As a reliably Republican state, Texas sees its future determined in Republican primary elections, particularly in the primaries for the state House of Representatives. The makeup and leadership of the Texas House, with its reputation as the more challenging chamber in which to pass conservative legislation, can determine the success or failure of a conservative policy agenda in the Lone Star State.
While this year’s primaries, to be held March 5, are no less important than those of the past, the issues at play are different. “The past primaries have been about who’s the most conservative on standard issues like border, pro-life, property taxes,” says Michael Searle, founder and CEO of Austin-based ARO Political Consultants. This election cycle is “hyperfocused on two issues,” he maintains: Governor Greg Abbott’s quest for school choice and the aftermath of an impeachment trial of the state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton.
As Searle observes, this isn’t the first time that Texas Republicans have debated school choice, but the issue is striking a different chord this year. At the start of last January’s legislative session, Abbott made it clear that he considered universal school choice a priority. During his State of the State Address, Abbott called the issue “so vital to the future of our state that I am making education freedom an emergency item this session.” When universal school choice didn’t pass, he called the legislature back for four consecutive special sessions. A deal seemed close at points, but 21 House Republicans eventually joined Democrats to strip school-choice provisions from an education-funding bill, denying Abbott a crowning legislative achievement.
Remaining true to his commitment, Abbott has injected himself into Texas House primaries, leveraging both his massive war chest (a $40 million cushion after raising $13 million between July and December) and his popularity (51 percent support statewide and 78 percent support among Republicans) to back his favored candidates. Time will tell whether the governor’s commitment pays off electorally in November—and legislatively next year and beyond.
Attorney General Ken Paxton is on a revenge tour, of sorts, campaigning for some of the same candidates as Abbott after the House tried and failed to impeach him last summer. While in session, the House Investigating Committee had opened an investigation into Paxton, eventually delivering 16 articles of impeachment to the full House. The articles, which alleged that Paxton used his office to benefit his personal and professional allies, passed overwhelmingly in the House but failed to win enough votes in the Senate. A vindicated Paxton vowed to go after any House Republican who voted for impeachment. He has used his popularity among grassroots Republicans to boost the profile of several challengers.
On the other side of Abbott and Paxton is Speaker Dade Phelan, who has focused more narrowly on protecting Republican incumbents and defending his own seat. Phelan reportedly spent $2.8 million to ballast some targeted House Republicans and ended the year with $5.3 million in hand. In his own district, Phelan faces challenger David Covey, a former Republican county chair backed by Paxton and, more recently, by Donald Trump.
The primaries could determine both the fate of school choice and the shape of Texas Republicans’ broader agenda. The results will also gauge the popularity of the state’s most visible officials. “I expect these primaries to be very expensive because both sides feel that there’s a lot at stake. . . . look at it as a broader fight of the conservative wing versus the establishment wing,” said Searle. “It will tell us the direction of Texas.”