2018 Primary Elections: Giddy With Energy
Tracking back on a wild election night
STATEWIDE RACESby Mary Tuma
Valdez, White Head to Run-off
Not surprisingly, neither of the top two major Democratic gubernatorial candidates, in a sea of sorely underwhelming contenders, attracted enough votes to win their primary outright. Former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, an openly queer Latina with shaky knowledge of state policy, scored 43% of the statewide vote, while Andrew White, a Houston businessman who doesn't mind if you label him a moderate Republican, drew 27%. They now head into the May 22 run-offs for a (slim) chance of ousting incumbent Republican Greg Abbott, who secured a laughably easy victory with a whopping 90% of the vote.
Elsewhere, Mike Collier, a former Texas Democratic Party finance chair and retired Houston accountant, won the Democratic lieutenant governor nomination, and Austin entrepreneur Joi Chevalier bested local attorney Tim Mahoney for comptroller. Other winners were Roman McAllen for railroad commissioner, and Miguel Suazo for land commissioner. Resting easy on election night were Justin Nelson (attorney general) and Kim Olson (agriculture commissioner), both unopposed.
U.S. Senator: Robert vs. Rafael
U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke predictably won his primary and now officially begins his campaign against Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz in a much-anticipated matchup. While hopes are high for the El Paso congressman, O'Rourke's share of the vote was considerably lower than Cruz's – he drew 62% against two contenders while Cruz sailed with 85%. And O'Rourke lost to primary challenger Sema Hernandez in some border counties. Travis County voters overwhelmingly supported O'Rourke, no big surprise considering the massive crowds he's drawn throughout the region and the hefty spattering of yard signs you see in neighborhoods all over town. "We're going to do something really special in Texas," O'Rourke said on Facebook after his win. "Failure is not an option in this one. There are too many of us counting on one another to do anything else but win."
It should come as no surprise that Cruz was ready for O'Rourke's victory. He had a radio jingle ready to go Tuesday night, with the catchy (?) phrase, "If you're going to run in Texas, you can't be a liberal man," along with references to the Democrat's given first name, Robert. Even with his huge popularity, it'll be a tough battle for O'Rourke – no Democrat has won statewide in Texas in more than two decades – but at least it'll sure be fun to watch a threatened Cruz squirm all the way to November.
U.S. CONGRESSby Michael King
CD 10: East Meets West in May
In CD 10, currently held by seven-term GOP incumbent Michael McCaul, the May Democratic run-off will be West vs. East, with Travis County represented by Austin attorney Mike Siegel, and Harris County featuring R.N. Tawana Walter-Cadien, who barely edged out five also-rans. Siegel has a sizable lead in the first round, but even if he wins, it'll be an uphill fight against McCaul – who has roundly defeated Walter-Cadien three times. If Siegel can hold his advantage, he's looking forward to running "throughout the whole district."
CD 17: Kennedy Bests Mantey
In a district anchored in Waco and College Station and long held by GOP incumbent Bill Flores, software engineer Rick Kennedy defeated UT-Austin doctoral candidate Dale Mantey. Both emphasized health care as a dominant issue; Kennedy told the Waco Tribune-Herald Wednesday he was feeling "relief, pride, and gratitude" to the voters.
CD 21: "Believe in What's Possible"
"Believe in What's Possible!" is the campaign slogan on Mary Wilson's website, and it certainly came true for her Tuesday night, as she bested three competitors. Joseph Kopser, who led in the early voting, will join Wilson in the May run-off. Two seemingly strong progressive contenders – Derrick Crowe and Elliott McFadden – trailed the front-runners, and may have split their likely supporters.
Wilson couldn't be reached immediately Wednesday morning, but she had been elated at the early returns (then running second) and looking forward to a competitive run-off. Kopser said he was "thrilled" to make the run-off, and looking forward to a "positive" campaign against Wilson. "There were so many undecided, it was hard to know how voters would break." He acknowledged the importance of the women's vote, but added, "It's also women and men voting together ... and we need everybody."
CD 25: Two Left Standing
There were five solid Democratic candidates for CD 25 – where GOP incumbent Roger Williams holds a district running from West Austin to the Fort Worth suburbs. The two left standing are attorney Chris Perri and attorney and health care advocate Julie Oliver. Perri was still giddy with energy Wednesday morning, and trying to focus on getting back into a courtroom in a couple of hours. "I'm really excited about those numbers," he said, "and I think it came down to personal campaigning, personal connections made on the trail." Oliver reiterated her sense of gratitude to supporters – "My heart is so full," she said, "for Austinites, and everybody in the district."
