Texas Democratic Fight Complicates Chance to Flip House District

A contentious primary runoff campaign may make it harder for Democrats to flip a Republican-held House seat in the Dallas-Forth Worth suburbs.

Shifting demographics and suburban disenchantment with President Donald Trump have given Democrats hope of taking Texas’ 24th District, which Rep. Kenny Marchant(R-Texas) is retiring from after winning by only 3 percentage points in 2018. It’s one of several seats the party is targeting in the state after picking up two there during the midterms.

Retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson and former school board member Candace Valenzuela are competing in the runoff Tuesday. In the four months since Olson led Valenzuela 41%-30% in the March primary, Valenzuela’s campaign and groups supporting her said Olson is lugging too much baggage to win against former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne (R) in November, citing Olson’s role in teacher layoffs during her time as director of human resources for the Dallas Independent School District.

The negative attacks could impair the Democrats’ ability to win in November, said Colin Strother, a Democratic strategist not involved with either campaign. If Olson wins, Republicans can capitalize on the attacks. If Valenzuela wins, Olson supporters might have a tough time backing her.

“With the acrimony and the false attacks, it’s going to make it harder for everyone involved to get on board,” he said.

Valenzuela’s campaign and the Latino Victory Fund launched nearly $400,000 worth of ads blaming Olson for laying off 375 teachers.

“Kim should not be the one to be our nominee if Democrats want to flip the district in the fall,” said Chelsea Roe, a Democratic consultant and adviser to Valenzuela’s campaign. “There is too much for the Republican Party to use against her.”

A Candace Valenzuela campaign TV ad against fellow Democrat Kim Olson in Texas’ 24th District.

Attack Ads

Olson’s campaign pushed back on the accusations she was involved with teacher layoffs, saying Olson’s role was to implement the cuts, not decide whether they would happen. Local newspapers including the Dallas Morning News found the claim to be inaccurate, and Olson demanded TV stations stop carrying the ads.

“These ads are completely done in bad faith,” said Olson’s campaign manager Rachel Perry. Valenzuela served on a school board, she pointed out, and “she knows that the HR department and HR chief do not set the budget. They do not decide when teachers get hired or fired.”

The ad isn’t an attack, but rather a contrast of the two candidates, said Valenzuela campaign manager Geoff Simpson.

“Our side really contrasts just Candace’s record on education — raising teacher pay, keeping schools safe from gun violence — with Kim’s record on education time at Dallas ISD,” he said. Valenzuela was a member of a suburban school board.

The end of Olson’s military career is one issue that didn’t come up much during the primary, nor in Olson’s 2018 bid for state agriculture commissioner, but it likely will in a general election campaign. National Republicans have tagged Olson, who served in Iraq, as a “war profiteer,” citing her honorable discharge after being “accused of profiting from the post-invasion chaos by using her position to benefit a private security firm that she helped operate,” according to a 2006 Los Angeles Times article.

Olson, who has consistently denied the allegation, detailed the charges in her memoir and defended her actions in her campaign launch video last year.

A First, Either Way

Not every Democrat interviewed said they were concerned about the ramifications of the negative messaging. Either candidate could win the general, said Matt Angle, founder and director of the Lone Star Project, a Democratic research and strategic communications organization in Texas. It might even help Olson to have negative ads come sooner rather than later, he said.

“Primaries get heated up when they’re close,” Angle said. “I don’t think the back and forth is necessarily going to be harmful for whoever emerges in the fall.”

Valenzuela and Olson have backgrounds similar to candidates who helped Democrats win the House in 2018.

Olson was one of the first female pilots in the Air Force and commanded troops in combat. Valenzuela could be the first Black Latina in Congress. She credits teachers for helping her succeed despite being homeless as a child.

To contact the reporter on this story: Emily Wilkins in Washington at ewilkins@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Kyle Trygstad at ktrygstad@bgov.com

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