Kim Olson began her congressional campaign last year with high hopes.
Fresh off a run for agriculture commissioner that endeared her to Democratic activists statewide, she looked to the 24th District as a unique opportunity to not only flip a newly competitive seat but also help her party down-ballot with an array of battleground state House seats in the area.
For months, Olson looked like a candidate to beat, launching with a biographical video that went viral and building a strong early fundraising lead. But as the fall went on — and especially now in the runoff — Olson has had to increasingly confront the threat of Candace Valenzuela, a local school board member aiming to become the first Afro Latina elected to Congress.
The political trajectories of the two women are set to collide Tuesday, when Democrats will pick their nominee to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell. The seat is a national Democratic target after he won reelection two years ago by a surprisingly small margin.
The runoff has been dominated lately by scrutiny of Olson's time working for the Dallas school district in the late 2000s. But there have also been lingering questions related to race, life experience, other parts of their resumes and connections to North Texas district.
"I'm rooted in this community," Valenzuela said in an interview when asked for her closing contrast with Olson. "I've been living in this community for years. I've chosen to raise my family here. ... I've invested in this community through my service."
Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, had been living in Mineral Wells since 2010, but she had previously resided in the Dallas area for her work and has long maintained family ties to the region. She has forcefully pushed back on the attacks on her tenure as human resources director for Dallas Independent School District, which involve a budget disaster that got underway before she arrived there. But projecting confidence ahead of Tuesday, Olson's campaign says it has not spent a dollar on negative paid media and does not plan to in the final days.
“I have many leadership qualities that make me the best candidate for this moment in our history and our district," Olson said in an interview, "and therefore I don’t need to tear anybody down to make my position heard."
Olson's story is well-known. She spent 25 years in the Air Force and was part of a trailblazing generation of female pilots. She was inducted in 2014 into the Texas Women's Hall of Fame.
Valenzuela, meanwhile, talks of growing up poor and living homeless for a time after her mother fled domestic abuse, once sleeping in a kiddie pool outside a gas station. She was first elected to the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board in 2017 and resigned late last year to focus on the congressional race.
Olson came in first in the seven-way March primary, receiving 41% of the vote, while Valenzuela got 30%. Throughout the runoff, Olson has emphasized that first-place finish, and her campaign has referred to her as the "frontrunner" in the overtime round.
Most of the notable endorsements in the runoff have gone to Valenzuela, including the third-place primary finisher, Jan McDowell — Marchant's 2018 challenger — as well as state Rep. Julie Johnson of Carrollton and high-profile members of Congress including Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro and his brother, Julián Castro, have gotten behind Valenzuela, as have two other former 2020 presidential candidates: Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.
Olson has nonetheless maintained her status as the top fundraiser since the race began, raising $1.6 million to Valenzuela's $1 million as of June 24. However, Valenzuela has built momentum after a slow fundraising start last year and outraised Olson in the second quarter of this year, $465,000 to $438,000, according to campaign figures.
Valenzuela is also being aided by a coalition of outside groups that has spent well into the high six figures in the runoff, pitching in on direct mail as well as TV and digital ads. The coalition includes the Congressional Hispanic Caucus political arm and the allied Voter Protection Project, as well as the Latino Victory Fund and End Citizens United.
Olson has gotten more modest outside support from VoteVets, which spent $100,000 on a TV ad buy for her.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was Valenzuela's earliest national endorser, backing her in September of last year when the state of play was less certain. Then came EMILY's List, the influential group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was later joined by the Congressional Black Caucus and the Asian American and Pacific Islander Congressional Caucus in what made Valenzuela the first 2020 candidate to earn the support of all three, known as the "Tri-Caucus."
"Candace immediately stood out not only because her story of resilience amid tremendous hardships is one that too many Americans can relate to today, but also because she was the only Latina running who was already representing part of the district," U.S. Rep. Tony Cárdenas of California, who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus political arm, said in a statement.
Both the third-party groups and Valenzuela's campaign have spent the runoff assailing Olson's tenure as human resources director for the Dallas Independent School District. Olson held the position from August 2007 to June 2009, overlapping with a tumultuous period for the district that saw it scrambling to deal with an unexpected $64 million budget shortfall.
In pro-Valenzuela TV ads, Olson is accused of mismanaging the budget and firing hundreds of teachers as a result, two charges that Olson vehemently denies. People directly involved in the crisis and media reports from the time say it began in the months before she started working for the district and she had little, if any. involvement in the decisions that led to the firings.
Jack Lowe, the president of the school board at the time, said the attacks on Olson's DISD tenure are "very unfair."
"The train had left the station and we just didn’t realize it until sadly too late and it’s one of my biggest embarrassments and disappointments in my professional life, but Kim — this was not Kim’s responsibility," said Lowe, who is supportive of Olson in the runoff.
Valenzuela's campaign has countered the suggestion that Olson had no role in the crisis by pointing to her campaign website, which says she "oversaw a $1 Billion dollar budget and 22,000 employees." Olson's campaign has clarified that she never had "authority over spending or budget reconciliation" and "simply managed the compensation budget approved by the Board."
Calling the ads "slanderous," Olson's campaign has sent a cease-and-desist letter to one of the groups airing them, the Latino Victory Fund, and has tried — unsuccessfully — to get them taken off the air.
In the runoff, Olson has also taken heat over a comment she made last month after George Floyd's death that dismissed concerns about looting "if that's what it's going to take to fix our nation." Republicans seized on the remark, but so did Valenzuela, who said Olson "missed the mark" by distracting from Black protesters pushing for police reform.
The circumstances leading to Olson's retirement from the military have also surfaced in the runoff, though not nearly as intensely as the attacks on her time at DISD.
As the runoff has grown increasingly heated, though, Olson has largely resisted opportunities to go on the offense against Valenzuela, even distancing herself from a recent anti-Valenzuela mailer that a local Democratic club that supports Olson. Olson's campaign did take a shot Monday at Valenzuela, issuing a news release contrasting its latest fundraising report with hers. However, Olson campaign manager Rachel Perry told The Texas Tribune earlier this week that they "see no need to spend a single ad dollar on negative TV" and were using resources to ensure people can vote safely amid the pandemic.
Regardless of who prevails Tuesday, the seat remains a top priority for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee given the closeness of the 2018 results in the district. Republicans locked up their nominee in the March primary: Beth Van Duyne, the former Trump administration official and Irving mayor.
Looking to preview their general election bona fides, Olson and Valenzuela have already taken turns rallying supporters against Van Duyne in fundraising emails. And one recent email from the Olson campaign warned that the attacks by Valenzuela and her allies were "playing right into far-right Beth Van Duyne’s hands."
The DCCC has let the runoff play out despite a push by Valenzuela's supporters to get involved. Tri-Caucus leaders asked the committee in April to give Valenzuela its Red to Blue designation for strong candidates, according to Politico. The DCCC, which does not normally take sides in nominating contests, reiterated its neutrality in response to the request.
Valenzuela said she "completely accept[s]" the DCCC's position and noted the committee has a different function than the caucuses, whose "responsibility is to advocate for their people." Cárdenas said in a statement he is "disappointed the DCCC hasn’t endorsed Candace, but [I] look forward to having them join her coalition of support after the run-off, since Republicans are not going to give up Texas' 24th without a fight."