Long Lines and Close Races Defined Super Tuesday in Travis County
The votes are in!
By the News Staff, Fri., March 6, 2020
The March 3 primaries in Travis County and throughout Texas did not deliver too many shocking surprises, but high Election Day turnout and the resurrection of Joe Biden and his coalition both made an impact all the way down the ballot. As expected, many marquee races for Central Texas voters will continue to a May 26 run-off – the Democratic contests for U.S. Senate and the 10th District, Republican battles to reclaim local legislative seats, and the tough races for Travis County's district and county attorneys among them. We'll have more analysis of the Super Tuesday results as well as ongoing run-off race coverage online and in print. – Mike Clark-Madison
The impossible, then inevitable, Battle of the Septugenarian Stars between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden for Texas' big bag of delegates captivated the nation long into Tuesday night. The former vice president's narrow win – about 60,000 votes out of 1.8 million cast – over the Vermont senator placed a nice bow on his campaign's remarkable three-day return from near-oblivion and helped push Michael Bloomberg out of the race as a candidate (but not as a cash machine), even though the former New York mayor had barely cleared the 15% threshold for statewide delegates as of press time. Here in Austin – or, more precisely, Texas Senate District 14 – Sanders, Biden, and Elizabeth Warren will divide the 10 district delegates we have to offer. The Travis County results illustrate the power of Joementum, even in one of Sanders' Texas hot spots: On Election Day, both Sanders and Warren basically matched their early-voting results, but Biden doubled his, despite having no ground game in Austin to speak of. Buoyed by strong Latinx voter support, Sanders held onto his edge in San Antonio, the Rio Grande Valley, and El Paso, despite the latter's favorite son Beto O'Rourke endorsing Biden (and taking him to Whataburger!) Monday night in Dallas. He also beat out Biden in Laredo, where his endorsee Jessica Cisneros appears to have fallen just short in her primary challenge to Rep. Henry Cuellar. But Biden swamped Sanders in and around Dallas and Houston, to the relief of many Democratic activists and candidates who fear a Sanders-led ticket will fail to flip purple U.S. House and Texas House seats in those areas in November. – M.C.M.
Although the results are not official – and close enough that recounts might be coming – it was a photo finish in the U.S. Senate race ... for second place. If the nearly final results hold, frontrunner MJ Hegar will face state Sen. Royce West in a run-off for the Democratic nomination to face GOP incumbent Sen. John Cornyn in November. But the count was close enough that it appeared Austinite activist Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez might edge out West for the run-off slot.
Hegar led the 12-candidate field comfortably all evening, running close to 30% early, slowly settling to a nearly final total of 22.7% (nearly 370,000 votes of more than 1.8 million cast). West and Tzintzún Ramirez remained neck and neck into Wednesday morning; with 99% of unofficial results reported, West led by just over 23,000 votes by noon (14.5% to 13.3%). Following behind were attorney Annie "Mamá" Garcia and Houston City Council Member Amanda Edwards, each just over 10%; nobody else cleared single digits.
Tzintzún Ramirez and West each issued statements Wednesday morning saying they would be waiting for final results. The Democratic primary was confounded by multiple unknown candidates and the headline-grasping presidential race, and polls reflected many undecided voters. On Monday, Tzintzún Ramirez cheerfully told the Chronicle, "Those are all my voters – they just don't know it yet." Wednesday as we went to press, she officially conceded, saying "Though we will not advance to a runoff, we accomplished something great." – Michael King
If there were any surprises among the campaigns for the six (count 'em, six!) congressional districts that cross Austin, it was perhaps the margin of victory for Democrat Julie Oliver in TX-25 (San Marcos to East Austin to Fort Worth). The nearly final Wednesday results showed Oliver just shy of 70% over Heidi Sloan; late Tuesday, she said, "I'm incredibly grateful for the fire that Heidi brought to this race." In her concession release, Democratic Socialist organizer Sloan suggested her competition had pushed Oliver to the left, but concluded with her "endorsement in defeating [GOP incumbent] Roger Dodger Williams in the general election."
In the hotly contested TX-10 (Austin to Houston), attorney and 2018 Dem nominee Mike Siegel enters a run-off against Dr. Pritesh Gandhi with an unofficial 44% to Gandhi's 33% and attorney Shannon Hutcheson out of contention at 23%. The winner faces incumbent Rep. Michael McCaul; Siegel told the Chronicle, "We feel great. We've had great support – from the grassroots, from unions, from student activists, and we look forward to continuing this work for the Texas 10th."
In TX-17 (Austin to Waco to Bryan), 2016 nominee Rick Kennedy faced late-filing challenges from Austinite David Jaramillo and Prairie View educator William Foster III; Kennedy flirted with outright victory until late returns held him at 48%; he'll face Jaramillo in May's run-off. On the much more scrambled GOP side of that race to replace retiring Rep. Bill Flores, former Dallasite Rep. Pete Sessions accrued 32% against an 11-person scrum, with Flores-endorsed Renée Swann squeaking by Austinite George Hindman by less than 700 votes for second place. Though the district remains a long-shot for Kennedy, Sessions' and Swann's upcoming race to the hard right in the run-off may open up the contest in November.
