LEWISVILLE — Michelle Beckley, a Carrollton bird shop owner, shocked many when she ousted a Republican state representative in historically conservative Denton County last election.
Now, the freshman Democrat is fighting to protect her seat amid challenges from the left and right in a swing district her party will need to hold if it wants to seize control of the Texas House in 2020.
Emerging as one of the chamber’s more progressive members last session, Beckley in her reelection bid is emphasizing her legislative experience and a commitment to improving healthcare.
“This election is going to come down to health care,” she said. “Everybody I talk to wants Medicaid expansion and they are tired of Republicans not voting on it in Texas.”
Known for making blunt comments, Beckley has ruffled feathers on both sides of the aisle since winning the seat in 2018. Some Denton County Democrats accused her of undermining the candidacy of two candidates of color, an allegation Beckley denies, but one that helped propel primary challenger Paige Dixon, an African American, into the race.
Outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, meanwhile, called Beckley “vile” last year in a now infamous secret meeting between the Republican and a conservative activist. Beckley said the comment has only boosted her name recognition in the Denton County district, which stretches from Carrollton to Highland Village.
All three candidates vying to replace Beckley in House District 65 are women with ties to public education, the top issue of the last legislative session.
Dixon, a 37-year-old Lewisville Democrat and U.S. Army veteran, is the PTA president at her son’s elementary school. The two Republicans, 57-year-old civil engineer Nancy Cline and 52-year-old businesswoman Kronda Thimesch, are school board members. Thimesch, who has outraised Cline, recently won the endorsement of Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
The all-female cast of candidates is notable in a year when suburban women are expected to play a key role in competitive districts.
It also comes amid changing demographics in Denton County, one of several areas in North Texas with growing black and Latino populations, census figures show. In addition, many newcomers to the suburban county don’t have ties to the Republican party and could be persuaded to vote differently, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
Beckley ousted three-term Republican Rep. Ron Simmons last election, marking the first time in decades a Democrat won a Denton County Texas House seat. The margin, however, was just over 1,300 votes out of more than 58,000 cast, meaning the seat is still in play.
“It’s definitely a district that has changed enough over the past decade that there are targets of opportunity for Democrats to talk to old voters who see things differently and new voters who are open-minded,” Rottinghaus said.
The primary is March 3 and early voting starts Tuesday.
Beckley and Dixon align on many issues including expanding Medicaid, boosting teacher pay, expanding background checks for gun purchases and legalizing and taxing cannabis as a way to raise state revenue.
Boosted by campaign contributions from fellow House members, Beckley has raised over five times what Dixon has. Dixon, however, said she is running a “scrappy” campaign and tries to knock on over 100 doors a day herself.
The two candidates differ largely in approach and how they are selling themselves to voters.
Beckley emphasizes her family’s long history in Carrollton and her track record flipping the competitive Texas House seat in 2018, when she had far fewer resources. The win, combined with 11 other Democrats who also flipped Republican-held seats, forced the focus on public education last session, Beckley said.
“You have to have a candidate like me that’s lived here, with the infrastructure and the roots in the district,” she said.
Beckley filed several bills last session that didn’t pass in the Republican-led House, including one to expand Medicaid and another to make language on state marriage forms gender neutral to address same-sex couples. She will continue to “keep at it,” she said, citing an advantage of incumbency as being able to work on legislation for two months before newly elected members are sworn in.
A priority is tweaking the public education spending bill to boost funding for Lewisville ISD and Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD, which experience immediate benefits under the bill, but not in the long term, she said.
“We need to get in there and fix it for them, or it is going to result in higher property taxes,” she said.
Dixon is pledging to be responsive to the district’s needs and residents, including people of color who she said have been overlooked. A mother of two sons, she is making public education central to her campaign and focuses on raises teacher pay and boosting benefits for retired educators.
“We’re not paying our teachers like we really care about what they do,” she said.
Dixon grew up in Georgia, joined the U.S. Army after high school graduation and deployed to Iraq during her 15 years in service. She became politically active following the 2016 election. Dixon joined the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America and became president of the Young Democrats of Denton County, where she learned to campaign by block walking, phone banking and writing postcards, she said.
“I never thought I would run for anything. I was OK with volunteering,” she said. “The person you are waiting on, it could be you. I am not seeing things I care about being fought for. Hearing people’s stories, we need a fighter, someone who actually cares.”
On the Republican side, Cline and Thimesch are drawing differences in their leadership styles.
Cline, a civil engineer who is president of the Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD school board, emphasizes her career accomplishments as what set her apart.
“I have been president of the school board through two rounds now, but also I have built hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects, dealing with customer service, but also working with contractors to get the project done,” she said.
Thimesch, who has raised campaign money from Simmons and who Abbott called a “proven conservative leader,” touts her ability to work with others.
“The difference would be my ability to reach out and build strong relationships and partnerships, not only with elected officials, [but with] community leaders, across the school districts, across our nonprofits,” said Thimesch, who is a member of the Lewisville ISD school board and owns a landscaping business.
The Republicans agree on some issues. Both support local control and oppose taxpayer funded lobbying. Yet while the women identify as pro-life, they outline different ideas on abortion restrictions.
Thimesch backs legislation that bans abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected. And she supports an exception to abortion restrictions in cases where the mother’s safety is at risk. Then, she said, it is a “decision between the medical doctors and the family.”
Cline said she supports exceptions to restrictions on abortion for cases of incest, rape or when a mother’s life at risk. “It’s a very sensitive personal issue,” she said. “I am pro-life and that is my choice.”