In Tarrant County, Democrats Aim for Republican Voters

In two legislative contests in Tarrant County — House District 94 and Senate District 10 — Democrats are pinning their hopes on Republican voters soured by the most conservative elements of their party.

Republican Konni Burton (l) defeated Democrat Libby Willis for the SD-10 Senate seat vacated by Wendy Davis.

FORT WORTH — Despite reports to the contrary, Tony Tinderholt, a Republican candidate for the Texas House, says he does not want to invade Mexico.

It’s a line of attack — based on remarks Tinderholt made to a local Tea Party group last summer — that his Democratic opponents are using to paint him as too radical to represent the North Texas district. 

“It’s absolutely absurd,” Tinderholt said. “It’s absolutely absurd that someone would think we need to go and invade our bordering neighbor.”

Tinderholt’s race is one of two legislative contests in Tarrant County where Democrats are pinning their hopes on Republican voters soured by the most conservative elements of their party.

The second is a race to fill the Senate seat left open by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. There, in a district dominated by Republicans until Davis’ election, Democrat Libby Willis faces Konni Burton, a grassroots activist from Colleyville who touts the rare endorsement of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz.

Like Tinderholt, who ousted Diane Patrick, an eight-year incumbent, in a primary upset, Burton sailed to GOP victory by questioning the conservative credentials of other Republicans. Now, in the general election, both candidates are under fire from their opponents for positions on abortion, gun rights and illegal immigration that Democrats say are out of sync with mainstream voters.

“I’m looking for those people who just don’t care about the partisan nonsense,” said Cole Ballweg, the Arlington businessman running against Tinderholt. “I’m looking for those people who're more like me, who say, ‘What is really going to move the needle for my community, for my schools, for my kids?’ And there’s actually a lot of them out there.”

In an interview a week before the election, Tinderholt said the comment he made on illegal immigration — that “we should go across the border and stop it” — was a reference to ending foreign aid to Mexico, not a suggestion that the U.S. use military force across the border.

Securing the border is a top priority, said Tinderholt, a former Air Force officer and Iraq War veteran. But he said that he still recognizes the humanitarian side of the issue.

“The women and children that are coming across — either it’s the rape, being sold into the sex trade, just being taken advantage of in so many different ways — I feel like it’s important for us to make sure those people are protected, too,” he said. “There are potentially bad people coming across, but it’s not the women and children, so we need to handle them in the proper way.”

Ballweg acknowledged that it would take a “miracle” for a Democrat to carry Arlington’s staunchly Republican House District 94.

“I understand that so many of these people are still going to vote against me,” Ballweg said. “But you know what, they’re a lot more reasonable than a lot of people give them credit. They don’t want rifles in their streets; they don’t want angry, off-the-rails rhetoric about the border or anything else.”

The contest for the state Senate seat is closer. With advertising buys still rolling in, Willis and Burton have each spent over $1 million getting their message to Tarrant County voters since May, according to Texas Ethics Commission data.

Burton has raked in high-dollar donations from prominent conservative backers, including $100,000 from Midland oil and gas developer Tim Dunn and Texans for Lawsuit Reform, which has spent more than $300,000 on last-minute direct mail and television ads on her behalf.

Willis has received substantial sums from Democratic donors, including Houston trial lawyer Steve Mostyn, who has contributed a combined $850,000 to her campaign through his law firm and Back to Basics, the political action committee he funds. She has also received support from Planned Parenthood, the Democratic organizing group Battleground Texas and Annie’s List, which helps Democratic female candidates run for office.

But in her run for the high-profile swing district, Willis has also made inroads with groups otherwise supporting a slate of primarily Republican candidates, like the Texas Medical Association and the statewide law enforcement association known as CLEAT.

The former teacher and past president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhood Associations has attempted to draw a sharp contrast with her opponent, billing herself as a coalition builder and Burton as a partisan.

“I have so many Republicans saying, ‘I am not a Tea Party person, I am not extreme, I am just not that far out there.’ And they are voting for me,” Willis said. “A lot of them are voting for a Democrat for the first time in their lives, and they are voting for me.” 

Whether enough Republicans feel that way to carry Willis to victory may depend on the lingering legacy of Davis. She has won the last two state Senate elections for the seat — in 2006 and 2012 — by narrow margins. 

But Burton said more recent attention on the state senator, who shot to fame with a 2013 filibuster of legislation regulating abortion, had dampened Davis’ popularity in her home district.

“When Wendy Davis did the filibuster in Austin, even though the national media and people from other parts of the country rallied around her,” Burton said, “I cannot tell you how many people in the district contacted me and said, ‘I had no idea that she stood for this,’ and pledged their support to me.”  

Disclosure: The Texas Medical Association is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. Planned Parenthood was a corporate sponsor of the Tribune in 2011, and Steve Mostyn was a major donor to the Tribune in 2010. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.