Perri believes his central message – "making government accountable to the people" – will resonate across the district, and Oliver emphasized keeping people engaged through the May 22 run-off and beyond, and working throughout the elongated north-south district. She added, "Women's turnout is going to be strong and powerful."
CD 31: A Choice of Styles
In the CD 31 run-off, Democratic primary voters will have a distinct choice of styles: military veteran and equality activist M.J. "Shoot Like a Girl" Hegar and family doctor Christine Eady Mann. The district, comprising Bell and Williamson counties (including a slice of Austin) is currently represented by GOP Rep. John Carter, who defeated challenger Mike Sweeney with 65% – not overwhelming for an eight-term incumbent.
THE TEXAS LEGEby Mary Tuma
HD 46: Duke-ing It Out
After more than two decades in the Lege, Rep. Dawnna Dukes is out. Following recent controversies including a corruption case, health problems, and dismal attendance at the Capitol, Dukes drew five primary challengers who pointedly promised to "show up" and dedicate themselves to House District 46. And on Tuesday, Dukes garnered a paltry 10% of the vote, a clear – and stinging – referendum on her recent tenure at the Lege. The most formidable candidates among the pool, former Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and immigration lawyer Jose "Chito" Vela, found themselves neck and neck as early returns came in. Vela maintained a slight lead by night's end, besting Cole by a razor-thin 51 votes. So the battle for HD 46 ain't over: Cole and Vela will go head-to-head in the May run-off. The winner there will be a huge favorite over Republican Gabriel Nila in November.
From his election night party at Nomad Bar, Vela told me he was "humbled and excited" and felt confident in an eventual win, saying the district craves a "liberal Democrat" unafraid to be bold. "What Democrats need right now is someone who is a rabble-rouser, an agitator, a troublemaker," he went on. "That's what voters responded to – someone who can really stand up and fight against the radical GOP. They want someone that's not just going to negotiate but counter them." He said beating a longtime incumbent and taking a slight lead over a two-term council member who outspent him "2 to 1" is a "testament" to how hard his grassroots campaign worked. Before the crowd of partygoers, Vela thanked his No. 1 campaign donor – his mother – from the podium. "She's going to have a lot of influence at the Capitol," he said with a wink.
Meanwhile, down the road at Midtown Live, Cole and company were celebrating a shot at round two. Asked if she anticipated a run-off, Cole said she "knew it was always a very real possibility considering how strong the candidates were." She said her team will continue to make sure voters understand her platform of reforming property taxes, public education, and affordability. She stresses the differences between her and Vela going forward: "I've got actual experience serving a divergent group of people from every demographic and sexual orientation, and have a record of that."
Asked to comment on Dukes' defeat, both candidates, in their own words, said the voters have spoken.
HD 47: Ready for a Run-off
Neither real estate agent Vikki Goodwin nor state director of Texas retirees for AFSCME Elaina Fowler drew a majority, leading both women into the May 22 run-off. The GOP-held district encompasses the Lakeway area and dips into southern parts of Travis County, and the May winner will face an uphill battle against Republican incumbent Rep. Paul Workman, who handily won another spot on the ballot.
SD 25: A Win for Kling
Democratic voters in Senate District 25 opted for former U.S. Army veteran and IT professional Steven Kling – an "unabashedly progressive" candidate, rather than former city planner Jack Guerra, who prided himself as a "centrist" Democrat – to unseat right-wing Republican Sen. Donna Campbell, who maintained her incumbency easily. "The voters have spoken loud and clear. They are ready for real change," said Kling following his win. "I have a vision for our state where Texas takes the lead in adopting innovative ideas that will bring next-generation improvements to education, energy, and public health."
JUDICIAL RACESby Chase Hoffberger
Anything can happen in an election, particularly one in which the challenger brings better plans and ideas to the campaign than their incumbent, but it was still a shock to see Chantal Eldridge win big over incumbent Judge David Crain. Eldridge, an indigent defense attorney who effectively campaigned against Crain's self-admitted rejection of reform measures on the bench, managed to convince voters that she was the best option for the 331st District Court despite a steady string of negative news from Crain's camp, beginning with a story in the Statesman about how she employs a registered sex offender at her practice (and plans to do so on the bench) and continuing (again in the Statesman) with word that in 2006 she was investigated by Austin Police for sexually assaulting a 16-year-old foreign exchange student (though there are plenty of holes in both stories; see "You Be the Judge," March 2). Eldridge actually took a greater share of the election day total than she did in early voting, indicating that those stories either came and went, or didn't sway voters enough to make a difference. Here's hoping her tenure on the bench includes far less drama, and a heightened focus on specialty dockets, indigent rights, and jail diversion efforts, as she emphasized throughout the race.
