim Dunn, who are fanatical voucher supporters and promised big money to promote them this primary season. However, the PAC has been on the back foot for months after the group’s president, Jonathan Stickland, met with a prominent white nationalist and avowed Hitler fan. Since that news broke, no new influxes of money have come from Wilks and Dunn.
Which may explain why Dutton was ultimately able to outspend Money three-to-one. She focused her campaign on local issues and on protecting public schools. This netted her the support of moderate Republicans and some Democrats, which Money accuses of spoiling the election by voting for Dutton in the election.
It’s hardly a resounding victory. Dutton has just five-weeks as a representative before she has her own primary to face. And, Texas House District 2 was not a main target on Abbott’s vengeance list. Slaton was absent when the original vote to prohibit funds being used for vouchers was taken, and then gone for the fights in the special sessions. Rather, this district was a chance to show that the scale could be weighted a little more toward vouchers by talking directly to rural Republicans.
It didn’t work. Does that signal dire things for Abbott’s plan to push the issue during the primary and punish representatives that opposed him? Maybe. All that is certain right now is Abbott’s record is 0W 1L.