With only two weeks before the October 21 start of early voting in the state House District 50 race to replace resigned North Austin state representative Mark Strama, the election’s three Democratic aspirants are each touting their ground strength and making final efforts to reach voters before the first ballots are cast.
And in private, they’re handicapping a potential runoff – if no candidate wins a majority, a runoff is scheduled for Dec. 10.
On the campaign trail, the Austin Environmental Democrats met Friday and gave a split endorsement to Celia Israel and Rico Reyes, and on Saturday, Jade Chang Sheppard attended a candidate forum at Austin’s just-christened Asian American Resource Center. On Wednesday, the Friends of Celia Israel will be meeting at West Austin restaurant Chez Zee to shore up Israel’s campaign funds in advance of the final push.
Jollyville Chiropractor Mike VanDeWalle is the only Republican in the race, and thus a likely recipient of one of the two runoff slots. HD 50 leans Democratic, but not heavily so — Attorney General Greg Abbott won a modified, slightly more Republican incarnation of the district with 50.4% in 2010. In private, the Democratic campaigns say they are wondering about VanDeWalle. Though their volunteers have occasionally seen him bicycling around the District, talking to voters, they’re unsure about the strength of his field operations. A Texas Ethics Commission filing from October 1 had him taking in $37k and spending $28k — far short of the Dems.
Last week, Justin Perez, Israel’s campaign manager, raised the possibility that the Democrats, by appealing to different demographic groups and issue blocs, might be able to drive turnout and squeeze VanDeWalle — essentially for Texas a generic Republican candidate — out of the runoff. That would require VanDeWalle to severely underperform at simply taking the default GOP vote – but anything is possible in an off-year special.
The Dem candidates express similar levels of confidence about their ground games. Israel, a longtime Dem activist who’s consistently lagged behind in fundraising, has long treated her campaign’s field work as her ace in the hole. But Sheppard’s and Reyes’ campaigns each argue that they have the best organization in the district. Sheppard’s campaign touts her long lead time in the district — she had been prepping a run well in advance of Strama’s short-notice resignation. Reyes’ campaign argues his history in the district and professional background gives them an edge going forward.
“We’re talking to hundreds of voters a day, 1,500 voters a week,” says Matt Glazer, Reyes’ campaign manager. “He’s the only lawyer in the race. He’s worked for the [Travis County District Attorney] Public Integrity Unit.” He adds: “He’s one of three lawyers on the Planned Parenthood case [the lawsuit just filed against House Bill 2]. He’s still working to kill that bill, even though he’s running for public office. That should show you what kind of guy he is.”
Glazer also argues that bipartisan appeal will be necessary to win and hold the district. “It’s one thing to be an activist,” he says. “It’s another thing to be a consensus builder and a lawmaker.”Anthony Gutierrez, a communications advisor on Sheppard’s team, agrees. “To win in Texas, you can't be a hard-core ideologue. You've got to appeal to people on both sides of the aisle,” he says. "That's how [state Sen.] Wendy Davis won in a split [Fort Worth] district."
As for the campaign’s strategy — they took an early and considerable lead in fundraising, and Gutierrez says they’ve decided to mimic what has worked. “We’ve been in this district for months. The same things that Mark Strama was doing, we're doing,” he says, pointing to their volunteer program modeled on Strama’s "campaign academy."
And Gutierrez responded sharply to Israel’s criticism of his candidate. Israel’s been raising past campaign contributions Sheppard made to Republican candidates, including San Antonio pols like City Councilmember Elisa Chan, who ran into trouble when a tape of her private gay-bashing surfaced and gained national attention. Sheppard, who aides said was aghast when she learned of Chan’s views, asked that her contribution be returned.
"When Mark Strama resigned, he told us he wanted us to keep it positive," Gutierrez said. "These are dirty attacks that are taking the race in the wrong direction. And they’re not going to work. While [Israel’s] out there saying this, we're in the district, talking to voters about the issues.”
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