Politics & Government

Texas Democrats take aim at Fort Worth

FORT WORTH -- For decades, Democrats have dreamed of turning Texas blue. In 2018, they’d settle for picking up a single state Senate seat.

Five years after Battleground Texas set up shop to elect Wendy Davis as governor, Democrats have yet to even field competitive challengers for the state’s nine statewide elected offices. Instead, a coalition of Democratic strategists with national ties are pouring their time and resources into a longshot effort to win back the state Senate seat Davis vacated after she unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2014.

The district represents 860,000 people — more than a Texas congressional district — and is viewed by both parties as the only competitive seat among the state's 31 Senate races in the 2018 cycle. Its current officeholder, Konni Burton, is a Republican, former tea party activist and acolyte of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

"It's a place of high combat," Austin-based political consultant Bill Miller said of the district.​

Senate District 10 is also the type of district where Democrats in Texas — and across the country — have to compete in order to mount a comeback in red states. It includes several Tarrant County communities, including parts of Fort Worth, Arlington, Mansfield and Colleyville.

Like the rest of Tarrant County, the district skews reliably red. But voters there have supported Democrats in the not-so-distant past, and didn’t support President Donald Trump in the same big numbers as they have other recent Republican presidential candidates.

Davis — before her state Senate abortion-rights filibuster that made her a national political figure — ran as a moderate, business-focused Democrat in the district in 2008. She won the seat from a Republican in an upset.

When she left to run for governor, Democrats lost the seat to Burton, a favorite of the area’s growing tea party movement.

This time, local Democratic Party leaders are rallying behind moderate former Burleson School Board member Beverly Powell. Powell faces a primary against a supporter of liberal favorite Sen. Bernie Sanders, Allison Campolo.

"Winning Senate District 10 is crucial to the state of Texas, crucial to the future of our region and crucial for Tarrant County families,” said Fort Worth Rep. Marc Veasey, a Democrat, who has endorsed Powell

“It’s important that we nominate candidates who can win and can make us all stronger,” Veasey said. “Beverly Powell is that candidate.”

Powell must first win a primary. Campolo, a research scientist and teaching assistant, got her start as an activist on the left, a mirror image of Burton’s path during the tea party rise.

"It's time to give people someone and something to vote for," said Campolo. "Not just voting for the lesser of two evils."

Texas Democrats concede they’ve pared expectations from their last state elections in 2014. Democrats had their best Texas showing in 2016 in 20 years, but a combination of gerrymandered districts and lack of interest from the national party have left them with few targets.

Prospects look dim next year. Cruz faces a longshot challenge from El Paso Democrat Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

The state is home to six congressional districts that swung for Hillary Clinton by more than 15 points in 2016,but national Democrats plan to target just three in 2018: GOP Reps. Will Hurd in San Antonio, John Culberson in the Houston area and Pete Sessions in Dallas.

Those races will require buy-in from the national Democratic Party, which has put some staffers on the ground in each district. National Democrats have many targets in their uphill battle to flip the House, and Texas’ target districts all include expensive media markets.

Strategists said Texas candidates will have to make a strong case on their own, including significant fundraising, to make the party’s top target list.

Ian Russell, a national Democratic strategist who spent six years at the House campaign committee, said, “You have districts that swung to Clinton but are in expensive media markets, and there are primaries, and then on top of that, you have naked partisan gerrymandering.”

That’s why the District 10 state Senate seat matters. Democrats say it’s a chance to prove they’re viable and set a pattern for potentially bigger opportunities in the near future.

Local Democrats successfully lobbied to hold Texas' 2018 Democratic Convention in the Fort Worth Convention Center next June specifically to aid this race.

“Tarrant County is a microcosm of the state from the way it’s made up racially, and it’s tended to trend Republican,” said Texas Democrat Matt Angle, whose political action committee Lone Star Project is working on behalf of Powell.

Angle served as chief of staff under former Fort Worth Rep. Martin Frost and ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 1995 to 1999, when Frost was the committee’s chairman.

“The district is a really good slice of Tarrant County, that shows really where Texas is going demographically over the next 6 to 10 years,” said Angle. “It’s the type of district that mainstream Democrats should compete aggressively in and we should win.”

Republicans are taking the race seriously, but said Democrats are a long way from flipping the seat.

"Democrats have no hope in Texas,” said Tim O'Hare, who heads the Tarrant County Republican Party. “They are not going to win SD 10. It is safely in Republican hands.”

Burton has been working to build a broad coalition. She said her campaign workers knocked on 130,000 doors in 2014, and she plans to exceed that number this time around.

“We have an established grassroots network that we are bolstering every day and we will not be outworked in communicating directly with voters — door to door,” Burton told the Star-Telegram.

She said she's in the race because she believes Davis didn't represent the district well. And, Burton said, she wants to be the one to fight for people’s needs.

"The individual has so few advocates in government," Burton said. "Powerful institutions and special interests have for so long controlled our government while the individual fights to simply have their voice heard. With me as their state senator, they have a strong, unapologetic voice fighting for them."

Andrea Drusch: 202-383-6056, @AndreaDrusch

Anna Tinsley: 817-390-7610, @annatinsley

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