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Texas House runoffs bring wave of GOP incumbent defeats, give Abbott votes for school vouchers

Members vote to approve an anti-voucher amendment brought by state rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, during a marathon session on the House floor on April 06, 2023.
Jordan Vonderhaar
The Texas Tribune
Members vote to approve an anti-voucher amendment brought by state rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, during a marathon session on the House floor on April 06, 2023.

A wave of Republican incumbents were swept out of the Texas House in Tuesday's primary runoffs, including a handful who opposed school vouchers last fall, handing Gov. Greg Abbott a tentative majority in the lower chamber on his signature issue.

With most ballots counted across the state, six of the eight GOP House members who were forced into overtime appeared to lose their runoffs, continuing a surge of anti-establishment energy that had already led to the ouster of nine House Republicans in the March primary.

The runoffs brought mixed results for Texas' hard right: the House gained a pro-voucher majority — for now — and the 15 GOP incumbents ousted by insurgent challengers across both rounds of the primary amounted to a record. But House Speaker Dade Phelan, the top target of the party's rightmost faction, survived his runoff, setting the stage for a period of major turbulence and uncertainty for the lower chamber as it shifts even further right.

As the runoff results took shape, Abbott declared that the House "now has enough votes to pass school choice," the term used by voucher supporters to describe measures that provide taxpayer funds for private school tuition.

"While we did not win every race we fought in, the overall message from this year's primaries is clear: Texans want school choice," said Abbott, who channeled all his energy and resources toward securing a pro-voucher majority in the House.

According to complete but unofficial results, anti-voucher GOP state Reps. DeWayne Burns of Cleburne, Justin Holland of Rockwall and John Kuempel of Seguin lost their reelection bids on Tuesday. The Associated Press called Burns' and Holland's contests for their respective primary challengers, former Glen Rose Mayor Helen Kerwin and former Trump spokesperson Katrina Pierson. Kuempel trailed his runoff foe, former state lawmaker Alan Schoolcraft, by a wide margin with all precincts reporting.

A fourth GOP voucher holdout, state Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, defeated runoff opponent Chris Spencer, according to the AP.

The Republican voucher skeptics were not the only casualties of Tuesday's election. State Reps. Frederick Frazier, R-McKinney, Stephanie Klick, R-Fort Worth, and Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, all fell to their runoff challengers. All three backed school vouchers last year and received Abbott's support in the runoffs, yet also voted to impeach Attorney General Ken Paxton last spring — another issue that became a flashpoint in the House primaries.

By Abbott’s count, voucher supporters headed into the runoffs needing to net just two votes to gain a majority in the House, the chamber where a firewall of Democrats and rural Republicans has shot down past attempts to provide taxpayer funds for private school tuition.

Despite the chamber’s historical resistance, Abbott has adopted vouchers as his top priority in recent years. He campaigned for reelection on the issue in 2022, then spent much of last year trying to muscle it through the House, using a mix of hardball tactics such as vetoing bills passed by voucher holdouts and using public school funding increases as a negotiating chip.

Abbott ultimately failed to break through, with the death knell coming last fall when a bloc of 21 House Republicans — mostly from rural districts — joined with Democrats to strip vouchers from a broader education funding bill. The bipartisan coalition of 84 members outnumbered the 63 Republicans who voted to preserve the voucher measure.

Ahead of Tuesday’s runoff, voucher supporters had already knocked off six of the GOP holdouts. They were also poised to nominate at least four pro-voucher candidates to fill seats vacated by retiring voucher opponents, netting a total of 10 seats before the overtime round.

Another seat that was vacant at the time of last fall’s voucher vote is all but certain to be filled by a pro-voucher member next year. That put voucher supporters at 74 votes in the 150-member chamber heading into Tuesday — assuming all pro-voucher Republicans hold onto their seats in the November general election.

Most of Texas’ House districts have been drawn to heavily favor Democrats or Republicans, making most seats unlikely to change hands this fall. But Democrats are eyeing at least one seat Abbott is counting as a voucher pickup: San Antonio’s House District 121, where state Rep. Steve Allison lost to an Abbott-backed primary challenger, Marc LaHood, in March.

Allison and other anti-voucher incumbents faced an onslaught of attack ads in the first round of the primary, a trend that continued into the runoffs. Much of the opposition came from Abbott, who has spent more than $8 million of his own campaign funds on the primaries, and two deep-pocketed pro-voucher groups.

AFC Victory Fund, the super PAC political arm of the voucher advocacy group American Federation for Children, has spent around $2 million in the runoffs boosting pro-voucher primary challengers. And Club for Growth, a federal PAC, reserved some $4 million in TV and radio ads targeting the four anti-voucher Republicans who were pushed into runoffs, along with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont.

A large chunk of the spending has been underwritten by Jeff Yass, the Pennsylvania-based GOP megadonor and TikTok investor whose priority issues include school vouchers. Yass has contributed nearly $12 million to Abbott and AFC Victory Fund, about half of which came from a single $6 million check to Abbott’s campaign in December. He has also donated millions to Club for Growth.

One of the main groups defending anti-voucher Republicans, meanwhile, has been the PAC funded by H-E-B Chairman Charles Butt. The group spent more than $4 million through March 5, then largely steered clear of the runoffs. Filling the void was a last-minute funding influx from Miriam Adelson, the owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino empire who is intent on legalizing her business in Texas. She kicked in six figures to Holland and Kuempel in the final weeks of the runoff.

Tommy Schultz, AFC Victory Fund’s CEO, said Tuesday’s results — paired with the earlier March primary wins — “represent the single biggest movement in favor of school choice in modern history.”

“Justin Holland, John Kuempel, and DeWayne Burns lost the moment they chose loyalty to unions and a corrupt establishment over students,” Schultz said in a statement.

Phelan, for his part did not take a public stance on the voucher measure last fall, but he later told the Tribune he would have preferred a modest version of it to pass. His critics charged that he didn’t do enough to whip his caucus in line.

After Phelan declared victory in his runoff, Paxton released a statement blaming the outcome on Democratic voters who crossed over to rescue the GOP speaker. He also threatened House Republicans with electoral defeat in 2026 if they voted to return the gavel to Phelan when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

"My message to Austin is clear: to those considering supporting Dade Phelan as Speaker in 2025, ask your 15 colleagues who lost re-election how they feel about their decision now," Paxton said. "You will not return if you vote for Dade Phelan again."

Phelan delivered the opposite message, telling a raucous crowd of supporters, “I will be your state rep for HD 21 and I will be your speaker for the Texas House in 2025."