Originally published in The Intercept on July 10, 2020.
A POLL RELEASED on Friday shows changing dynamics in the runoff for the Democratic primary in Texas’s 24th Congressional District, which represents suburban areas between Fort Worth and Dallas. According to the survey, which was commissioned by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and conducted in July by Data for Progress, 36-year-old local school board member Candace Valenzuela leads 62-year-old former Air Force Col. Kim Olson by an 11-point margin, 40 percent to 29 percent.
The poll reveals a substantial shift since Texas’s March 3 primary, a seven-way contest that Olson won with 41 percent of the vote, followed by Valenzuela with 30 points. Undecided voters, the pollsters reported, are leaning Valenzuela, with white, Latino, and Black voters also more likely to support her.
“Our polling suggests there has been movement since the first round,” said Data for Progress executive director Sean McElwee, noting that only 2 percent of voters who backed Valenzuela in the primary are now undecided, compared with 7 percent of those who initially backed Olson. Data for Progress also found 3 percent of voters who initially backed Olson now back Valenzuela.
It seems likely that the recent wave of protests against racism and police brutality have helped turn the tide in favor of Valenzuela, who would be the first Afro-Latina in Congress and has been endorsed by the Congressional Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Progressive Caucuses.
In June, Georgia Democratic Rep. John Lewis came out for Valenzuela, directly tying his support to the ongoing national reckoning. “Issues of racial and economic justice are front and center in America right now,” he said in his endorsement. “Candace brings a unique perspective to these issues and will be integral in driving our national conversation forward.”
The protests have shaken up Democratic primaries across the country. In Kentucky’s Senate race, Charles Booker surged on the back of his “hood to the holler” message as a leader of local protests, falling just short of upsetting Amy McGrath, who had the backing of the national party and had racked up an early lead in mail-in voting before Booker’s rise. In New York, both Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones were buoyed in their primaries by the energy of the protest movement, while Ruben Diaz Sr., a close ally of the police in New York, saw his Bronx primary campaign falter in the final month.
Elsewhere in Texas, progressive-populist Mike Siegel, running in a suburban Austin runoff in the 10th Congressional District, has leaned into his career as a civil rights attorney and worked to frame the primary as revolving around issues of police abuse. In the 31st District, stretching from Waco to Austin, Democrats are similarly vying for the chance to flip the seat blue. Computer engineer Donna Imam, facing physician Christine Mann in a runoff, said that her campaign has seen a boost from the focus on racial justice. “People in our district are noticing that our campaign was talking about solutions for Black Americans back in 2019 well before the recent concerns,” she said.
VALENZUELA HAS SEEN a surge in fundraising in recent months. Olson stood as the top fundraiser leading up to the March primary, but in the most recent fundraising quarter Valenzuela outraised her opponent, $465,000 to $438,000. Average donations to Valenzuela’s and Olson’s campaigns stood at $33 and $48, respectively.
Early voting data from the Valenzuela campaign suggests voters of color are turning out in greater force for the runoff. “According to our VAN data, black voters made up about 8 percent of the vote in the primary,” said Geoffrey Simpson, Valenzuela’s campaign manager. “Black turnout in early voting is already over 12 percent, and we expect that to go even higher on Election Day.”
Turnout for the March 3 primary, while double the previous two primaries, still represented just 2 percent of the district’s population. Of the 60,000 Democrats who casted ballots in March, Olson took the district’s two largest counties and two-thirds of the total precincts. Valenzuela earned a narrow majority in Denton County but just 10,000 votes in total were cast there.
The House seat has been controlled by Republican Rep. Kenny Marchant for the last 16 years, but the district has changed a lot demographically over that time, and its population has been majority people of color since 2016. Marchant very narrowly fended off a Democratic challenger in 2018 (after defeating her handily in 2016), and last year, he announced he would not be seeking reelection: part of a wave of such decisions by suburban Republican incumbents dubbed locally as “Texit.” A Democrat will instead take on Beth Van Duyne, a former Republican mayor in the district who has been endorsed by President Donald Trump. The diversification of the district is central to why Democrats view the race as one of the most competitive congressional contests in the fall — a factor that has been central to both Olson and Valenzuela’s campaigns since before the protests.
In the absence of major policy differences, Olson has been making the case that she’s best suited to represent the district because of her career experience. Valenzuela, meanwhile, has leaned on her high-profile endorsements as well as national momentum throughout the Democratic Party for more diverse representation. Also having grown up homeless, she would bring to Congress a socioeconomic perspective not often reflected among the wealthy federal legislators.
