The most strategically important legislative race this year may be in Tarrant County. It’s for the Texas Senate seat that Wendy Davis is giving up and there’s a lot at stake for both major political parties.
At the Southwest Sub-Courthouse in Fort Worth, the stream of early voters is steady. This is the busiest polling place in the county, with Democrats and Republicans passionate about electing their own.
Elaine Faulk says she’s voting Republican for many reasons, including her hope that the party will take back the Senate District 10 seat they lost in 2008 when Davis, a Democrat, was elected.
“I think we’re spending way too much money right now on education,” Faulk said. “All they think they have to do it throw money at everything and it’s going to make it.”
Lynn Guy feels just as strongly that Democrats need to hang on to the seat.
She says her biggest concerns are “public education and sufficiently funding public education. Also expansion of Medicaid and affordable health care to everyone.”
Why this race matters so much
What makes this is race so important is a Senate rule that currently allows Democrats, the minority party, to prevent legislation from coming up for a vote.
TCU Professor Jim Riddlesperger says the Democrats could lose that option if they lose this seat.
“[Senate District 10] is potentially the district that gives the Republicans two-thirds of the Texas Senate," he said. "In the Texas Senate if you have two-thirds of the votes you can get anything up for a vote. Whereas if the Democrats have 11 votes they can prevent items from coming to the floor.”
Senate District 10 stretches from Southlake and Colleyville in the north, through downtown Fort Worth to Mansfield and Crowley in the south. It also includes parts of Arlington.
Riddlesperger says about 24 percent of the voters are Hispanic and 18 percent are black, but the district has slightly more Republican voters.
“It’s got most of the minority population of Tarrant County in it,” Riddlesperger said. “On the other hand, it also contains quite a bit of Republican territory. A lot of white-collar Republican professionals that are tea party leaning also live in that district.”
Could be tough for Democrats
Riddlesperger says Davis was able to eek out 51 percent of the vote two years ago because she’d served on the Fort Worth City Council and was well-known.
He believes it will be tougher for Democrats to overcome the numbers this time.
But two vying for their party’s nomination believe they can hold the seat.
Energy executive Mike Martinez says he’ll do it in part by attracting new Hispanic voters.
“We have 63,000 Hispanic voters in the district -- only about 10 to 15 percent come out to vote in November,” Martinez said. “That’s a lot of votes left on the table that I can appeal to. Those voters can look at me and say, 'You know what, I can relate to him.'”
Neighborhood association leader Libby Willis says she’s a moderate who appeals to women from all political parties.
“I think they care about public education. They care about good paying jobs for themselves and their daughters," Willis said. "They care about how their parents, aunts and uncles are taken care of."
“Those are all women’s issues because they’re the ones who have to deal with those all the time,” she said.
Lots of Republicans running
The five-way race for the GOP nomination includes former Rep. Mark Shelton, the pediatrician who lost to Davis the last time; Colleyville chiropractor Jon Schweitzer; former Colleyville councilman Mark Skinner and Arlington school board trustee Tony Pompa. The fifth is tea party activist Konni Burton of Colleyville. She’s expected to make it into a runoff with one of the others.
“This district was won by [Mitt] Romney and Ted Cruz. Then Wendy Davis won,” Burton said.
“The grassroots are incredible," Burton said. "They’re out in polling locations putting up signs, doing social media and ready to take us to victory and push us on in November."
Two years ago, Davis and Shelton together spent almost $6 million in one of the most expensive legislative races in Texas history.
Riddlesperger expects money to pour into Senate District 10 again, as soon as the lobbyists and special interests know which nominees will be facing off in the fall.