Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
Republicans seeking re-election to the State Board of Education managed to hang onto their seats Tuesday despite speculation that the unpopularity of the candidate headlining the GOP ticket, Donald Trump, may flip certain races. And one newcomer seeking an open seat in a deeply conservative East Texas district easily bested his Democratic rival.
The GOP’s margin of victory in three contested races may have been smaller than it would have been without Trump at the top of the ticket, but they still handily beat their Democratic challengers. (Trump also secured a smaller percentage of the vote than Republicans normally enjoy in deep red Texas but still beat Hillary Clinton.)
The race that remained notably close as returns rolled in was District 5 in South Central Texas; San Antonio Republican Ken Mercer ended the night with a 4 percent lead over San Marcos Democrat Rebecca Bell-Metereau (Libertarian candidate Ricardo Perkins had clinched the remainder of the vote).
It was Bell-Metereau’s third time challenging Mercer, a fixture of the board’s far-right faction whose margin of victory over her shrunk to just 51.3 percent in 2012 and settled just below that — 49.6 percent — on Tuesday. Political scientists and state board observers said the race was the one Democrats had the greatest chance of winning amid a combination of Trump’s unpopularity in the state and the latest round of redistricting making the district less red.
The boundaries of most state board districts are drawn in such a way that they are safe for either Republicans or Democrats — mostly the former — meaning seats flipping from Republican to Democratic representation, and vice versa, are rare. (The last time it happened was in 2012.) The board’s current makeup includes 10 Republicans, who usually are seen as either moderate or extremely conservative, and five Democrats.
Tuesday's election did nothing to change that.
In the race for GOP-friendly District 10 — another Central Texas-anchored seat — Georgetown Republican Tom Maynard – bested Austin Democrat Judy Jennings by nearly 13 points. It also was Jennings’ third time to challenge Maynard, who is considered one of the more moderate Republicans on the board.
Board chairwoman Donna Bahorich, a Houston Republican, secured a second term representing District 6 by nearly 12 points despite big passion and rhetoric from Houston Democrat Dr. Dakota Carter, a 28-year-old adolescent psychiatry resident and educational doctoral student. Libertarian candidate Whitney Bilyeu secured nearly 4 percent of the vote.
And in deeply conservative District 9, Lufkin Republican Keven Ellis beat Nacogdoches Democrat Amanda Rudolph by a very wide margin. Ellis, a chiropractor who had a much tougher primary race, ended the night with a more than 50-point lead over the Stephen F. Austin State University professor. (The remaining 3 percent of the vote went to Libertarian candidate Anastasia Wilford.) The East Texas-anchored district opened up when Mount Pleasant Republican Thomas Ratliff decided not to seek re-election.
The GOP's good showing Tuesday is a win for conservative members of the state board who are mounting a fight to keep creationism in Texas’ science curriculum standards. Determining the big topics teachers must impart on the state’s more than 5 million schoolchildren is one of the board’s biggest duties, along with approving textbooks.
In September, a panel convened by the Texas Education Agency voted to strip creationist language from science standards written in 2009 when the state board's far-right faction was larger. The state board will decide whether to accept the panel’s recommendations early next year, all but guaranteeing another ideological fight. The board has become known for them.
Board Democrats, who will surely support dropping creationist language from the science standards, gained a more vocal ally Tuesday. In the race for District 1, El Paso Democrat Georgina Perez beat Green Party candidate Hugo Noyola Jr. by 66 percentage points.
Perez, a self-described “MeXicana Empowerment Specialist” who says the board’s Democrats have sat silent for far too long, has already proven to be far more outspoken than her predecessor, Democrat Martha Dominguez, who decided not to seek re-election this year.