Democrats see opposition to vouchers as electoral opportunity

Gov. Greg Abbott was largely successful in ousting GOP legislators who oppose vouchers. Democrats say that in key races, their candidates’ support for public education funding could be an advantage.

By Shelly BrisbinJune 17, 2024 10:47 am,

After failing to pass the voucher-style program that would have provided state funding to parents who want to send their kids to private schools, Gov. Greg Abbott set out to defeat fellow Republicans who had opposed him.

Though his chosen challengers defeated many anti-voucher Republicans, those primary victors, and other voucher supporters, must now face Democrats in the fall, many of whom say recent polls show the public is on their side in – supporting public education funding, rather than funding for private school tuition – in recent polls. 

Democrats are concentrating on races in House districts where former President Donald Trump lost in 2020. Alexandra Samuels, senior editor at Texas Monthly, says the five districts in question range from the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, to San Antonio and Georgetown, which is in Central Texas. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Let’s begin with how the Legislature’s already changed. I mean, how successful was the governor in defeating those anti-voucher Republicans? 

Alexandra Samuels: He was very successful. There were 21 anti-voucher Republicans in the Legislature, but only 16 ran for reelection. So in the primary and runoffs combined, Abbott helped defeat nine out of those 16 Republicans. So a pretty impressive record.

And then, of course, you have a handful of anti-voucher Republicans who opted to retire and didn’t seek reelection. A lot of them were replaced by pro-voucher Republican members.

So in total, Abbott netted 13 more pro-voucher votes this spring, which is more than enough to overcome the voucher bill’s 11-vote margin of defeat last year. 

And yet, after all that and doing the math, one thing that has Democrats feeling confident going toward November are some polling numbers that suggest a majority of Texans oppose taking money from public schools to fund the kind of voucher-style program that the governor has in mind. How solid do those responses seem? And are Democrats in Texas justified and feeling hopeful as we move toward that Election Day? 

It’s a little bit complicated because with polling on vouchers, the responses can vary based on how the question is asked.

So according to the Texas Politics Project, a slight majority of Texas voters say that they support a voucher-like program when the question is phrased that way. But if you ask respondents whether they support redirecting state tax revenue to private school tuition, fewer Texans are on board. So you’re asking the same thing, essentially. But how the question is worded definitely matters. 

And I think what this shows is the power of messaging. So for Democrats, you would think that when they’re door-knocking or talking with prospective voters elsewhere, they’d want to explain both what a voucher program is and, more importantly, how it’s funded versus using a bunch of jargon. And if Democrats tell voters that vouchers are a way of diverting public education dollars into private schools, they may find that they have a bigger and more receptive audience.

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Let’s dig into races where Democrats are turning up the heat. Tell us about this contest between John Lujan and Kristian Carranza in San Antonio. What’s that contest? 

So, many Democratic organizers see this race – It’s in House District 118, kind of in the San Antonio area – as their best pickup opportunity. Because even after redistricting, President Trump would have lost his seat by about three percentage points.

So you have Kristian Carranza, a progressive community organizer who is vying to unseat state representative John Lujan, who is a pro-voucher Republican. Democrats had long retained the seat, but Lujan flipped it in 2021 during a special election and held it in 2022.

I spoke with Carranza for this piece, and she believes she can win the seat back by hammering Lujan on the voucher issue specifically. And there are a lot of other Democrats in competitive seats in other parts of the state who think they can do the same. 

Interesting. Well, you say other parts of the state. Where else are you thinking? 

So there are five seats where Trump would have won by fewer than five percentage points – four of those seats are held by Republicans; one is held by a Democrat. That one held by a Democrat is Tracy King’s seat. He’s over in the Uvalde area. So Democrats are trying to hold that.

Some other competitive seats are in the DFW area, San Antonio, and there’s one kind of near Georgetown that Democrats are also targeting. 

Well, what could trip up Democrats here if they feel like they have a path? 

A lot. For one, the party is somewhat dysfunctional, having not won a statewide seat in three decades.

And even though there are a number of competitive seats that theoretically could be in play, I think the main challenge for Democrats will be that some Republican incumbents are more popular than Trump, particularly those in the North Texas suburbs. A lot of Republicans up there shared the ballot with Trump in 2020 and outran him.

So the Republican brand might be strong enough in these districts to where incumbents are able to hold their seats, regardless of what the Democrats run on. 

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