While Valenzuela faces the added challenge of trying to flip a district from red to blue, her campaign is aiming to harness some of the arguments made successfully by Jamaal Bowman and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, progressives who unseated long-serving, white, centrist lawmakers representing diversifying districts. The debate over diverse political leadership is also playing out in the presidential race, with many politicos urging Joe Biden against selecting a white running mate, saying his ticket needs to reflect the demographics of the country, and others arguing he needs a VP of color if he wants to generate enough excitement in the fall.
In April, the campaign arms for the Hispanic, Black, Asian, and Progressive Caucuses urged the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to endorse Valenzuela, writing in a letter that the party should “continue to strive for the diverse representation our communities deserve.” The DCCC does not often endorse in open primaries, but it did several times in 2018, including in Texas. A DCCC aide told the Intercept their internal data showed either candidate could win the seat in November, and it stayed out of all open primaries this cycle.
WHEN PROTESTS SURROUNDING George Floyd’s killing picked up, both candidates sought to incorporate the energy into their campaigns.
Olson attended five Black Lives Matter protests throughout the district, according to her campaign manager, Rachel Perry, and she released a new pledge for police and criminal justice reform.
Valenzuela, who lives with her 71-year-old mother-in-law and has an immunocompromised 1-year-old son, steered clear of the protests but dispatched members of her campaign in her stead.
Both candidates organized virtual forums around policing, racism and civil rights.
At one virtual town hall in June, though, Olson, perhaps overcompensating, got herself embroiled in controversy, leading the Congressional Black Caucus to later condemn her for her remarks. At the event, Olson was asked about the movement to defund the police, and as part of her answer, which was broadly sympathetic to the protesters, she dismissed concerns about property destruction. “Even if people loot, so what? Burn it to the ground, you know, if that’s what it’s gonna take to fix our nation,” she said. “I know people don’t want me to say that, but I’m just saying, you know, what are you gonna do, shoot us as we protest? We really have fundamentally pivoted the militarization of our police force where it used to be to protect and serve.”
Conservatives quickly grabbed onto Olson’s comments, first reported by the Washington Examiner, and accused her of endorsing violence. Van Duyne tweeted the Washington Examiner article and said, “The Democrat primary in the 24th District has become a despicable race to the bottom for who can be the most extreme, most radical, and most destructive to our neighborhoods, state, and nation.”
In response, Olson’s campaign issued a statement that Olson “knows we cannot use force to fix a systemic problem of undue violence and discrimination perpetrated by those who are sworn to protect and serve. We have to rebuild from the ground up a color-blind public safety institution across America.”
The Congressional Black Caucus then rebuked Olson for her comment. “Olson’s team response calling for ‘color-blindness’ is tone deaf and silences members of the community she is seeking to represent,” said Niccara Campbell, the political director for the CBC political action committee. “This is not solidarity or allyship. It is not even an attempt.”
Valenzuela also jumped into the fray, issuing a statement that Olson had “missed the mark” in her response to the Dallas protests by “actively encouraging the destruction of our community rather than amplifying the voices of Black people who are fighting for change with empathy and compassion.” Valenzuela then went further, saying Olson’s follow-up statement, which called for a “color-blind” public safety institution, “ignores 400 years of our country’s history and is exactly the kind of ignorance we need to call out.”
Olson told the Dallas Morning News she didn’t mean race shouldn’t be considered but that more must be done to ensure law enforcement doesn’t disproportionately harm black people. “It can’t be that police judge you because of your color, and courts can’t judge you for your color,” she said.
Earlier in the campaign, Olson struggled to articulate why she was best positioned to represent the diversifying district.
At a Democratic forum in February, the candidates were asked to make that case, and Olson responded first by saying she grew up “as a minority” in many countries overseas, because her parents were Department of Defense school teachers. “This district is very diverse, just like our nation, and we have to have voices that will speak for them when they can’t speak for themselves,” she added.
Olson declined to comment further on her claim. As for why Olson thinks she is better suited to represent her district, Perry, her campaign manager, said, “Texas voters will have the final say on who they want to represent them. … And from day one of this race — with their votes, donations, and grassroots enthusiasm — they’ve made it abundantly clear that that candidate is Kim Olson.”
Valenzuela meanwhile argued at that winter forum that her racial background will increase her competitiveness in a general election.
“In order to win a district like this, you need to be able to bring out folks who feel enfranchised by [their] leadership,” she said. “I mean, look at me. I am a young black Latina myself, and one of the ways you’re going to excite voters to come out is you’re going to have someone that has represented them in a way they’ve never seen before.”