IRVING, Texas — Standing in the rain on Sunday afternoon, Candace Valenzuela tried to win over a voter who had just pulled into his driveway.
Members of Congress aren’t helping families combat the high cost of living and rising health care prices, she said, with her 4-year-old son, Cleto, standing beside her in a bright yellow raincoat, balancing an adult-size umbrella.
“We need good representation, and that’s why I’m running for Congress,” she said, before adding with a laugh, “I’ll get out of your driveway now.”
It’s here, in this diverse, suburban neighborhood with a “CVS y más” a few blocks away, where Democrats are trying to expand their House majority.
Valenzuela is one of seven Democrats competing in the March 3 primary in Texas’ 24th District, which includes the suburban areas between Dallas and Fort Worth. The race is an open contest since Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant is not running for reelection.
President Donald Trump won this district by 6 points in 2016, but Democrats believe it’s moving in their direction, citing success in similar districts in 2018. Texas is going to be a critical front in the battle for the suburbs this fall, with Democrats targeting seven GOP-held House seats here — the most of any state.
“This is a suburban district, and it looks not too different from many suburban districts across the country,” Valenzuela said. “There might be a couple more guns.”
Red to blue?
In 2018, the race for the 24th District wasn’t considered competitive, which frustrated Democrat Jan McDowell, an accountant who was making a second run against Marchant.
“Hello, that’s what 24 is," she said, describing her reaction when Democrats would talk about opportunities in well-educated, suburban districts. McDowell is back for a third run, parking her purple Volkswagen Beetle at an early polling place at the Carrollton Public Library to greet voters on Monday afternoon.
Forty-seven percent of district residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher. CityLab classifies the 24th District as “dense suburban,” and 80 percent of the seats Democrats flipped in 2018 were classified as suburban.
The district’s population increased by 76,000 between 2013 and 2018 and those people made it more racially and ethnically diverse, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. In 2013, non-Hispanic whites made up almost 51 percent of the district’s population; by 2018, they had dropped to less than 45 percent.
Democrats are also optimistic about the 24th District because their 2018 Senate nominee Beto O’Rourke carried it by 3 points over GOP Sen. Ted Cruz, despite losing the state by a similar margin. But the district backed other Republicans on the statewide ballot, including Gov Greg Abbott, who won by 10 points here.
Marchant ended up narrowly defeating McDowell, despite spending 10 times more than her on the race. That close finish is something she’s touting this year.
“I’m the candidate who came within 3 points of winning it last time,” she told a voter headed to the polls. “So we are right there, ready to do it this time.”
Racing to a runoff
McDowell has stiff competition in the primary this year. Valenzuela and retired Air Force Col. Kim Olson have led the field in fundraising.
Olson has raised the most, raking in $967,000 as of Feb. 12. She said she has since reached $1 million. Groups backing her include VoteVets, New Politics, and Serve America, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s PAC. She ran unsuccessfully for state agriculture commissioner in 2018, but lost the 24th District in that race by just over a point.
Some Democrats are concerned that Olson could potentially enter the general election with baggage. She was honorably discharged from the Air Force but was fined and pleaded guilty to creating a perception of a conflict of interest regarding contracts for a private security firm during the reconstruction effort in Iraq. The National Republican Congressional Committee quickly labeled her a “war profiteer.”
Olson said in an interview in her campaign office in Euless that she isn’t concerned about the issue becoming a problem in her race. When voters have asked about it, she said she tells them, “When I was in Iraq, I fought to save American lives. … And if your baby boy was under my command, wouldn’t you have wanted me to have done everything in my power to keep him alive?”
Olson noted the issue hasn’t hindered her fundraising or her campaign so far. On Monday afternoon, volunteers at her campaign office were calling voters and ringing a bell when they found an Olson supporter. Over the course of a 30-minute interview, the bell rang three times.
Democratic operatives monitoring the race consider Olson and Valenzuela most likely to advance to a May 26 runoff, since no one is expected to win a majority of the primary vote in the crowded field.
Valenzuela has had help from EMILY’s List, which has spent $209,000 on the race to support the former local school board member. Valenzuela also has endorsements from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the political arms of the Congressional Black and Hispanic caucuses. If elected, she would be the first black Latina in Congress.
Valenzuela stressed her personal story to voters while door-knocking in Irving, describing how she experienced homelessness as a child but persisted to become the first in her family to graduate college. One African American woman told Valenzuela that she supports progressives, and Valenzuela responded, “That’s what I am.”
Valenzuela said in an interview that she considers herself a “pragmatic progressive,” supporting a “robust public option” for health insurance. Olson supports a public option as well, while McDowell backs “Medicare for All,” which involves a government-run health care system.
A test for Trump
It could be more than two months before Democrats have a nominee, but the 24th District race is already shaping up to be a test of whether Trump’s popularity has waned here since 2016.
Both Olson and Valenzuela said Trump won the district because he tapped into voters’ frustration, but that he’s no longer as popular.
The race will also test whether connections to Trump are assets or liabilities in competitive races.
Trump has endorsed former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne in the five-way GOP primary. Van Duyne served as a regional administrator for Housing and Urban Development, and HUD Secretary Ben Carson was expected in the district Wednesday to campaign for her.
She told a group at a meet-and-greet at PJ’s Cafe here that Trump wasn’t her first choice for president in 2016, but she backed him because he would appoint conservative judges to the bench, and she supported his tax overhaul and border security policy.
"You’ve got to admit, hands down, that man has been successful,” she said.
Nancy Corkern, a middle-aged airline worker wearing a camouflage Trump campaign hat with “USA” in bright orange letters responded, “He’s the best president we’ve ever had.”
Van Duyne said in an interview after the meet-and-greet that she decided to run for Congress because of the experience she would bring to the job as a former local elected official with experience in the federal government.
“The message that we’re sending is: from Day One, I have the relationships, I have the experience, and I’ve listened to you to know what your priorities are in Congress,” she said.
But Democrats are betting that Van Duyne’s ties to Trump and her own history in the area will be problematic.
As mayor of Irving, she cracked down on illegal immigration, a move that she said took criminals off the streets. She also captured national attention in 2015 for expressing concern about Shariah law. That year, a 14-year-old Muslim boy named Ahmed Mohamed was arrested in Irving for bringing a homemade clock to school that was mistaken for a bomb. His family unsuccessfully sued the school district for civil rights violations, and Van Duyne for defamation. (She was removed as a defendant in the case, according to The Associated Press.)
“I believe, quite honestly, that was a total setup. And I think the fact that all of us were sued, every single lawsuit was thrown out with prejudice, and that the family had to pay for attorneys’ costs, shows it was a stunt,” Van Duyne said. Asked to elaborate, she added, “I don’t know the motives.”
Olson referred to the former mayor as “an extremist from the right.” Valenzuela also likened Van Duyne’s past to Trump’s “divisive rhetoric.”
“At their core, I don’t think most residents in Congressional District 24 feel like they’re represented by the values of Trump,” she said.
In just over eight months, Valenzuela will find out if she’s right.