Candace Valenzuela, Formerly Homeless Congressional Candidate, Advances to Democratic Primary Runoff in Texas’s 24th District

“Our congressman has been a politician since before I was homeless, sleeping in a kiddie pool outside a gas station,” Valenzuela said.

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 23: Candace Valenzuela, candidate in the Texas 24 Congressional District, knocks on doors in Irving, Texas on Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Candace Valenzuela, right, a candidate in the Texas 24th Congressional District, knocks on doors in Irving, Texas on Feb. 23, 2020. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Candace Valenzuela, a local school board member, is headed to a runoff in the competitive Democratic primary in Texas’s 24th Congressional District. With 45 percent reporting, Valenzuela, who highlighted her experience with homelessness in her campaign, won 30.1 percent of the vote, while Kim Olson — a retired Air Force colonel — had 43.2 percent in the suburban district, which spans Forth Worth and Dallas. Because no candidate is on track for a majority of the vote in the primary, both Olson and Valenzuela are expected to advance to the May 26 runoff election. If elected, Valenzuela would be the first black Latina in Congress.

“Our congressman has been a politician since before I was homeless, sleeping in a kiddie pool outside a gas station,” Valenzuela noted in her launch ad.

Olson, an establishment-friendly candidate who led the rest of the field in fundraising but didn’t have the backing of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, was charged with war profiteering in Iraq. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2006: “Pentagon investigators allege that while on active duty as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, Olson established a U.S. branch of a South African security firm after helping it win more than $3 million in contracts to provide protection for senior U.S. and British officials, as well as for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.”

Olson struck a plea deal, copping to two lesser charges relating to conflicts of interest and obtaining outside employment without permission and was allowed to retire with an honorable discharge. Still, it makes it hard to see how that record gets past the electorate in a general election, despite Olson’s effort to get ahead of it in her opening ad: “Our government couldn’t even pay the security detail protecting Americans. The warrior in me did what I had to do to get the security team paid and save lives.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee quickly took advantage of her record, calling Olson a “disgraced” former Air Force officer and “war profiteer.”

EMILY’s List — which rarely endorses in a race between two pro-choice women, and even more rarely endorses the progressive of the two — threw its support behind Valenzuela, not necessarily because they prefer Valenzuela’s politics to Olson’s but because of Olson’s electoral baggage. Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and the campaign arms of the Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses, endorsed Valenzuela as well. Olson, meanwhile, was backed by the groups VoteVets and Serve America, Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton’s PAC. Olson ran for Texas agriculture commissioner in 2018, losing to the GOP incumbent by 5 percentage points.

A third Democrat, Jan McDowell, ran in the district for the second time. In 2018, she came within 4 percentage points of unseating incumbent Rep. Kenny Marchant with a threadbare campaign, but raised just $73,000 in the 2020 cycle to Valenzuela’s $442,000 and Olson’s $967,000. On Tuesday night, with nearly half the votes counted, she received 10.1 percent, coming in third, enabling the runoff.

Though Marchant has represented the district since 2005, Beto O’Rourke, the 2018 Democratic nominee for Senate in Texas, carried it by 3 percentage points over Republican incumbent Sen. Ted Cruz. In addition to the six candidates who ran in the Democratic primary, six other candidates ran in the district’s open GOP primary. Marchant, one of many GOP lawmakers stepping down from office in anticipation of a blue wave, isn’t running for reelection. Former Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne, who had the backing of President Donald Trump, having served in his administration under the housing department, won the Republican nomination handily, and will likely be a formidable general election opponent.

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