In perhaps Texas’ only remaining state Senate swing district, conservative PACs backed by fracking billionaires are doubling down on campaign contributions in an effort to help Konni Burton hold onto her Fort Worth district.
Senate District 10 has swung between both parties for years. In 2008, Wendy Davis narrowly defeated Republican Kim Brimer, and then held onto the seat until 2014, when she launched her unsuccessful bid for governor. Davis was succeeded by Burton, a tea party activist who beat her Democratic challenger by 8 percentage points in 2014. Now, Democrats are hoping to take over once again in a district that Donald Trump won by less than 1 percentage point.
A win in SD 10 wouldn’t overcome the very conservative bloc of Republicans in the Senate, led by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, but it could weaken the GOP’s supermajority in the upper chamber.
Blue requires green, though. Burton has outraised Powell by a large margin, pulling in a little less than $1.1 million since July to Powell’s $440,000. Burton’s haul includes more than $830,000 from just two big-money sources — Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a PAC funded by corporate interests, and Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, the far-right enforcer group backed by Midland oilman Tim Dunn and the Wilks brothers. Empower Texans is spending more on Burton than any other Texas candidate this cycle, according to campaign finance reports.
Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University, said the group’s large donation signals that the race is competitive.
“If a conservative incumbent looks to be in trouble or even looks to be challenged effectively, Empower Texans will pour money into that race to be sure that the conservative wins,” Jillson said.
Conservative groups like Empower Texans have a particular interest in keeping Burton in office. That’s because Democrats have a shot at knocking off two other Republican incumbents — Don Huffines in Senate District 16 in Dallas and, to a lesser extent, Joan Huffman in the Houston-area SD 17. If Democrats were able to defy the odds and beat Burton, Huffines and Huffman, Republicans would need at least one Democratic vote to pass most legislation in the Senate next session.
In a phone interview, Powell said campaign funding has been the biggest challenge for her campaign thus far.
“In our region across Tarrant County, we’ve outraised Konni Burton 4 to 1. But the Empower Texas donors and the Empower Texas machine itself poured over half a million dollars into her race,” she said.
Burton refused to provide a phone interview, but answered questions via email. She said she’s “very confident.”
“Senate District 10 voters want an advocate for the taxpayer down in Austin and I have been that for them for the past two sessions,” she said.
Beyond fundraising, political mudslinging between the candidates has only increased in the final stretch of the race, mainly over property taxes and public education funding.
Powell has called for an increase in public school funding from the state level to mitigate the growing burden on local taxpayers. She’s criticized Burton for voting in favor of a state-funded voucher system that would send public money to private and religious schools. As for property taxes, Burton has entertained the idea of eventually switching to a consumption tax system that would effectively do away with local property taxes in the future — a move some experts estimate would increase sales tax by as much as 25 percent.
“What I’d like to see Texas go to is totally get rid of the property tax system that we have and go to a consumption tax,” said Burton last year in a radio interview with conservative radio talker Chris Salcedo. “The current property tax situation in Texas is unsustainable.”
On her campaign site, Burton released documents showing that Powell has been delinquent on state and federal taxes; however, the documents also include proof that Powell eventually paid her tax bills.
When asked if the charges of tax delinquency concerned her, Powell said she believes voters are clever and will see through Burton’s “smear campaign.”
“If she had a great voting record, if she supported public schools, if she supported the economic initiatives that are important to our region, she would run on her record. But we don’t see a lot of that,” Powell said.