Burton, Shelton Face Off in Primary Runoff Battle

Tea Party candidate Konni Burton and former state Rep. Mark Shelton are vying to represent Senate District 10 in a Republican runoff election.
Tea Party candidate Konni Burton and former state Rep. Mark Shelton are vying to represent Senate District 10 in a Republican runoff election.

The two Republicans campaigning to replace state Sen. Wendy Davis, the Fort Worth Democrat who is running for governor, are locked in a tight primary runoff battle.

But it is not just conservatives who are watching the outcome. If the swing district changes hands in November, the Republican Party, which already controls the state Senate, will inch closer to meeting a crucial voting threshold in the upper chamber.

Konni Burton, a Tea Party activist who was the first candidate to enter the Senate District 10 race last year, is attempting to paint her opponent, former state Rep. Mark Shelton, as a moderate out of step with the district’s Republican voters. Shelton, a pediatric infectious disease specialist who tried unsuccessfully to unseat Davis in 2012, has said Burton lacks legislative experience.

Burton finished first in the March primary, receiving 43 percent of the vote to Shelton’s 35 percent — a difference of about 3,600 votes.

If the Republican Party retains control of all of its current Senate seats in November and picks up District 10, it will be one vote away from the two-thirds majority needed to bring legislation to the floor in that chamber. That would mean that if a single Democrat sided with Republicans on an issue — or was merely out of the room for a vote — the minority party would not be able to block legislation it opposed.

The district had long been under Republican control until Davis defeated Kim Brimer, the incumbent, in 2008 by a slim margin. She held onto the seat in 2012, defeating Shelton by about 6,500 votes in a race that many Democrats speculated could put her in prime position for a statewide run in 2014.

Burton, who is running on a fiscally conservative platform, is a Tea Party favorite; she has worked on the campaigns of several far-right conservatives, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, who gave Burton his only non-judicial endorsement ahead of the March primary.

“I do think that this conservative movement that is taking over in the Legislature is bringing a natural evolution” to the SD-10 seat, Burton said. She criticized Shelton for not being “conservative enough,” particularly on fiscal policy.

Shelton, who served in the House for four years, said his experience working on the state budget would appeal to voters looking for long-term policy initiatives to improve the Texas economy.

“It would be difficult for someone with no experience in business” to be up to this task, said Shelton, whose platform includes a focus on “finding Texas solutions” to health care and creating the infrastructure to support the state’s economy.

“I have a record,” he said, adding that all voters have from Burton “is what she says.”

The winner of the May 27 runoff election will face Libby Willis, a Democrat and the former president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods. Willis, the daughter-in-law of former state legislator Doyle Willis, said she is running as a pro-business moderate and expects to face off with Burton in November.

Willis added that Burton's “allegiance to an extreme ideology” is worrisome to local business leaders who are looking for a senator who will reach across the aisle to work with the opposite party.

Both Republican candidates said they were focused on defeating Willis in November. But the race will ultimately have bigger implications for the political makeup of the Texas Senate during the 2015 legislative session.

Jim Riddlesperger, a political science professor at Texas Christian University, said the margin that Republicans could gain with the seat was important because it would give the party, which already has lots of sway in the Legislature, even more leverage.

“In some ways,” Riddlesperger said, “SD-10 is the swing district for the whole state.”