When state representative Travis Clardy, of Nacogdoches, first heard rumblings of a potential Republican primary challenger early last summer, he was surprised. The woman who was considering challenging him, Joanne Shofner, was someone who Clardy said he knew “socially” for years. Shofner’s late father, Welcome Wilson, a longtime Houston real estate developer and a former chairman of the University of Houston System Board of Regents, had previously donated to Clardy’s campaign. Clardy figured she’d at least set up a meeting to talk before entering the race—but that never happened, he said. “Before I know it, she’s out campaigning, filing treasury paperwork, and setting up booths at our downtown events,” Clardy said.

An eleven-year veteran of the Texas House, Clardy had seen his fair share of primary challengers before—though none that ever came close to beating him. Most of them had little name recognition or money (opponent Tony Sevilla, a perennial loser to Clardy, even admitted once that he wasn’t running to win, but to prepare himself for future races). But Clardy recognized that Shofner was different. A few months after entering the race, she received the endorsement of Governor Greg Abbott, which Clardy had received ahead of his 2018 and 2020 races. More importantly, she made clear that she would support Abbott’s campaign, financed by billionaires in Texas and elsewhere, to pass a contentious education-voucher program, which would divert tax dollars from public schools to private ones. (Clardy, meanwhile, received the endorsement of Attorney General Ken Paxton after voting against the top law enforcement officer’s impeachment.)

Abbott had spent a lot of political capital pushing for the issue last year only to have 21 rural Republican lawmakers—including Clardy—block its passage. Of the 21, 5 decided not to seek reelection; a majority of the remaining 16 were targeted by Abbott and his wealthy allies. Six lost their races last week, all but one to challengers buoyed by Abbott. Four more could lose in the subsequent runoff elections that will take place in May. Last year, Abbott needed to flip eleven votes to pass his school-voucher plan, and he’s well on his way to doing that.

Clardy and other antivoucher Republicans voted with the majority of their party on almost every issue. When it came to school vouchers, they chose instead to vote in the interest of their rural districts—few of which, if any, have private schools. But in today’s GOP, loyalty to one’s constituents over billionaire donors is unacceptable. 

Speaking to Texas Monthly days after losing his primary election, Clardy offered his candid thoughts on the governor’s “unnecessary” and “heavy-handed” involvement in his race, the outside forces who he said worked to boost his opponent, and what he thinks is next for his colleagues in the Texas House.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 


Texas Monthly: As an antivoucher Republican, what have the past six months been like for you?

Clardy: Frustrating. In my tenure in the Texas House, I was mostly focused on issues related to higher education, and there were a few of my Republican colleagues who I looked to on public education-related matters because they had real-world experience on school boards and the House Public Education Committee. I really relied upon [state representatives] Ken King [of Canadian], Trent Ashby [of Lufkin], Gary VanDeaver [of New Boston], and Keith Bell [of Forney] for advice because they were rural guys who represented districts with demographics like mine. So, I believed those guys were dealing with the governor—and the governor was dealing with them—in good faith to negotiate a school finance bill I could support. 

While I was still leery of the concept of vouchers, I was willing to try something with the funding we’d already approved in the appropriations bill. [The $500 million supplemental appropriations bill would have been used to fund a voucher pilot program for two years for children with special needs or in failing school systems.] I was willing to be somewhat innovative. So, this notion that we were a “Hell no, never” on vouchers was not true. We tried so hard to find a way to get teacher pay raises passed and to find some compromise on vouchers so we could go home and get back to real life, but I think part of the method to the madness was to keep us there as long as possible. By the time I got home, I already had a primary opponent who had her campaign team bought and paid for. I believe we ran a great campaign. We gave it everything we had, but you can’t overcome being outspent over four to one. We spent more money in this campaign than all my other campaigns combined, but the money aligned against us, and the power and political clout behind it were too much. 

TM: Who were the biggest outside influences in your race? 

Clardy: It was Texans for Lawsuit Reform, who paid for her campaign to the tune of at least $750,000 that we know of. [Editor’s note: Clardy later provided materials estimating between $663,000 and $713,875; Texas Ethics Commission filings show approximately $708,000.] It’s somewhat ironic because the pivotal issue was school vouchers—nothing related to tort reform. The other forces were the out-of-state super PACs and Abbott. [Clardy was an outlier in the House for vocally opposing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s impeachment. While TLR denied any involvement in Paxton’s impeachment, they did work to get him out of office during his last election, in 2022.]

The governor, to me, declared war on the very people that got him and all our other statewide officials elected: rural Texas. I don’t think Abbott ever counted on us rural Republicans having a collective backbone and standing up for our districts. I think he always thought we’d knuckle under because that’s what most people would do. He’s more transactional than principled. So, when we stood our ground and defeated the vouchers, he decided to turn against us, and Texas will be worse off for it.

TM: What do you think about Abbott’s involvement in your race?

Clardy: It was unnecessary and heavy-handed. That’s not good leadership for our state or for our Republican party. I also thought it was disrespectful to the rural Republicans who were exclusively responsible for helping put him into office. There’s no question that were it not for rural Texans voting overwhelmingly Republican, Abbott doesn’t overcome the numbers in urban and suburban areas that have been trending toward Democrats. The people we represent that we voted to protect by defeating vouchers were the same ones that put him in office. I guess no good deed goes unpunished. 

