How Antivax PACs Helped Shape Midterm Ballots

After the bill’s defeat, the group turned its efforts to unseating Villalba, backing primary challengers to his re-election campaign in 2016 that ran largely on the vaccine exemption issue. According to Villalba, every time he’d show up at the polls to greet people, two or three people from TFVC would be there to confront him and yell insults. “They just wanted to ridicule me and make me look foolish,” says Villalba. “I didn’t think that was an effective way to win hearts and minds.”

Schlegel denies having knowledge of any such encounters, saying only that TFVC’s tactics are to protect and advance informed medical consent. “We are the friendly face of vaccine choice and that is what we do,” she says.

Despite their efforts, Villalba won the primaries with 55 percent of the vote. But he’d been rattled. In the House’s last session he told Schlegel he wouldn’t file another vaccine bill unless there was an outbreak in Texas. “I said, ‘if you stand down, I’ll stand down,” says Villalba, recalling the encounter. “I thought we had a truce.” But when he came up for re-election again two years later, Texans for Vaccine Choice found a new candidate to run against him—a far-right challenger named Lisa Luby Ryan. And again they block-walked, poll-watched, and raised money. According to state ethics commission filings, the group has so far spent slightly more than $215,000 on campaign expenditures in 2018, more than five times what it spent in either of the previous two years. Schlegel says TFVC supported candidates friendly to the group’s mission all across the state, not just in Villalba’s district. “It wasn’t personal with him,” she says. “While he didn’t refile the vaccine mandate bill he certainly didn’t stand for informed consent and medical privacy and vaccine choice.”

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At around midnight on March 6th, primary night in Dallas, Ryan sat grinning between Schlegel and Rebecca Hardy, the group’s state policy director. “We just got a call from Representative Villalba, who conceded to us and wished us well,” said Ryan in a Facebook video. “Victory!” shouted Schlegel and Hardy, arms raised high. Three weeks later, a fracking billionaire named Farris Wilks, one of the state’s biggest political donors, cut a check to Texans for Vaccine Choice for $90,000.

Although the group was swift to take credit for his loss, Villalba thinks that storyline is a bit oversold. More important to his defeat, he believes, was a different kind of outbreak in Texas: Beto Fever. In his wealthy, educated district, which Clinton won by 14 points in 2016, about a fifth of the district’s Republicans switched over to vote Democratic in this year’s primaries. “That left all the residual voters who hail from the farthest of the far right fringes,” he says.

But the two phenomena are far from unrelated. They’re both a consequence of Trump’s tumultuous, anti-establishment presidency that from its earliest days welcomed the antivax perspective into its fold. Candidates with previously untenable politics are now finding a place for themselves on major party tickets. Democratic candidates are hoping to use that to their advantage, to flip seats wherever moderate Republican voters are looking to course-correct GOP primary voters who swung too far to the right.

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