A Texas Board of Education seat hasn’t flipped since 2010. Will that change in 2018?

While most education board races are decided in the primaries, the combination of a blue wave and a big chunk of fundraising could upset a historically Republican district in North Texas.

Republican Pam Little, left, is facing Democrat Suzanne Smith for the open State Board of Education District 12 seat.
Republican Pam Little, left, is facing Democrat Suzanne Smith for the open State Board of Education District 12 seat.  Facebook campaign pages

*Correction appended.

Suzanne Smith says she has tried to run a nonpartisan campaign in her low-profile bid for a place on the State Board of Education. But she stands to benefit from the current contentious political climate that might have Texas Democrats running to the polls.

Since January 2017, Smith’s campaign has blown through over $160,000 — just short of all other board candidates’ expenditures combined. With $26,000 left in the bank as early voting comes to an end, Smith could be the first Democrat seated in North Texas’ District 12 since it became an elected position in 1987.

Her race is one of five contested seats up for election this fall on the state board. The 15-member board sets policies and curriculum standards for the state, and experts are split on whether Smith, a Dallas-area business consultant, has a chance of flipping a district that has been in Republican hands for decades. Her win could strengthen the coalition between Democrats and centrist Republicans on the board, dragging it even more to the center — a big contrast from its history of political infighting among partisan factions that earned it national notoriety for decades.

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The board made headlines during its September meeting for fierce debates over whether social studies curriculum standards should include Helen Keller and Hillary Clinton by name, describe Alamo defenders as “heroic,” and whether slavery had a central or singular role in causing the Civil War. It has garnered national attention for the culture wars that play out during its lengthy, colorful meetings, and can serve as a microcosm for the way Texans are responding to political issues of the moment.

“We went into this race trying to raise the profile, make it a competitive race, and we have made it a nonpartisan race,” said Smith. And she thinks it’s winnable: “Not because I’m a Democrat or a Republican. Because I’m the best candidate.”

Smith’s opponent, Pam Little, has the endorsement of outgoing board member Republican Geraldine “Tincy” Miller, and is relying on the district’s conservative constituency to turn out as usual. “My opponent has a much more liberal slant than I do,” said Little. “That’s not what our Collin County folks want.”

But the amount of donations Smith has received may be telling a different story. This year alone, she has raised over $85,000, largely through small individual donations. “It will likely be $120,000 before the end of the race,” said Smith, a number that may be a drop in the bucket for many campaigns, but is practically unheard of in state board races. Candidates usually don’t raise more than a few thousand dollars according to Dan Quinn, spokesperson for the left-leaning state board watchdog, the Texas Freedom Network.

“That’s remarkable for an SBOE candidate, especially a Democrat, in a general election,” said Quinn. “It strongly suggests that her campaign has generated considerable interest in a district that hasn’t been competitive in the past.”

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The outcomes of the state board races will dictate how curriculum standards for Texas continue to evolve. Because Texas occupies such a large slice of the textbook market, the standards that the board decides on make their way into books that kids from all over the country see in their classrooms.

But despite its outsized impact on public education, the board tends to occupy a sleepy corner of the ballot, and few Texans pay attention beyond the letter that follows the name of the candidate. The last time a seat flipped was in 2010, when the Tea Party movement inspired a wave of Republican enthusiasm at the polls: El Paso Democrat Rene Nuñez was unseated by Republican Charlie Garza in District 1 by just over 2 percentage points. But Garza only served one term, losing by over 15 points in 2012 to Democrat Martha Dominguez.

“If there was a year where you might see a change in the general election, this might be the year,” said Quinn, referring to the Beto O’Rourke-powered blue wave that Democrats are hoping for.

But Mark Jones, the political science fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute, isn’t expecting District 12, which covers Collin County and part of Dallas County, to change party hands this November. “Collin County is not exactly blue wave territory,” he said. The more probable scenario, he explained, is a narrower win than normal for Republicans. Veteran board member Tincy Miller has held the seat since she was appointed to the position in 1984. Since then, she’s been reelected for every term except one, in 2010, when a more moderate Republican challenger edged her out in the primary. Miller won back the seat in 2012, but she’s not running for reelection this year.