I believe that Abbott made promises to the pro-voucher billionaires and other interests that really covet vouchers and the money that comes with them. They finally just said, “Okay, let’s do whatever it takes,” which includes lying, misrepresenting and distorting the actual record, and running dishonest campaigns. In the end they want to support candidates who will vote the way they’re told to vote because that’s the new criteria to be a member of the state House. It seems having people in the body who know their community and understand and vote their district is a secondary concern. 

What I expected from the governor instead was to see him focus on recruiting candidates for the open seats and then work to find a compromise with the antivoucher skeptics like me. I didn’t expect him to help my campaign, but I certainly didn’t [anticipate] him actively engaging in personal false attacks on me.

TM: Abbott endorsed you in both 2017 and 2019. When did your relationship begin to sour? What was the pressure like from the governor on vouchers behind the scenes?

Clardy: I did not know that it had [soured]. I’ve never had a cross word with the man. This entire last year, I was never invited over to the [Governor’s] Mansion or his Capitol office to speak with either him or his staff about what they could possibly do to get me on board with a voucher bill. They never showed us model legislation for what they wanted or why. We were playing a twenty-questions guessing game; it always just felt like the goalposts kept moving. 

When Abbott was first elected governor, one of the first things he did was come and raise money for the Republican Party in Rusk County—which is in my district—in 2015. And I introduced him. We had a great relationship. I’ve voted with him and defended him on almost everything. There was never a falling out because there was never a personal rift between us. This [support for my opponent] really did come as a complete surprise. I didn’t think we had a problem; I thought we disagreed on an issue. But I think our relationship changed when he forced our hand and us rural guys took our stand. I think that embarrassed him and then a plan was executed to replace us.

TM: Do you believe that your election was a referendum on vouchers?

Clardy: No, I do not. Unfortunately, I’m afraid political observers will view this election cycle as an experiment in democracy on how much it costs to buy a state legislative seat, and historians will look back at this as a turning point on how campaigns are conducted. My campaign also showed that people can be fooled if you repeat enough lies about somebody’s record and have enough money to continuously saturate air waves and mailboxes for weeks on end. They repeated lies . . . that I was not strong enough in supporting border legislation. [While campaigning for Shofner, Abbott repeatedly said that voters should choose a candidate who “wants to secure these borders.” Clardy says he “voted 100 percent in alignment with every other Republican in the House and fully support securing the border.”] 

TM: Do you think Shofner’s win shows that vouchers are a popular policy in your district? Or do you think there are other factors that helped her win?

Clardy: No, the deciding factors were the willingness of out-of-state billionaires to assert their will through lies and distortion. . . . I’m not denigrating the intelligence or the sensibilities of the people I represent or the people who voted for her—or, more accurately, against me—based on the lies they heard over and over and over again. You couldn’t open a computer or turn on the television or radio without an ad popping up against me. It was not about her; it was about discrediting me.

I lost to the political machine that was determined to achieve its objective at any cost. What we didn’t realize until it was too late was that there was never going to be a good-faith attempt to have some sort of compromise measure [on vouchers]. I hate that the one time Abbott did what he said he was going to do is when he said he was going to fund primary opponents against anyone who voted against vouchers. [Lieutenant Governor] Dan Patrick has always been in favor of the passage of school vouchers. He’s been there consistently, but Abbott is new to the voucher party, and I think you must ask yourself why. I think we recently saw six million reasons why. [In December, Abbott received $6 million from voucher supporter Jeff Yass, from Pennsylvania. Yass is a GOP megadonor who is also cofounder of the Philadelphia-based investment firm Susquehanna International Group. At the time, Abbott’s campaign called the contribution the “largest single donation in Texas history.”] 

TM: As someone who has been in the House for years, what do you think your loss, and the loss of other antivoucher Republicans, means for Texans?

Clardy: It now has been proven that elections can be bought and that doesn’t bode well for Texas—or the rest of the country. That message will be received loud and clear, I’m afraid. One takeaway from this election is that you can effectively convince people to vote against their own best interest by using extremely well-funded lies, distortions, and hateful attacks, and there are no repercussions for those behind the curtain pulling the levers of power.

TM: Do you think a school-voucher proposal will pass the Legislature next year?

Clardy: Tell me what’s going to stop them. I don’t see many brave hearts left to stand in the way to defeat vouchers. And, again, the goal on my end wasn’t to defeat vouchers come hell or high water. We were willing to work towards a reasonable, fiscally responsible scaled pilot or trial program, but, in hindsight, there was never a good-faith effort to do so. The governor and his allies wanted to get 100 percent what they wanted with no regard for our districts. And rural schools and districts will be the first ones to suffer if [Abbott and his allies] are successful. 

TM: How might other policies, beyond school vouchers, shift in the next Legislature? 

Clardy: The policies that will move are going to be the ones that the executive branch wants to pass. The policies, laws, and budget priorities will not be developed by the Legislature, as intended by our founders, but will be dictated from above in favor of the powerful. What we will see moving forward is more top-down policies and emergency items that legislators are expected to pass and fund or else they will be replaced. 

TM: Why do you think Abbott has put so much emphasis on school vouchers? 

Clardy: If you want to know the truth, follow the money. Five years ago, this wasn’t an issue for him. You’ll have to ask the governor why that’s changed.