Elections taking shape: Tarrant County focus of key state senate race

🕐 7 min read

We’ve seen a lot of Democratic enthusiasm all year. But that gap is closing as we get closer to the election and more Republicans are becoming engaged.

– Jim Riddlesperger, Texas Christian University

Speculation about a Democratic wave, the influence of President Donald Trump and the success of Beto O’Rourke’s upstart campaign against U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz will move toward clarity as polls open for early voting in Texas on Monday, Oct. 22.

Much is at stake in some high-profile races that could end the 24-year drought for Democrats in statewide office. Locally, tight races could produce some upsets and will seat some new office-holders.

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Signs of higher voter engagement are evident from an increase of 27,139 new voter registrations in Tarrant County since the March primary. Tarrant County now has 1.1 million registered voters compared to 1 million in 2016 and 999,687 in 2014, according the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

Registration numbers could climb as Tarrant County residents who have moved within the county update their new addresses, according to state officials.

But whether higher registration numbers translate to higher turnout remains a question mark until votes are tabulated. Texas has long had a reputation as one of the lowest turnout states in the country.

“We’ve seen a lot of Democratic enthusiasm all year,” said Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University. “But that gap is closing as we get closer to the election and more Republicans are becoming engaged.

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“Usually, we see higher Republican enthusiasm and we see that building now,” he said.

If primary results are any indication, Republican turnout in Tarrant County was 9.58 percent, down slightly from 9.96 percent in 2014. Tarrant County Democratic turnout was 6.80 percent in March compared to 4.36 percent in 2014.

Statewide, Republican turnout in March was 10.12 percent compared to 6.8 percent for Democrats.

Some observers note that the turnout gap may have been tied to higher numbers of contested Republican primary races such as the fierce rematch battle in Fort Worth’s District 99 between Rep. Charlie Geren, a long-time incumbent, and business conservative Republican and challenger Bo French, with ties to the conservative Empower Texans organization.

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Despite similar loses in in the primary and primary runoff, Empower Texans has a formidable presence on the Republican ballot.

The deep-pocketed organization, funded largely by several West Texas billionaires endorses top statewide Republican candidates, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and Cruz. The organization also backs Tarrant County Tax Assessor-Collector Ron Wright for the U.S. District 6 House seat to be vacated by retiring Congressman Joe Barton, who was caught up in an Internet sex scandal.

Empower Texans successfully defended 12 Texas House seats in the primary to keep its Texas House Freedom Caucus together for the upcoming session of the Legislature. The caucus is expected to press Empower Texans agenda of opposing abortion, property tax reform, instituting school vouchers and supporting legislation that would require transgender Texans to use the restrooms aligned with their gender at birth.

Six Tarrant County Republican legislative candidates are on Empower Texans’ endorsement list for the midterms. Texas House candidates are Jonathan Stickland, Matt Krause, Tony Tinderholt and Bill Zedler. Senate candidates are Kelly Hancock and Konni Burton.

Observers say that is unusually high number given that Empower Texans endorses in only 19 state house races and nine state senate races.

“Tarrant County is really a bellwether,” said Tom Stallings, a non-partisan political strategist and a principal in Mosaic Strategy Partners, a Fort Worth advocacy, political consulting and communications firm. “It is the largest Republican urban county in the nation and it remains reliably red.”

As a result, nearly all the Republican candidates in Tarrant County, including those backed by Empower Texans, are expected to win this election cycle.

The main reason that so few seats in Tarrant County, as well as in most of Texas, are considered in play is because of favorable election maps with heavily gerrymandered districts that make it difficult for either party to get a foothold in each other’s territory, Stallings said.

The biggest exception of the State Senate District 10 race that stretches through a large swath of Fort Worth and Arlington and extends north to Colleyville area and south to Burleson.

This has become the marquee state senate race in Tarrant County as well as Texas.

“It’s the only swing senate seat in Texas,” Riddlesperger said. “It has been held by both Democrats and Republicans and some years the results were nearly 50-50.”

In 2008, Democrat Wendy Davis defeated incumbent Republican Kim Brimer for the seat. Four years later, she held off a challenge from Republican Mark Shelton, a Fort Worth pediatrician.

In 2014, Davis gave up the seat for her unsuccessful run for governor against Abbott.

Burton defeated Democrat Libby Willis to win the seat that year.

The competitiveness of the seat makes it expensive. Between 2000 and 2014, candidates have raised $21.2 million in contributions to seek or defend that seat. The most expensive cycle was in 2012, when $7.6 million was raised in the turbo-charged contest in which Davis defeated Shelton by 51.1 percent to 48.9 percent, according to the website Ballotpedia.com.

Observers predict that this year’s contest between Burton and Democrat Beverly Powell will be closer than the 8 points that separated Burton and Willis in 2014.

While financial totals for this year’s race won’t be available until after the election, the contest is again shaping up to the costly.

Burton reported raising more than $1 million from July 1 through Sept. 27. Powell raised nearly $440,000. Burton reported spending $572,283 during the period to Powell’s $94,777.

Both women reported large contributions from outside groups and individuals, with Burton receiving cash and in-kind contributions of $250,000 from Empower Texans and another $250,000 from Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, an arm of the organization.

Her other contributors include Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC, the Texas Association of Realtors, wealthy Dallas businessman Monty Bennett and the Texas Oil & Gas Association PAC.

Powell reported numerous small contributions as well as $45,000 from Annie’s List, an organization to supports progressive women candidates in Texas; $25,000 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and $10,000 from rock star Don Henley, co-founder of The Eagles.

Despite the large gap in fund-raising, some observers give Powell a high chance of winning even though the district leans slightly more Republican.

“A lot of people have come to understand and don’t like the agenda of Empower Texans, which is to consolidate government control in the state at the expense of local government,” said former Arlington Mayor Richard Greene, a staunch critic of the right-wing organization.

“They are involved in races with candidates who are willing to do what they say,” Greene said. “Konni Burton is one of those people who will carry out their agenda.”

Burton, who touts her priorities as “limited government, personal liberty and free markets,” has launched a full-scale attack against Powell over past business tax liens.

“She was raising people’s property taxes as a school board member and she wasn’t paying her own,” Burton said. “Do we want someone who raises taxes on others, has to be sued to pay her own representing this senate district in Austin?”

Powell, a businesswoman who served on the Burleson school board, said she has paid all of her taxes. The liens stem from difficult choices she was forced to make during economic downturns after 9/11 and the Great Recession.

“Lots of people who invest in real estate understand the decisions that have to be made to persevere,” Powell said. “In the end, all our taxes are paid, and we feel very good about what we were able to accomplish.”

In turn, Powell has struck back at Burton over her voting record, including her support for a bill that would have cut up to $50 million from local public schools and diverted tax dollars to private schools through vouchers – a top priority of Empower Texans.

Wright is favored to win the U.S. House District 6 seat over Democrat Jana Lynne Sanchez because of his name recognition, particularly in Tarrant County, and the Republican lean of rural parts of the district in Ellis and Navarro counties.

This will be the last year for straight-ticket voting in Texas.

Early voting runs from Oct. 22-Nov. 2

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