It takes a lot of nerve to shake up a Democratic primary featuring a 20-year incumbent, especially one with a Dallas institution like Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson.
But Taj Clayton, a DeSoto lawyer, and state Rep. Barbara Mallory Caraway, D-Dallas, are giving it a try anyway, arguing that it is time for Johnson to pass the baton in southern Dallas County’s District 30.
The challengers have gotten help. A bipartisan Super PAC is targeting longtime incumbents — including Johnson — in Congressional races across the nation.
Johnson has her own big-time booster: She scored a primary endorsement from President Obama, who generally stays out of such battles. While she acknowledged she has not had much primary opposition in her congressional career, she said she has had general election opponents and does not feel threatened.
“I’ve never had a need for telling people what I’ve done,” she said. “They see I’m responsive to the people. It’s pretty visible.”
Clayton, a charismatic, Harvard-educated lawyer with an ad campaign so polished it has made its own headlines, has his own connections to the president. His chief campaign consultant was Obama’s national field director in 2008. And Clayton has a compelling story: He is the grandson of Virginia sharecroppers and the son of Waxahachie factory workers who never made it to college. He worked his way through Harvard cleaning dormitory bathrooms and sweeping staircases.
Clayton, who served on Obama’s Texas finance committee in 2008, said he knows the way allegiances work in Congress, and he is not deterred by the president’s support of Johnson.
“There have been some naysayers, those who said, ‘You aren’t going to be able to raise any money, she has everything sewn up, she’s been there forever,’” Clayton said. “My position was always, I feel called to do this. You’ve got to put the people first, want to see people in our district do better.”
Caraway has been unable to raise campaign money the way Johnson and Clayton have. As of the April 15 filing deadline, she had just $1,560 cash on hand, compared with Johnson’s $362,000 and Clayton’s $158,000. But she is an aggressive block-walker and a well-known commodity in the district. She was a Democratic precinct chairwoman before serving on the Dallas City Council for eight years, and she has been in the Legislature since 2007. Her husband serves on the Dallas City Council and briefly served as mayor — though their relationship made headlines last year after he called police in the midst of a domestic disturbance in which Caraway reportedly wielded a knife. Many thought it might keep her from challenging Johnson; it did not.
“Even if I had a million dollars, my strategy would not change: I’m getting out every day and knocking on doors, meeting as many people as I can,” Caraway said. “If you check my prior history with elected office, I’ve always had a ground offensive, a grassroots campaign. I’ve never been an establishment candidate.”
In CD-30, the Democratic primary battle is the big one. Whoever wins will face a Republican candidate and a Libertarian candidate in the general election, but the district overwhelmingly votes Democratic.
Dallas political observers think Johnson is the obvious favorite. Renee Hartley, a Democratic political consultant, said that although Clayton is wildly charismatic and a great candidate, “I just don’t know that he’s going to be able to get his message as far and as wide and cut into what probably will be for her an overwhelming lead.” No amount of determination or shoe leather will do it for Caraway either, Hartley said.
Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, predicts Johnson will win north of 70 percent of the primary vote, but he added that Clayton — who “has raised a surprising amount of money” — and Caraway probably expect that and are priming themselves for future campaigns.
“Eddie Bernice Johnson is what, 76 at this point?” Jillson said. “So people are thinking ahead rather than thinking they can beat her directly.”
But Curtis Ellis, a spokesman for the Campaign for Primary Accountability, the Super PAC targeting Johnson, said the race is far from locked up. Ellis said his group sees Clayton in particular as a “viable, credible challenger,” and intends to spend “in the six-figure range” on voter outreach and messaging in the district.