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Education policy, House speaker race set the tone in Republican Party primary runoff elections

Education policy, from school vouchers to curriculum standards, are among the issues defining this year's part primary runoff elections in Texas.
Education policy, from school vouchers to curriculum standards, are among the issues defining this year's part primary runoff elections in Texas.

Three Northeast Texas Republican incumbents face challengers in Tuesday's runoffs.

In Tuesday’s party primary runoff elections, three pairs of Northeast Texas Republicans will face one another in races for state-level office. The winners will take the GOP nominations for State Board of Education District 12, Texas House of Representatives District 1, and Texas House of Representatives District 33.

State Board of Education District 12 runs from Gainesville to Texarkana, and includes all of the KETR service area. Incumbent Pam Little will face challenger Jamie Kohlmann in the runoff.

In the Texas House, Lamar County voters will join other District 1 Republicans in choosing between incumbent Gary VanDeaver and fellow GOPer Chris Spencer. In District 33, an increasingly suburban district composed of Rockwall County and part of southern Collin County, incumbent Chris Holland will appear on ballots with Katrina Pierson in the Republican runoff.

Polls will be open statewide from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. In Commerce, the only polling station is at City Hall, 1119 Alamo Street.

State Board of Education District 12

Little, the incumbent, received about 36 percent of the vote during the March primary. She’ll face Kohlmann, a former education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, who got about 27 percent of the vote.

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently declined to reconsider a ruling that blocked part of Texas House Bill 900 from going into effect. Booksellers sued Texas after the bill, which requires booksellers to rate their books for sexual content before selling them to Texas schools, was signed into law.

Kohlmann said at the forum that Texans need to enlist the help of law enforcement to keep explicit material out of school libraries.

“That pornography needs to be reported,” she said. “It needs to be reported to your local sheriff. It needs to be reported all the way up to the Attorney General.”

Paxton has endorsed Kohlmann. Rep. Jared Patterson, who wrote the bill, has asked Paxton to appeal the court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Little said she encouraged Keven Ellis, the chair of the State Board of Education, to put guidelines for school library book collection on the agenda. The guidelines state that school libraries must prohibit the possession of library books that are sexually explicit by the vendor or books that are “pervasively vulgar or educationally unsuitable.”

“When the decision on the court came down, I called Jared Patterson and I said, ‘okay, what now?'” Little said. “And his response was 'thank God y’all have those standards.'”

Texas House District 1

The Republican Party’s internal conflict over school vouchers has dominated the narrative in the race for Texas House District 1, the state’s northeasternmost district that stretches from Texarkana to Lamar County.

In the March 5 primary, incumbent VanDeaver received more than 45 percent the vote, while challenger Spencer totaled about 43 percent. VanDeaver, of New Boston, joined some other rural Republicans in opposing Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts to pass an educational savings accounts bill in the most recent legislative session. Spencer, of Hughes Springs, supports the creation of the accounts, commonly known as school vouchers.

The contrasting stances on the matter constitute the only high-profile point of difference between the two conservative Republicans.

“The governor warned me that if I voted against school vouchers, ‘I'm coming after you,’ and he has,” VanDeaver said at a May 16 debate in Texarkana.

Spencer has said though he supports public schools, he approves of Abbott’s plan.

“The taxpayers and the stakeholders and the citizens of House District 1 support school choice with the funding following the child,” Spencer said.

Both candidates have expressed exhaustion with the runoff campaign cycle, which has been characterized by aggressive rhetoric.

“I’ve never been in such a nasty campaign,” VanDeaver told The Paris News. Spencer and VanDeaver met local voters at a Republican Women of the Red River Valley candidate forum in Paris on May 13.

Spencer agreed with VanDeaver’s assessment, also reported in The Paris News.

“It has been a vicious campaign for sure,” Spencer said.

Texas House District 33

The Republican primary for the Texas House District 33 seat was close — Holland received about 39 percent of the vote. His runoff opponent is Pierson, a former campaign spokesperson for Donald Trump. She got about 40 percent of the vote.

Pierson received campaign donations from Texans United for a Conservative Majority. The political action committee was launched by two West Texas billionaires, Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, after their previous PAC faced controversy when its then-president met with white supremacist Nick Fuentes.

Stickland was removed as president of Defend Texas Liberty and the PAC's supporters called his infamous meeting a mistake.

The Rockwall County GOP chapter denounced Holland on social media in January for voting in favor of impeaching Paxton and for supporting Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan.

“He has grown increasingly unresponsive to voters and the Republican Party, especially over the last two legislative sessions,” the post said. “In doing so, he has insulted and belittled local Republican voters and your Rockwall County Republican Party.”

The mayor of Rockwall, Trace Johannesen, endorsed Holland on social media in March.

“Justin Holland is a proven local leader, with a clear demonstrated track record of community service, and established relationships working with fellow Texans in Austin,” Johannesen said. “We have seen some of the most conservative legislative sessions in our time. I value his proven ability to work across the aisle when it benefits Texas and HD33.”

Mark Haslett has served at KETR since 2013. Since then, the station's news operation has enjoyed an increase in listener engagement and audience metrics, as well recognition in the Texas AP Broadcasters awards.
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