Unmasking Vouchers: Dark Money in the Texas Primary Elections 

Recently in the Hotline, we covered the $6 million donation received by Gov. Greg Abbott from the pro-voucher Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass, highlighting the dark money flowing into the Texas primary elections. This week, we delve into the latest developments in the GOP primaries and their broader implications for our democracy. 

In the thick of Texas politics, an intensifying war rages on, fueled by dark money, ideological divides, and conflicting loyalties among Texas Republicans. The recent House District 2 special election and ongoing primary campaigns offer a stark glimpse at the tumultuous state of GOP politics in Texas, revealing a party at a crossroads, influenced heavily by the wealth and will of out-of-state billionaires. 

At the heart of these events is the contentious issue of school vouchers, an unpopular policy that has not only divided the party but also attracted the attention of powerful financial backers. Governor Abbott, with substantial support from Yass and other wealthy voucher proponents, has made no secret of his desire to reshape the Texas House GOP to favor this policy.  

This ambition has set the stage for Abbott’s “revenge primary” in which he is aggressively targeting dissenters within his own party who stood with Rep. John Raney (R-College Station) to defeat vouchers in the fourth special session of the 88th Texas Legislature. These Republican incumbents are centered in Abbott’s crosshairs for taking a principled stand in the face of enormous pressure and voting to defend Texas public schools from the threat of privatization. 

Among the notable battlegrounds in the Texas House was the HD 2 special election, necessitated by the expulsion of former Rep. Bryan Slaton due to allegations of inappropriate conduct involving a young intern.  Jill Dutton’s narrow victory over Brent Money became a symbol of the ongoing GOP civil war. Despite Money’s endorsements from top Texas Republicans and support from dark-money groups, Dutton’s win challenges the notions that vouchers are a top priority for Republican voters or that high-profile conservative endorsements from the likes of Attorney General Ken Paxton or Abbott guarantee electoral success (even among Republican primary voters).  

The HD 2 special election was a messy affair characterized by accusations and counteraccusations. While Dutton criticized Money for receiving most of his fundraising from the neo-Nazi-affiliated “Defend Texas Liberty” PAC, Money claimed that Dutton won the race because Democrats “interfered” by voting in the special election. However, it’s crucial to remember this was a special election, not a primary, so the notion of Democrats “interfering” simply by voting doesn’t hold water—after all, they were just exercising their right to vote, not crashing the party uninvited. Dutton and Money will face each other once again in the March Republican primary in a bid to represent HD 2 in the 89th Texas Legislature. 

Meanwhile, several of the anti-voucher Republicans are encountering aggressive attack ads at home funded from outside their communities. 

Rep. DeWayne Burns (R-Cleburne), chair of the House Committee on Land and Resource Management, recently posted on Facebook about a situation in his primary race in which the Family Empowerment Coalition PAC (FECPAC) launched an attack ad against him featuring an AI-generated voice lying about his record without sources or citations. The launch of this attack ad was bizarrely followed by an “in-kind” contribution notice to Burns himself.  

In another fumbling attack by an outside dark money group, the American Federation for Children (AFC) Victory Fund sent a text message to voters in Burns’ district saying that he worked against schools, teachers, parents, and students but mistakenly used a photo of another elected official to represent Burns.  

Rep. Travis Clardy (R-Nacogdoches) recently expressed similar sentiments in an interview about being attacked by the Club for Growth with ads suggesting that a “woke agenda” is being taught in East Texas public schools, and Abbott has taken to the campaign trail to help spread misinformation about Clardy’s support for public education. 

Unsurprisingly, the pro-voucher Pennsylvania billionaire Yass is among the largest contributors to both the Club for Growth and the AFC Victory Fund. 

In fact, an analysis of recent ad buys in these anti-voucher Republicans’ districts over the past two months shows that Clardy and Burns are not alone in being directly targeted by the following dark money organizations: 

  • Americans for Prosperity 
  • 1 ad against Rep. Travis Clardy 
  • 4 ads against Rep. Hugh Shine 
  • Family Empowerment Coalition PAC 
  • 3 ads against Rep. Travis Clardy 
  • 6 ads against Rep. Stan Lambert 
  • 7 ads against Rep. Reggie Smith 
  • 12 ads against Rep. DeWayne Burns 
  • 13 ads against Rep. Drew Darby 

Other Republicans are facing misleading attacks from their primary opponents who have received significant campaign contributions from these same dark money sources according to their latest campaign finance reports. 

These underhanded tactics against rural Republican legislators opposing Abbott’s voucher plan exemplify troubling trends: the growing spread of misinformation and sway of dark money in Texas politics, which together erode the democratic process and distort public perception. 

Dark money should not determine education policy in this state. The story of the HD 2 special election, the trials of anti-voucher Republicans, and the broader implications for Texas politics serve as a reminder of what’s at stake in this election cycle and the 2025 legislative session. It’s more than just political theater—it’s a battle for the heart and future of Texas. Visit vote.texasaft.org to join that fight this election year. 

Read more unmasking other vouchers organizations in Texas: