HD-114 GOP Runoff Hopefuls Diverge on Strategy

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The candidates in the runoff for the Republican nomination in House District 114 are banking on opposing strategies in their bids, with one candidate relying on a pure base appeal and the other attempting to expand the party’s reach. 

On one side is Bill Keffer, a former state legislator backed by Tea Party members. And on the other is Jason Villalba, a corporate lawyer who says he is running in part on his ability to draw Latino voters and others who might otherwise vote for Democratic candidate Carol Kent in the general election.

HD-114, which includes historically conservative North Dallas and the Lake Highlands area, was previously represented by Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, who is retiring after 11 terms to spend more time with his family. And with redistricting, it isn't clear which way the redrawn district will go. Both Keffer and Villalba have said they believe the GOP will win in the general election, but Villalba argued that Keffer is further to the right than much of the district.

Keffer received 47 percent of the Republican vote in the May primary, while Villalba received 41 percent.

Both candidates say they are tied to grassroots conservatism, but Keffer has questioned Villalba’s conservative credentials.

“There’s a clear distinction and philosophy,” Keffer said. At a forum for both candidates, he added, Villalba “stated openly to the crowd he’s a moderate. I take him at his word.”

But Villalba has rejected the label. “They call me a moderate because I was endorsed by The Dallas Morning News,” he said. “I don’t accept that role.”

Keffer takes a harder-line conservative stance than Villalba, said David Boone, who placed third in the GOP primary. He has endorsed Villalba, saying he could unite the party and, as a Latino official, appeal to a demographic the GOP has struggled to court.

Runoffs often bring out diehard partisans, and an energetic base could be the key to victory. That might hurt Villalba, Boone said, especially as the national political atmosphere grows more polarized.

“He’s working uphill, and he’s running against a good guy,” Boone said, adding that he thinks Villalba is “conservative enough” to win, but the race will be close.

The July 31 runoff in HD-114 represents a larger turning point in Texas Republican politics, said state Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg. Peña, the founding chairman of the Hispanic Republican Conference of Texas, said the contest should and will come down to ideas, but that race can still play a role.

Though ethnicity should not be the reason a candidate wins, it is “important to have every life experience present” in the party’s representation, so the GOP can expand beyond its traditional base, said Peña, who switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP in 2010.

There is, he added, a “need for the conservative movement to expand into the growing Hispanic population.”

Both Keffer and Villalba clash on how to approach the general election, a difference that has defined their campaign messages. 

Though both call HD-114 a conservative district, Villalba said Republicans must broaden their appeal to defeat Kent, who previously represented HD-102. 

Keffer, who represented HD-107 for two terms, lost general elections in 2006 and 2008 in the district, and Villalba said that could indicate his chance of success in November.

“We cannot have a person who has lost twice to a Democrat go up against another Democrat,” he said. Kent is a “smart, moderate Democrat,” he added, and will be a formidable opponent.

But Keffer said victory would come down to articulating a strong conservative stance.

“The race is decided in the Republican primary. You’re running to represent a Republican district,” he said. “The fact that there is a Democrat running in my mind is irrelevant.” 

That the runoff happens during the summer presents an “overwhelming challenge,” Keffer said, because potential voters may be out of the state or on vacation.

Villalba said he expects voter enthusiasm to spill over from the Republican U.S. Senate runoff. In particular, Villalba said, he expects a victory for former Solicitor General Ted Cruz, and he said those who vote for Cruz will probably vote for him as well.

But a surge for Cruz could also bolster Keffer's chances of success. Like Cruz, Keffer has also received much of his support from Tea Party-affiliated groups. Villalba has been endorsed by members of Dallas' business community.

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