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Texas state Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican willing to buck his party leadership, will not seek reelection

Seliger has served in the Senate since 2005 and led the higher education committee. He was seen as a champion of public education and local control but was derided as too soft on social conservative issues near the end of his tenure.

By James Barragán, Texas Tribune

Amarillo state Sen.  Kel Seliger, a Republican who often butted heads with Lt. Gov.  Dan Patrick and was known to be a key swing vote for his party, will not seek reelection.

"After thoughtful consideration and with the reassurance of my family, including my new very vocal granddaughter, I have decided not to be a candidate for re-election to the Texas Senate," Seliger said in a statement. "I am forever grateful for my family, supporters, staff, and those who have worked on my behalf since 2004. Thank you for placing your trust in me as your Texas State Senator."

Seliger said he will serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in January 2023. He has represented Senate District 31, which covers the Panhandle, South Plains and the Permian Basin, since 2005. Prior to that, he served four terms as mayor of Amarillo.

In the Legislature, Seliger was known as an advocate for issues of public education, higher education and local control. He led the Senate Higher Education Committee for three sessions between 2013 and 2017. But as parts of the Republican Party in Texas shifted toward support of private school vouchers and against policies passed in Democrat-leaning municipalities, Seliger was often criticized for not supporting those stances and derided as a "liberal."

Empower Texans, an influential conservative advocacy group in the last decade, targeted him in Republican primary elections. The group was funded by Farris and Dan Wilks, brothers from Cisco who became billionaires in the mid-2000s from a "fracking" boom in oil and gas drilling, as well as Midland oilman Tim Dunn.

Undeterred, Seliger described his work as " proven conservative results." He often bucked his party's leadership and rooted his support of public education on the needs of his rural district where public schools are often the only educational option for families. His support of local control was bolstered by his experience as a mayor.

As recently as Monday, Seliger was still breaking with Republican leadership in what he said was deference to his constituents. He was one of the only Republicans in office who openly opposed legislation to ban employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, saying the proposal, pushed by Gov.  Greg Abbott, was "anti-business." Earlier in the 30-day special session, Seliger was the sole GOP vote in the Senate against a bill that would clear the way for party officials to trigger election audits. Seliger  reportedly said he opposed the legislation because it is an “unfunded mandate of the counties, and I’m opposed to big government.”

His maverick streak led to frequent conflict with Patrick, a conservative firebrand who presides over the Senate. In 2017, Seliger voted against two of Patrick's legislative priorities: a bill restricting local governments’ abilities to raise property tax revenues and another one providing private school vouchers. The next session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee prompting a back and forth with Patrick’s office that escalated to Seliger issuing a recommendation that a top Patrick adviser kiss his “back end.” (Seliger ultimately apologized, but only for directing the comment at the adviser and not at Patrick himself.)

Seliger has not led a committee since.

In the midst of that feud, Seliger's son, Matthew, introduced a new rallying cry on  Twitter: "Give 'em Kel!"

On Wednesday, Patrick lauded Seliger's political career.

“While we sometimes disagreed on policy, Senator Seliger’s long career in elected office, including 17 years in the Texas Senate, exemplifies the Texas spirit of community and public service. I thank him for that and wish him the best,” he said.

This year, Seliger got criticism from another high-profile member of the Republican right: former President Donald Trump. A close ally of Patrick's, Trump derided Seliger as a "RINO," short-hand for Republican in name only, and endorsed one of his Republican challengers, Midland oilman Kevin Sparks. Sparks is a former board member of the socially conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank which advocates for private school vouchers and other conservative legislation.

Dunn, who funded the Empower Texans group that targeted Seliger, is vice chair for the Texas Public Policy Foundation's board of directors.

As lawmakers redrew the state's political maps in the special session that ended Tuesday, Patrick's allies redrew Seliger's SD-31 to remove four counties from the Panhandle and add a dozen to the southern end of the district, closer to Midland, where Sparks lives.  Seliger denounced the move as a blatant attempt to draw the district to Sparks' advantage and was the only Republican to vote against the newly proposed Senate maps.

In his last Republican primary in 2018, he faced two challengers: Amarillo restaurateur Victor Leal and former Midland Mayor Mike Canon. Seliger narrowly avoided a runoff against Canon, winning 50.4% of the vote. Patrick swore off involvement in that race, but his top political adviser, Allen Blakemore, was involved in Leal's campaign. Patrick was also running for reelection that year, and Seliger was the only Republican senator to not endorse him.

In his announcement, Seliger did not mention his Republican challengers or his frequent feuds with Patrick. He highlighted his work on education and defense of local control as well as his work to fight human trafficking and prevent sexual assault. He also cited laws he wrote to rework high-stakes testing for schoolchildren in the state and require the disclosure of dark money in political campaigns.