"I'll summarize the county judge race this way: women."
That was David Butts' quick analysis of Tuesday's Democratic primary race that gave Sarah Eckhardt a 10-point victory over her better-funded opponent Andy Brown.
It's no secret that qualified women candidates generally, but not always, carry an automatic advantage in competitive Democratic races. But with last year's legislative assault on women's reproductive rights and Wendy Davis' historic filibuster, there emerged a fired-up base and a greater sense of urgency to put more Democratic women in office.
And, indeed, on Tuesday, Travis County women turned out in greater numbers, just as they have historically done in every other primary election, to vote for women candidates up and down the ballot, from Davis and Leticia Van de Putte at the top to Eckhardt in the middle.
"Andy's job was to convince women that he was a good choice, and all the women who supported him [including reproductive rights champion Sarah Weddington] made that effort," said Butts. But for a lot of female voters who are not connected to the inner workings of the political world, neither the endorsement of Weddington, nor the backing of Congressman Lloyd Doggett and Kirk Watson, both popular with women, were sufficient to sway the majority of the 44,226 who cast ballots. (Provisional ballots cast between 7-9pm still need to be tallied.)
In truth, Brown was the more – how shall we put this – approachable candidate, the more natural campaigner – but Eckhardt's gender and experience carried the day by a surprisingly wide margin. Most women I know went with Eckhardt for precisely those reasons, even if they had been put off by her somewhat confrontational style – she can be a hardass, I'll give her that, but by my sights we could use a few more like her minding the store, not giving it away.
"I think Andy had a superior get-out-the-vote effort, but what I was detecting in the final days was that people – male and female – were telling me that they had planned on voting for Andy, but they were beginning to think Sarah had more qualifications. That's a real warning sign that all of a sudden things are shifting," Butts asserted. "Not that all of them voted against Andy, but enough of them did that switched, and unfortunately Andy, who is a very good person, just got caught in the backwash."
Eckhardt's victory – which last year seemed a formidable prospect – makes her the presumptive successor to County Judge Sam Biscoe, who beat an equally qualified female candidate in the late Nineties to clinch the seat and held on to it all these years. Eckhardt is expected to trounce her little-known GOP opponent, Mike McNamara, in November to become the first woman to hold the county judge position.
The year-of-the-woman scenario played out in other local races, too. Brigid Shea knocked off two male contenders to win Eckhardt's former Precinct 2 County Commissioner seat, and Treasurer Dolores Ortega Carter fended off the popular, well-funded Ramey Ko to retain her seat.
Butts, a veteran political operative who's sometimes scorned for having too heavy a hand in local campaigns, didn't side with one candidate over another in the county judge race because he, like a lot of people, is friends with both Eckhardt and Brown, the former head of the Travis County Democratic Party. (My dream is that Austin will someday have the female equivalent of a David Butts or – shudder – a Peck Young.) Like every other political junkie in town, Butts followed the hotly contested race every step of the way and spent most of Tuesday evening and part of Wednesday digesting the returns. His preliminary findings show that Eckhardt won both female and male voters (the latter by a smaller margin, he suspects), and Brown won the African-American vote, thanks in large part to the endorsement of Congressman Lloyd Doggett, who is popular among black voters. As of Wednesday, Butts was still looking at the Hispanic vote and other demographic groups.
The most marked shift in the campaign came Feb. 18, at the start of early voting. Butts sensed a change in the race that had initially been Brown's to lose. While Brown picked up the endorsements of former and current political leaders, big labor groups, and swept the Democratic clubs, Eckhardt won the coveted endorsements of both the Statesman and the Chronicle, published as early voting got underway. "That was a huge deal," Butts said. The double header coincided with two "pretty good" mailers the Eckhardt campaign sent out. "It was right at that juncture that the trend line started heading her way."
Eckhardt should immediately reach out to Brown and his supporters and try to heal a few wounds. "The thing that she needs to do is the thing that she's not been the best at – and that's sit down and talk with people," advised Butts. "Her failing, if she has one, is that she has a tendency to make up her mind and then proceed a certain course without talking to all of the engaged parties, and that's what she needs to learn, if she hasn't already." To be sure, there's a lot more Monday-morning quarterbacking over how Eckhardt should work to restore Democratic unity heading into November.
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