Dave Montgomery Austin correspondent
Conservative activist Konni Burton, armed with the backing of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, rode a wave of tea party support Tuesday night to seize the Republican nomination for the Tarrant County state Senate seat now held by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. Burton, a 50-year old tea party leader from Colleyville, easily defeated State Rep. Mark Shelton to lead Republicans into a contentious fall campaign for the District 10 Senate Seat that Davis has held since January of 2009. With 96 percent of precincts reporting, Burton had 60 percent , while Shelton, who ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2012, had 40 percent. Burton jumped into the lead as soon as the results of early voting were counted, and never trailed. Burton now faces Fort Worth neighborhood leader Libby Willis, who was unopposed in Tuesday’s run-off contests after securing the Democratic nomination outright in the March 4 primary. Burton and Shelton were first and second respectively in a five-way Republican primary contest that centered heavily on which candidate offered the best chance to help Republicans wrest the district from Democrats. “We’re going to take a couple of days off and then we’re going to hit the ground running again,” Burton said in a telephone interview about 10 minutes after Shelton called to concede. “We’re going to stay just as focused and run on the same conservative principles that I’ve been running on.”
Willis, 54, the daughter-in-law of the late Democratic State Rep. Doyle Willis of Fort Worth, said Burton “deserves congratulations for being the nominee.” But Willis added that the unfolding general election race “is going to be about the clear differences between us and it’s clear that she and I disagree about a lot of things.” Burton’s strong showing was part of a tea party tide that also included Dan Patrick’s victory over establishment incumbent David Dewhurst in the run-off for lieutenant governor and state Sen .Ken Paxton’s triumph over State Rep. Dan Branch in the Republican race for attorney general. Burton, a former wedding consultant, has been a long-time tea party leader in North Texas and was among the first wave of conservative activists to campaign for then-underdog Cruz in the 2012 U.S. Senate race. Cruz, who has since become a tea party icon and a prospective presidential candidate, repaid the favor by endorsing Burton as a “strong principled conservative” and appearing in her behalf at a rally before thousands of supporters in the Fort Worth stockyards. The run-off pitted Burton and her tea party-themed conservatism against Shelton’s efforts to cast himself as an experienced public servant with deep roots in the community. A well-known pediatrician, Shelton served two terms in the state House and was the Republican nominee against Davis when she successfully sought re-election in 2012. Although Shelton was initially the better known candidate by virtue of his service in the state House and his heavily-funded race against Davis, Burton tapped into her highly organized tea party support to ultimately establish herself as the front-runner, winning the five-way primary with 43 percent of the vote. Shelton had 35 percent.
Now that the nominees are in place, the general election battle for the Senate seat is likely to be one the state’s most contentious races as Democrats fight to keep the district and Republicans try to take it back. In a telephone interview, as well as in a statement released shortly after Burton’s victory, Willis promised to “reach across the aisle” to work with members of both parties while asserting that Burton “seems more concerned about ideological purity and advancing the Tea Party agenda than doing what is best for the people of SD 10.” But Burton said she planned to “absolutely” work with members of both parties to advance a legislative agenda accenting issues such privacy and transparency and attacking cronyism in government. She also said she supports development of transportation and water resources but reiterated opposition to a $2 billion drawdown from the state’s rainy day fund that voters approved to finance a state water plan. SD10, which covers the lower half of Tarrant County and juts northward into Republican strongholds such as Colleyville and Southlake, is considered a swing district that leans Republican even though Democratic-inclined minorities compose more than half the population. A Republican victory in the pivotal Metroplex district would move the party within one vote of a super-majority in the 31-member Senate. The race in some respects has become a referendum on Davis’ two terms in office, with Democrats promising to build on her achievements and Republicans calling for a return to conservative principles that they said was more in line with the wishes of district voters.