IRVING, Texas — Texas Rep. Beth Van Duyne had been smiling and shaking hands all morning at a North Texas job fair when a friend approached to tell her he’d found a good “headline.”
Somewhere in the Irving Convention Center was a father, with a young son in tow, who had recently lost his wife and his job — and could state in soundbite-like succinctness why he was grateful for an event that had been advertised alongside smiling pictures of the Republican congresswoman’s face.
Members of Van Duyne’s staff were dispatched. They came back within minutes with the pair, Jacob Cobb and 6-year-old son Jeff. Van Duyne ushered Cobb to the booths of the two employers he said he wanted to meet. She made introductions. Then she brought everyone in for a group picture.
Van Duyne, an Ivy League-educated former marketing, branding and communications professional and former mayor of this Dallas suburb, rode to Congress in 2020 on a wave of media coverage of her earlier attacks on an Islamic tribunal that she warned was a step toward Sharia law in the U.S. and her defense of the arrest of a Muslim teenager whose clock was mistaken for a bomb at school.
In Congress, Van Duyne has voted with a majority of House Republicans almost 98 percent of the time, more than the average GOP member, according to CQ Vote Watch. She has supported President Joe Biden’s position on bills just 19 percent of the time, more than 2 points less than the GOP average.
But as she narrowly won her seat last fall, voters in the 24th District also backed Biden over Donald Trump by more than 5 points, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. So while she makes repeated appearances on conservative media, she’s also trying to make economics or jobs the “headline” at home rather than divisive partisan issues.
Democratic critics say she’s trying to have it both ways, and Biden even included her among members he criticized for touting pandemic relief programs that were in a bill they opposed. But her strategy shows one way that Republicans who won office by borrowing from Trump’s brand of populism may campaign without him atop the ballot.
‘Open for business’
Van Duyne says she has remained the “pragmatic” conservative who voters elected in November.
“I am and always will be an unapologetic conservative,” she said. “Because I’ve seen far more growth and opportunity and prosperity for working families when government at all levels gets out of their way.”
She pointed to the job fair, held in mid-July, when the worst of the pandemic seemed to be over. It attracted more than 230 employers and filled the convention center with job seekers, creating an upbeat backdrop for Van Duyne’s declaration that “Texas is open for business.”
The event was billed as nonpartisan, but it was timed to coincide with expiration of the state’s participation in the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.
Texas was among over a dozen Republican-led states cutting off the $300 weekly benefits early, arguing, with little evidence, that they were keeping employers from filling positions during the pandemic.
As Van Duyne made the rounds through the halls, she found supporters everywhere.
Many of them, like Cathy Hartman, from Fort Worth, recognized her from the 2020 campaign and wanted to pose for pictures.
Amir Khalatbari, of Irving, described the district as the “last island of conservatism” in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “I would like it to stay conservative,” he said. “It’s always been conservative.”
But Democrats say Van Duyne’s record is too conservative for a changing district.
“She is a savvy political operator,” said Candace Valenzuela, the Democrat who narrowly lost to Van Duyne last fall. “She’s very good at talking about how much she cares about jobs, how much she cares about businesses and businesses being open.”
After Van Duyne tweeted in April about a $25 billion fund to help restaurant owners, she made a list of 13 GOP lawmakers whom Biden accused of having no shame for touting coronavirus relief they voted against.
“I say it’s up to Democrats writ large, all of us, to make the case that if you do care about schools, if you do care about health care, if you do care about advancing economic prosperity, then this is not your candidate,” Valenzuela said.
Texas’ 24th District is anchored by the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, and it pulls in a sprawling network of middle-class towns.
Until recently, it was considered safe Republican territory, and Kenny Marchant, an early member of the House Tea Party Caucus, easily won reelection there for over a decade until his margins shrunk after Trump’s 2016 election. In 2018, Marchant won by just 3 points, and he announced his retirement the following year.
Trump carried the district by 6 points in 2016, but Democrat Beto O’Rourke won it by 3 points in his unsuccessful 2018 challenge to GOP Sen. Ted Cruz. Democratic strategists still point to the latter as a sign that the district, with a population that is more than 50 percent nonwhite and almost 30 percent foreign-born, is trending their way.
But Republicans say Van Duyne’s win disproves the theory that Texas is turning blue.
Not only did she defeat Valenzuela, the Black Latina daughter of Army veterans whom national Democrats had considered a top-tier candidate, Republicans won all 10 House seats in Texas that Democrats targeted last year.
Van Duyne, a single mother of two, tells of how she got her start in politics by pressing her homeowners association to improve a park in her gated community. That eventually led her to the mayor’s office, where she opposed tax increases and was credited by The Dallas Morning News for spurring development in the city.
Trump appointed her a regional administrator in the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2017, and when she launched her bid for the House two years later, she joined forces with three other female Republicans, promising to form a “conservative squad” as an antidote to “socialist” progressives on the Hill.
She won by just over 1 point.
With party, against Biden
In Congress, Van Duyne has voted against Biden’s position and with her party’s majority more frequently than any of the other eight House Republicans who represent districts Biden won, according to CQ Vote Watch.
She voted against certifying Biden’s electoral win in Pennsylvania. She was fined $500 for refusing to wear a mask on the House floor. And she has joined Republicans who have raised alarms about the Department of Veterans Affairs covering gender reassignment surgery, called for Biden to undergo a cognitive test to rule out dementia and voted against a bipartisan measure to remove Confederate statues from the Capitol grounds.
In an interview, she would not say whether she thought Biden won the 2020 election.
“I recognize Biden is our president, but I also believe there was voter fraud,” she said.
Such positions have Democrats eyeing Van Duyne as a top target in 2022, even though her district could become redder after the state’s GOP-controlled Legislature redraws the map. Democratic groups, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and BOLD Pac, the political action committee of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, have already released ads attacking her.
“Beth Van Duyne’s extreme record has made her one of the most endangered members of Congress,” DCCC spokesperson Monica Robinson said in an email. “Instead of delivering COVID-19 relief to small businesses, veterans, and working families in her district, Beth’s defining ‘yes’ vote in Congress was to promote dangerous conspiracy theories.”
Valenzuela said she is waiting to see what the new district lines look like before deciding whether to run again.
Derrik Gay, a lawyer and retired Marine intelligence officer, is one of two Democrats who have filed to run against Van Duyne, regardless of how the lines are drawn. He said he was driven to run by the Jan. 6 Capitol attack and Van Duyne’s vote later that day against certifying the Pennsylvania results.
“It’s just unfortunate that you have representatives that are willing to put a partisan lie before the country, and at the expense of our Constitution,” Gay said in an interview in a revitalized section of downtown Carrolton. “I would much rather be a one-term congressman than someone that is just willing to do that to perpetuate her own power.”
At the job fair, Van Duyne brushed aside political questions, most of which were about Republican attempts in the Texas Legislature to overhaul the state’s voting laws.
“Everybody is trying to get me on the record on that today,” she said at one point. “We’re not talking politics. This is about pragmatic solutions.”
A few weeks later, though, Van Duyne invoked the job fair in an appearance on Fox News. Democratic state lawmakers had fled Texas to keep the Republican majority from approving the voting overhaul. The group included state Rep. Michelle Beckley, who announced her challenge to Van Duyne from a Washington, D.C., hotel room.
“While these Democrats are jetting around, drinking beer and contracting COVID, we’ve been busy connecting thousands of North Texans with jobs for their futures,” she said.