This Teacher Beat Kentucky’s House Majority Leader in the GOP Primary. Then He Went Back to School
On Tuesday night, high school teacher Travis Brenda narrowly defeated Kentucky House Majority Leader Jonathan Shell in the Republican primary.
On Wednesday morning, he was back at Rockcastle County High School in Mt. Vernon, Kentucky for a professional development workshop for teachers.
“It’s been overwhelming,” he told TIME on Wednesday.
Brenda, who won 51% of the vote, is one of dozens of teachers who have become first-time candidates across the country this year, following teacher walkouts for better pay and more education funding in red states. Most of the teachers-turned-candidates are Democrats, but many Republicans are also running. And Brenda is one of a handful of Republican teachers who challenged a member of his own party in a primary, fed up with years of education cuts.
“The title of majority floor leader really does not mean anything to me,” Brenda said. “What’s important to me is, are they listening to their constituents and are they doing what’s best for Kentucky and best for the district here at home. And I think a message was sent last night.”
Brenda’s upset victory comes less than two months after teachers flooded the state capitol to protest education cuts and controversial pension changes. Brenda disagreed with the way Republican leaders handled an overhaul of the public pension system, rapidly unveiling and passing a surprise bill that left teachers with less generous retirement benefits. Shell, whom Brenda had voted for in the past, introduced the pension proposal.
At the time, teachers warned lawmakers that they would keep the pension overhaul in mind when voting in upcoming elections, chanting, “We’ll remember in November” and “Vote them out.”
“I really think the momentum was on my side,” Brenda said Wednesday. “That upset a lot of people — not just teachers, but other state employees and their family members as well. I think a lot of the focus has been just on teachers, whereas it’s a lot more than just teachers.”
Brenda, who has been an educator for 19 years, teaches math and pre-engineering classes using textbooks that are as old as his students. Shell, who has served in the Kentucky House since 2013, became majority floor leader in late 2016 at age 29 and was considered a rising young star among Kentucky Republicans.
Brenda will now face Democrat Mary Renfro, a real estate agent and school board member, in the November general election. If elected, he said he wants to boost education funding and work on solutions to the opioid crisis facing his district and the rest of the country.
“Education, economic development and the opioid crisis, to me, are all interconnected because we have to have an educated workforce to attract new businesses, to bring in jobs and we have to have people who can pass a drug test who are educated to step into those jobs,” Brenda said. “All that stuff goes hand in hand. And if we do not have an educated workforce, then businesses will not even consider relocating to an area.”