She experienced homelessness at a young age. She worked several odd jobs throughout high school and college to make ends meet. A high school car accident left her with a chronic health condition.
Now she’s running for Congress hoping to flip a red seat blue, and Candace Valenzuela thinks her story as a political outsider who overcame hardships will win over voters.
“My story does resonate,” Valenzuela said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “As soon as my constituents hear my story, it’s incredibly easy for them to relate.”
Seemingly overnight, Valenzuela has become a new face of Democrats’ optimism for 2020. Six months ago, she was an underdog in the Democratic primary for Congressional District 24, a mostly suburban North Texas district that straddles parts of Dallas, Denton and Tarrant counties. Now, she’s being touted as a potential future star — someone who could win a seat long held by U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, a retiring Tea Party Republican, and become the first Black Latina elected to Congress.
That Valenzuela is considered a viable candidate is another sign of the changes in Texas politics that have spurred a wave of Democratic optimism. Until recently, suburban areas like Congressional District 24 had been viewed as weak spots for the Texas Democratic Party. Now those sites are key to Democrats’ big plans for Texas in 2020. All 10 of the congressional districts Democrats hope to flip in the state are at least partially suburban — and the voters in suburban neighborhoods could decide whether the party can truly compete for the state’s Electoral College votes and win control of the Texas House.
“We need to make our Texas delegation look more like the Texans they’re designed to serve,” Valenzuela said. “We’re seeing record participation and engagement, and folks looking at what they want to see out of their representatives. If we see a win here, it’ll be the people stepping up and saying we want someone from our community who’s going to work for the community.”
As recently as four years ago, Valenzuela’s bid would have seemed hopeless. But like many districts in Democrats’ sights, CD-24 has grown more racially and economically diverse. And Republicans under President Donald Trump have lost ground on college-educated women, a key demographic in the district.
To her fans in the Democratic Party, Valenzuela represents an exciting chance to take advantage of those trends and make Congress look more like the country as a whole. She would also bring to Congress a socioeconomic perspective not often reflected among the wealthy federal legislators. And as a young woman of color, she represents three cornerstones of the party’s electoral coalition.
Her opponent, meanwhile, is a force in local politics: former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, a Republican who served as a regional official for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Van Duyne, who declined a phone interview for this story, is a firebrand conservative close to the Tea Party and known for her vehement calls to curb illegal immigration, reduce government spending and fight what she perceived as the threat of Shariah law in the region. Van Duyne is also one of four women across the nation who have branded themselves the “conservative squad” to combat socialism — a response to the quartet of progressive women in the U.S. House known by a similar moniker.
“North Texas needs Beth Van Duyne working for us in Washington,” said Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch, who has endorsed Van Duyne. “She’s already proven she can stop government corruption and ‘good ole boy’ politics that wastes millions of taxpayer dollars.”
The daughter of a Mexican American mother and a Black father, Valenzuela hopes to run on relatability, casting herself as more in touch with low- and middle-income voters than her well-funded Republican opposition. In a campaign video featured on her website, she refrains from focusing on her political platform while emphasizing her education experience and how her upbringing and backstory shaped who she is today. She has also noted that Marchant, the outgoing incumbent in the district, “has been a politician since before I was homeless.”
“Candace represents the future, which is where all people, regardless of color and economic background, have a seat at the table,” said state Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Carrollton, who backed Valenzuela in the primary. “That’s why Republicans are so threatened because she doesn’t fit their mold; she fits the mold of the voters.”
How she fares will say a lot about how quickly politics in Texas are changing.
A newly competitive district
Valenzuela says she’s no stranger to hardship. When she was around 3 years old and her mom was fleeing what her campaign has described as an abusive situation, they temporarily lived in a kiddie pool outside of an El Paso gas station. The back injury Valenzuela suffered after her high school car accident left her in medical debt.
She worked odd jobs, including working with kids in a group home, while majoring in government at California’s Claremont McKenna College, where she had a scholarship. After graduating, she worked as a college application counselor and an SAT/ACT instructor.
She returned to Texas with her husband in 2014 and first dabbled in politics when she was elected to the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board in 2017. Valenzuela said she always hoped to put her government degree to good use, but the idea of seeking higher office as a Democrat in suburban North Texas had seemed unattainable.
“In 2014, a lot of us were under the impression that everything outside of Dallas is red and there’d be no opportunity to change things,” Valenzuela said. “I think a lot of people were politically disengaged.”
Marchant was first elected in 2004, and the district was considered safe for Republicans through 2016, when Marchant won by nearly 17 percentage points. But Valenzuela said she saw an uptick in Democratic interest in the district before 2016 that ramped up after Trump’s win.
“You saw a lot of people starting to attend a lot more of the Democratic clubs in the suburbs, and people have started building out [the movement] since 2016,” Valenzuela said.
In 2018, Marchant eked out a 3-point victory over a vastly underfunded Democratic opponent. This year, Democrats in Texas and nationally are eying the seat as a top-tier pickup opportunity.
The district — home to one of America’s most diverse ZIP codes — is less than 50% white and has burgeoning Hispanic, Black and Asian American populations that Valenzuela thinks can work in her favor.
“We need a diversity of representation not just in ethnicity and culture, but especially in American life,” Valenzuela said.
Similar trends are playing out across the state and nation, and Republicans are taking notice.
Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are tied at 46% in Texas, according to the latest polling data from Morning Consult. Democrats here now argue Texas is a swing state — and the 24th now leans Democratic, according to Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an elections handicapper. (Another prominent handicapper, the Cook Political Report, still rates the race as a toss-up.) If Valenzuela can turn out voters and flip the seat, it could be a sign of a statewide problem for Republicans. And if Texas flips, the White House would almost certainly follow suit.
“The 2018 midterms lit a fire under some people that had not been politically active,” said Dallas County GOP Chair Rodney Anderson. “This district is not far left by any stretch of the imagination … but from our standpoint, we’re taking nothing for granted.”
In November 2018, Valenzuela was having lunch with former staffers for Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 U.S. Senate campaign and people who helped elect her to the local school board when they floated the idea of a woman of color — Valenzuela specifically — running in the 24th District. She brought the idea back to her husband, who encouraged her, too.
Ever since, she has made her history as an underdog the central pillar of her campaign. She said she’s seeking office because she feels that the nation’s laws are written by people who don’t look like her or have her upbringing.
“Candace Valenzuela has been reaching out to these diverse and robust communities across North Texas,” said Geoff Simpson, Valenzuela’s campaign manager.
Van Duyne, meanwhile, has been eyed as a possible successor to Marchant for years. The first female mayor of Irving, she gained national attention in 2015 after she raised alarm about a group of imams who had set up a conflict resolution center “grounded in a solid and unshakeable foundation of faith and belief.” The group’s leaders made clear that their proceedings were conducted in accordance with local, state and federal laws. But Van Duyne pushed state lawmakers to pass a law stating that the U.S. Constitution takes precedence over “foreign laws” in family law cases. The law didn’t pass.
“Beth’s repeated stance was that foreign laws, especially under Shariah law, put women at a tremendous disadvantage to men, who were allowed to treat women abusively and profoundly unfairly — unlike what is allowed under American law,” said Donald Rickard, a Van Duyne campaign spokesperson.
The stance brought her plaudits in conservative media and grassroots groups, drawing questions about whether she’d challenge Marchant in the 2016 primary. She didn’t run, but in 2017 Trump appointed her to a regional leadership position at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. She left the federal agency to run for Congress, and her bid is supported by multiple local police unions, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and former Gov. Rick Perry.
Van Duyne has also emphasized relatability, highlighting that she’s a single mother and recounting in a campaign ad how she battled with her health insurance company after it denied coverage for surgery for her newborn daughter. But she has also kept some of her signature confrontational style, often blasting national “socialist” Democrats on social media.
Valenzuela, meanwhile, has promoted certain policies, including calling for a public health insurance option and automatic government assistance for any household that makes under $50,000 annually. She has also vowed not to accept corporate political action committee money and promised to promote early childhood education. She has received endorsements from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., in addition to former President Barack Obama.
She has also been unafraid to bring race, gender and class to the foreground. Her top primary opponent, retired Air Force officer Kim Olson, was considered the favorite for most of the race — and was the top vote-getter in the first round of voting by an 11-point margin. But when Olson, who is white, dismissed concerns about looting in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, Valenzuela blasted her for “[missing] the mark by actively encouraging the destruction of our community rather than amplifying the voices of Black people who are fighting for change with empathy and compassion.”
In a statement immediately after Valenzuela’s win in July, Van Duyne said her opponent “smear[ed] her way to victory over a decorated female veteran.”
“For the past four months, the Democrats have raced to the bottom in their primary to be the candidate most acceptable to the extremists who run their party,” Van Duyne wrote. “Candace has actively sought and received support from many extremist elected officials and organizations who believe in dismantling American security, fundamental rights, and crushing North Texans under socialized medicine and higher taxes on middle-class families.”
How those two distinct approaches will play among the changing District 24 electorate remains to be seen.
“If there’s a chance for the Democrats to snag the seat, it’s because 2020 so far is a referendum on Trump,” said Stephanie Martin, an associate professor of political communications at Southern Methodist University. “The question is whether she can develop enough name recognition and media attention in the middle of a huge national election that’s going to be all about whether Texas is going to flip. That’s a huge question mark.”
Valenzuela’s supporters, meanwhile, think she’s become a threat to Republicans because she challenges the status quo; she seems more concerned with movements than elections; she doesn’t talk about flipping seats and votes, but rather of winning hearts and minds. Valenzuela herself says she’s not thinking about what her win could mean for her solely; she’s thinking about how to define the agenda and representation in Congress for the next several decades.
“A lot of folks see themselves in me,” she told the Tribune. “I am just a soccer mom. My kid doesn’t play soccer yet, but there are plans when we don’t have COVID.”
Still, shock seemed to be the predominant emotion when Valenzuela found out she was ahead in the early vote and later won her primary runoff challenge in July. Throughout the night, and from her living room where she watched the results pour in virtually, Valenzuela remembers receiving a swarm of phone calls and texts from reporters, supporters and campaign staff clamoring for interviews or offering their praise.
“We’ve only had two Latinas — two Tejanas — in the history of [the Texas congressional delegation], and they just came in in 2018,” she later said, a nod to freshman U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar of El Paso and Sylvia Garcia of Houston. “Having the ability to have other people see themselves in you and know this is an office that is there and should be acceptable to them, I think it’s resonating with folks in this district.
“Having that representation is going to make a big difference to a bunch of little girls who might have not pictured themselves in the halls of Congress.”
Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.