Texas voters on Tuesday dealt two big blows to the religious right in Republican nomination battles for the State Board of Education and the state Supreme Court. Perhaps the state board loss stings the most for the religious right, which effectively took control of the important education panel after the 2006 elections — and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that controversial actions by the board’s fringe-right members in recent years angered and mobilized voters in opposition, even in GOP contests this year.
In the contest to replace Cynthia Dunbar in the District 10 state board seat, Georgetown educator Marsha Farney routed Austin attorney Brian Russell. Farney won 62 percent of the vote in the Republican runoff, while Russell netted just 38 percent.
Dunbar recruited Russell as her replacement, and he had the support of a constellation of far-right groups from across the state. One big factor in the result on Tuesday certainly was Farney’s ability to tap her own bank account to heavily outspend Russell. That funding advantage helped Farney tie Russell to Dunbar’s fringe anti-public education views. And Russell, who home-schools his own children, didn’t help his cause when he recently gave his approval to an anti-public schools Internet screed posted by a member of Young Conservatives of Texas.
How significant is Farney’s victory? At first glance, Russell’s defeat coupled with Don McLeroy‘s loss in the March 2 Republican primary would appear to drop the state board’s far-right faction from seven to just five members. Moreover, San Antonio Democrat Rick Agosto, who had often voted with the far-right faction over the past three years, is not seeking re-election this year. And Dallas Republican Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, a swing vote who has sometimes sided with the faction (more recently in the social studies debate but not on science last year), lost her bid for re-election on March 2. Clearly, a significant number of voters are sending a message at the polls this year: stop politicizing the education of Texas schoolchildren with creationist attacks on science and efforts to rewrite history to conform to board members’ personal and ideological agendas.
But Farney’s campaign hardly made her look like a moderate. She trumpeted her anti-abortion views as well as her opposition to same-sex marriage — two issues that have nothing to do with the state board. Of course, the religious right took control of the state board over the years by running vicious election campaigns attacking opponents for allegedly wanting to teach students about masturbation and gay sex, distribute condoms and other contraception to kids, promote abortion and other nonsense. So perhaps Farney’s strategy was to inoculate herself against similar attacks and reassure social conservatives that she was a safe vote. In any case, it’s hard to know at this point whether she will align with the board’s far-right faction.
Of course, Farney still has to face Democrat Judy Jennings, an Austin education consultant, in the November general election. Other general election contests could also affect the religious right’s influence on the board. In the District 5 race, Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a professor at Texas State University-San Marcos, is challenging incumbent Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, one of the board’s far-right members. In West Texas, District 1 incumbent René Nuñez, D-El Paso, faces Republican and fellow El Pasoan Carlos “Charlie” Garza. It’s unclear yet whether Garza will align himself with the board’s far-right faction.
The other big election defeat for the religious right yesterday was Rick Green‘s loss in the Republican runoff for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court. Green, who works with David Barton as a motivational speaker for WallBuilders — a far-right organization that argues separation of church and state is a “myth” — narrowly lost to state district Judge Debra Lehrmann 48%-52%.
Like Farney, Lehrmann hardly portrayed herself as a moderate. But Green’s primary (and perhaps only) support came from religious-right groups across Texas. It seems a majority of Republican voters, however, decided he was too inexperienced — or that his political views were too extreme — to sit on the high court.