Miller, a former reading teacher, focused her efforts on dyslexia support and phonics-based curriculum while on the board. “As I realized I needed to retire, I wanted someone to step in and continue those issues,” said Miller. “I found it in Pam Little.”

But Miller also acknowledged the role that party played in her endorsement. Of Smith, Miller noted: “She's a Democrat, and our district is definitely Republican.”

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“In Collin County, the message is just vote straight red and that includes me, too,” said Little. With 20 years of experience in the textbook publishing industry, Little says she has an understanding of curriculum that’s necessary on the board. And with more efforts to streamline curriculum standards in the works, her knowledge would be put immediately to use.

In contrast, Smith’s campaign is largely void of references to party politics. “I personally don’t think this job should be partisan,” said Smith. “We have been focusing on partisan issues rather than preparing our kids for the future.” Smith said she’s been campaigning all over the district for over 10 months, and has garnered the support of Republicans, Democrats and independents alike. “It helps to have a substantive conversation about how we’re going to improve public education,” she said.

Education board races rarely make headlines in the general election; the real drama happens in the primaries as candidates battle for dominance within their parties. In March, conservative incumbent Pat Hardy beat two Republican challengers who were even further to the right, including one who called herself the “Donald Trump of the Texas State Board of Education” — assuaging the fears of watchdogs like Quinn who worried the board would return to a more polarized iteration with a larger social conservative faction.

As soon as the primary was out of the way, Hardy’s toughest battle was won. “My big campaign is in the primary,” she said. She’s represented District 11, which covers Parker County and parts of Dallas and Tarrant counties, since she was elected in 2002. As an outspoken, conservative voice on the board, she’s relatively well-known. “I think after all these years they actually know who I am,” she said. But Hardy still relies on Republican voters who vote straight ticket: “In my case, [Gov.] Greg Abbott is very popular. A lot of people will vote straight ticket because of Greg Abbott and I will benefit from that.”

Hardy’s Democratic challenger, Carla Morton, is a neuropsychologist who’s criticized the way Texas’ curriculum standards treat climate change and the causes of the Civil War. “We are investing in kids with the hopes that we will have an educated electorate in 10 to 20 years from now,” said Morton. “We need to emphasize critical thinking skills, not alternative facts, not denying climate change is happening.”

And while Morton’s also hoping for a blue wave that reaches Fort Worth, Jones describes District 11 as “hardcore Republican,” and doesn’t expect to see Pat Hardy lose her seat.

Districts 3 and 4 are the extreme example of party dominance: Republicans didn’t even bother to challenge Democratic incumbents Lawrence Allen and Marisa Perez-Diaz. Allen, the board’s only African-American member, represents part of Houston, and Perez-Diaz represents a strip of 14 counties stretching through South Texas between San Antonio and the border.

While Republican Matt Robinson and Democrat Aicha Davis are running in contested races for the open seats in Districts 7 and 13, both are expected to win by double-digit margins.

Democrat Ruben Cortez’s District 2 may have a potential to flip with the right conservative challenger, according to Jones, but it won’t happen this year. “Republican hopes there are pretty well doomed” in the Coastal Bend district, Jones said.

With more than 1.5 million people in each district, state education board races don’t rely much on traditional campaigns. “Candidates rarely raise more than a few thousand dollars,” said Quinn. And that’s not nearly enough to get their name and message out to all voters. “There’s almost nothing you can do to move the needle because you’re just not going to reach voters,” said Jones. The most a candidate can do, he said, is to show up to the education board meetings and respond to requests for information for the League of Women Voters election guide, but that might only win over around 1 percent of voters.

But with record numbers of voters early voting, this could be an unusual year. “It’s been a crazy political cycle,” said Quinn. “In a wave election year, you just never know.”

Ryan Murphy contributed to this story.

Correction: A previous version of this story included incorrect information about Suzanne Smith's fundraising based on incorrect data posted with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Disclosure: Rice University and the Texas Freedom Network have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.