There wasn't much action elsewhere in the criminal courts. Incumbent John Lipscombe breezed to a quick victory over defense attorney Paul Quinzi in County Court-at-Law No. 3, as did longtime incumbent Nancy Hohengarten in CCL5.
JP, Precinct 3: A Time for Change
It was early curtains for incumbent JP Susan Steeg, who after 10 years on the bench lost big to Sylvia Holmes, associate director of UT-Austin Legal Services for Students. Reached Wednesday, Holmes said she is ready to "modernize our court system and provide reformative justice to everyone in Southwest Travis County."
459th District Court: A Run-off Awaits
The new civil court produced the only close local judicial race of the night, and also the only judicial run-off: Associate Judge Aurora Martinez Jones and attorney Maya Guerra Gamble will compete for a majority of votes next month. (Attorney Greg Hitt slips away.) Martinez Jones has the early edge, but the dynamics change a great deal when the third wheel knocks off the wagon.
TRAVIS COUNTYby Nina Hernandez
County Commissioner, Precinct 4: Gómez's Reign Continues
There was very little suspense after early voting; longtime incumbent Margaret Gómez beat her challenger, Del Valle ISD trustee Susanna Woody, by nearly 7,000 votes. In a Facebook post Tuesday evening, Gómez thanked her supporters for another four-year term. "I love my job and my staff and I will continue working on issues that affect Precinct 4 families," she wrote. Woody appeared in good spirits in her concession post, assuring her followers, "Don't worry folks, I'm not going anywhere."
Dem Party Chair: "A Bolder Vision and a Stronger Message"
A bottom-of-the-ballot race that historically features one unopposed (and relatively unknown) name turned out to be the nail-biter of the night. In what felt like a battle for the soul of the Travis County Democratic Party, grassroots candidate Dyana Limon-Mercado ultimately edged establishment-backed attorney Anne Wynne by a 2,800-vote margin. Wynne, a former Ann Richards appointee, had the support of the Travis County delegation, and endorsements from an impressive slate of local clubs and unions. But much of that support coalesced around Wynne in the wake of attorney Rick Cofer’s early exit from the race under murky circumstances. Limon-Mercado, who enjoyed support from City Council members Pio Renteria and Delia Garza, criticized the opaqueness of the process and vowed to run a campaign that would bring unheard voices to the forefront. And as she began to pull ahead, Wynne’s campaign manager Justin Perez struck a conciliatory tone, saying that while their camp was staying positive, “They’re both amazingly qualified. It will be great [for the party] either way.” With victory in sight, Limon-Mercado acknowledged the work ahead. “I think people are definitely ready to be united and get ready for November,” she said. “At the same time, we have internal divisions that need to be repaired in a thoughtful and intentional way. People need space to feel heard and valued. There’s a place for all of us, but at this time Democratic voters are looking for a bolder vision and a stronger message. And we saw that up and down the ballot.”
A Word on Voter Turnout
Some 21% of Travis County's registered voters hit the polls this primary, up from 13% at the last midterm primary in 2014. And County Tax Assessor and Voter Registrar Bruce Elfant hinted that the county has not seen such an energized electorate during a gubernatorial primary since Ann Richards campaigned in 1990. As is typically the case in Travis County, Democratic voters outnumbered Republicans – but in this election, they showed up in droves. About 115,000 Democratic ballots were cast, compared to 40,600 Republican ballots. In 2014, the split favored Democrats by only about 13,000 votes.
It would be tempting to look at the turnout and think the much-speculated Blue Wave was flowing full-tilt toward Texas, but the state turnout tells a different story. Republican voters still heavily outnumbered Dems, with 1.5 million ballots cast across the state compared to the left side's 1.04 million. Although Democrats failed to match GOP totals, they did see a rise of about 84% in turnout compared to the 2014 primary. Republicans, by comparison, only saw a modest 13% increase. Perhaps that wave is still building after all. – Austin Sanders
Who Wanted A Run-off?
Registered Democrats, your work is not yet done. Tuesday's elections yielded a whopping eight run-off races, with continuing contests for governor, Congressional Districts 10, 21, 25, and 31, House Districts 46 and 47, and the 459th District Court. Early voting for those races runs May 14-18, with Election Day set for May 22. Find all the info you may need at Travis County's election page, www.votetravis.com, or our own, austinchronicle.com/elections. And stay tuned for run-off endorsements in the May 11 issue. – C.H.