The battle cries are loud and clear on both sides of the hotly contested race for state Senate District 10.
“It’s time to take back SD10,” declares Republican Konni Burton, a grassroots conservative.
“Come and take it,” responds Democrat Libby Willis, a Fort Worth neighborhood leader.
The fight for SD10 — the highly coveted Senate seat that has garnered national attention since Fort Worth’s Wendy Davis first claimed it in 2008 — rages on, heating up as the days tick by, with just over two months before the Nov. 4 election.
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This is the race to watch, say political observers, who predict it will be one of the costliest races in Texas as Republicans and Democrats send money to Burton and Willis, hoping to help claim the so-called swing district for their own party.
Many stress that this race isn’t just about one party claiming one seat in the Texas Senate. It’s also about the ideological balance of power in the Legislature’s upper chamber.
If Burton wins, the GOP will move closer to a supermajority in the Senate, essentially removing Texas Democrats’ last line of defense in the Legislature.
“The outcome will determine if the partisan balance in the Senate remains unchanged at 19-12 or shifts to a 20-11 Republican advantage,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “SD10 is the only district where there is a truly competitive Senate contest between a Republican and Democrat.”
And that’s why, he said, this race “is expected to be the most expensive state legislative contest in the November general election.”
Also on the November ballot with Burton and Willis are Libertarian Gene Lord and Green Party candidate John Tunmire of Fort Worth.
This race pits two activists — Burton, a Colleyville conservative with Tea Party ties, and Willis, a longtime Fort Worth community activist.
Both have fought for causes in their neighborhoods and communities, even trekking to Austin to work with and testify before legislators on various concerns.
But that’s where the similarities pretty much end.
Burton, considered a rock star in Republican circles, said there’s one clear difference between her and Willis.
“She has a liberal philosophy of government,” said Burton, 51, a former sales representative and small-business owner. “I have a conservative one.”
Willis, a familiar face to many in Fort Worth, said her years of civic work with neighborhoods and groups ranging from the United Way to Downtown Fort Worth Inc. have helped her know what the real issues and needs are.
“I have been on the ground, in the trenches,” said Willis, 55, daughter-in-law of the late Doyle Willis, who represented Fort Worth in the Legislature for decades. “She has no civic record like I do. She has ideology.”
Burton said she is focusing on several issues in this race.
“Everyone is concerned about the border,” she said. “It’s a bipartisan issue and must be addressed.”
At the same time, she said, “parents and businesses are incredibly concerned about public education, and the quality of that education received by students will always be a top issue.”
Other than that, she said, she wants to find a way to create tax reform and put more money back in the pockets of businesses and families.
She said she continues to block-walk and meet with residents throughout the district. She also plans to run ads as the election nears.
Burton said she firmly believes that residents in SD10 want different leadership.
“Conservatives in District 10 are tired of being misrepresented by Wendy Davis,” she said. “The district is ready for a change, and our message is resonating with the voters we are reaching out to.
“We deserve representation that aligns with the values of our district,” Burton said. “I am concerned about the direction of our country, just like my neighbors, and I’m ready to represent our conservative values in Austin. I’m the only candidate whose principles align with this district.”
Burton has received a number of endorsements this year, including from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell; and Republican state Reps. Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, Matt Krause of Fort Worth, Bill Zedler of Arlington and Giovanni Capriglione of Southlake.
She also gained backing this year from several Tea Party leaders; Tim Lambert, president of the Texas Home School Coalition; and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley.
Burton had raised $279,121 this year as of the last reporting period, which covered donations through June. At that time, she had $45,364 on hand, according to reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.
She had also loaned her campaign $250,000.
“Republicans have let this district slide through our hands twice,” Burton said. “It won’t happen again.”
Willis said she has four key issues: fully funding public education in Texas, which includes reversing funding cuts; implementing the Texas water plan and state transportation plans; and ensuring that women in Texas receive equal pay for equal work.
She said she’s focused on key issues while her opponent is fixated on political ideology.
“I think that [ideology] is wrong for Tarrant County voters,” said Willis, a former president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods. “I think they are more interested in a leader who will cross the aisle to get things done.
“I know the issues. I know the needs,” Willis said. “She has no civic record like I do. She has ideology.”
Willis said she continues to block-walk and call potential voters and plans to ramp up those efforts after Labor Day.
She said she has received support from a number of Republicans who say they believe in the same issues she does. They say they will not only vote for her but also help campaign for her.
“My phone has been ringing since the Republican primary runoff ended in May,” Willis said. “People are telling me they understand how crucial these issues are … and they want somebody who will cross the aisle to go to work on the issues.”
Willis has received a number of endorsements, including from the Texas State Teachers Association, the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas and the Texas Municipal Police Association.
Willis had raised $293,982 through June and had $102,389 on hand, according to state reports. She had also loaned her campaign $88,250.
“I don’t believe that Tarrant County voters want a senator with a rigid agenda that will make Austin more like Washington,” Willis said. “I will work together across the aisle to improve our schools and expand critical water and transportation infrastructure so that our economy can grow.”
The swing district
District 10 — which includes Fort Worth, Arlington, Mansfield and Colleyville — was considered fairly safe ground for Republicans until Davis bested state Sen. Kim Brimer, R-Arlington, in 2008.
In 2012, Davis narrowly beat former state Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth, in her re-election bid.
“The district leans Republican, and thus Burton begins the race with an initial advantage,” Jones said. “However, as Wendy Davis demonstrated, albeit in a slightly more favorable district for a Democrat, SD10 is without question winnable for a Democrat who runs a smart and effective campaign that makes a convincing appeal to Tarrant County swing voters.
“Willis is an experienced, savvy and very well-qualified candidate and certainly will give Burton and Texas Republicans a real run for their money.”
The GOP has long hoped to claim the district to move closer to a supermajority and essentially remove Democrats’ ability to stop any proposal in the Legislature.
A long-standing Senate rule calls for two-thirds of the 31-member Senate, or 21 senators, to agree before a bill can reach the floor for debate. Republicans hold 19 seats. A victory in this race would inch them closer to their goal.
“Part of the intensity may still be from the sting of losing the Republican seat in 2008 — and part because of the possibility of a Republican supermajority looming over the elections,” said Michelle Payne, an associate political science professor at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth.
“SD10, in my opinion, will be the most interesting and unpredictable” race.