There was no surprise in TX-21 (Austin to San Antonio to Kerrville), where Democratic superstar and former state Sen. Wendy Davis easily defeated Jennie Lou Leeder, the party's nominee in 2018 in a neighboring West Texas district. Davis gathered a whopping 86% in her warmup to challenge freshman incumbent and hard-right firebrand Rep. Chip Roy, who was unopposed in the GOP primary. That race is sure to attract enormous national attention, with fundraising to match.
To the north in TX-31 (Williamson and Bell counties) Dr. Christine Eady Mann (35%) – the runner-up in the 2018 Dem primary to MJ Hegar, now leading the U.S. Senate race – faces a run-off against low-profile but well-funded Donna Imam (31%). Four other candidates split the rest, including Michael Grimes, who had withdrawn for family reasons but still managed 11%. (In third place was Round Rock City Council Member Tammy Young with 14%.) The eventual Democratic winner will face incumbent Rep. John Carter, who easily won his primary. as did Austin's one true congressman, Rep. Lloyd Doggett in TX-35 (Austin to San Antonio). The 14-term Democrat is heavily favored over his GOP opponent in the fall – pending run-off, either "Guillermo" William Hayward or Jenny Garcia Sharon – and tweeted "Let's keep the momentum going. Onward to victory in November!" – M.K.
Other State Races
In the biggest Super Tuesday shocker on either side of the ballot, incumbent Ryan Sitton's six-year stint on the Texas Railroad Commission is coming to an abrupt end. His unknown and unfunded opponent, Coastal Bend rancher and oil-services operator Jim Wright – no relation to the now-deceased former U.S. House Speaker of the same name from Fort Worth – came up with a double-digit victory in an otherwise anticlimactic GOP statewide primary. Wright had earlier told the Statesman he was running to "bring integrity back" to the often-compromised state energy regulator, where Sitton was himself often the odd man out against Wayne Christian and Christi Craddick. But his Some Dude status means the RRC is immediately on the board for Democrats still lusting to reclaim a statewide office, with Dallasites Chrysta Castañeda (an oil and gas attorney and engineer) and Roberto Alonzo (a former state rep) headed to run-off.
Another awkward result for the GOP came in the State Board of Education District 5 primary to succeed retiring Ken Mercer, in which widely vilified former Travis GOP Chair Robert Morrow grabbed 40% to lead Mercer-endorsed Lani Popp into the run-off. This is another seat viewed with excitement by Dems, whose standard-bearer Rebecca Bell-Metereau prevailed in the primary, as did Marsha Burnett-Webster in the SBOE District 10 contest to take on incumbent Tom Maynard; the two districts divide Austin north and south.
What had appeared to be lively contests for the Dems' first serious runs in decades at the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ended up being one-sided affairs, with Austin's own Amy Clark Meachum (for chief justice) and Gisela Triana prevailing in their SCOTX contests, along with Kathy Cheng and Staci Williams. On the CCA, Tina Clinton, Brandon Birmingham (unopposed), and Elizabeth Davis Frizell will carry the Democratic banner; the latter will face off in November against the only statewide judge to get primaried, Bert Richardson, who squeaked out a victory against conservative activist Gina Parker. – M.C.M.
In what is functionally the only election that matters in solidly Democratic Travis County, seven judicial benches were contested on Super Tuesday. Defeated incumbents included District Judge David Wahlberg, who lost to assistant District Attorney Dayna Blazey in a race that reflected both courthouse tensions between prosecutors and the defense bar and the county's general trend toward electing women to the bench. Of Wahlberg's colleagues Julie Kocurek won re-election, and Tim Sulak did not, in contests dominated by outside events: Kocurek's recovery from an assassination attempt by a defendant in her court, and Sulak's opponent Madeleine Connor's tortured history as a "vexatious litigant." Connor pulled ahead of Sulak by just over 1% as the final results were reported Wednesday morning. In open-seat district judge races, defense attorney Selena Alvarenga prevailed over assistant DA Amy Meredith for the chance to face Travis County's lone GOP judge Geoffrey Puryear in November, and Maria Cantú Hexsel and Jessica Mangrum claimed vacant civil court benches. The surprisingly intense battle for County Court at Law No. 4, the family-violence court vacated by (unsuccessful) county attorney candidate Mike Denton, will see appointed incumbent Judge Dimple Malhotra and defender Margaret Chen Kercher face off in May's run-off. And upstream at the Third Court of Appeals, representing a 17-county region anchored by Austin that flipped to the Dems in 2018, longtime district judge Darlene Byrne prevailed over renowned Austin criminal appellate attorney Keith Hampton for the chance to take on GOP incumbent Chief Justice Jeff Rose. – M.C.M.
The very hotly contested Democratic primary race for Travis County District Attorney ended in a temporary anticlimax, as Workers Defense Project co-director José Garza won 44% of the vote, while incumbent D.A. Margaret Moore earned 41% – presaging a May run-off. The early and election-day votes were roughly parallel, with Garza at nearly 39,000 both days, Moore doing somewhat better on election day (from nearly 35,000 to nearly 36,000). In third place was attorney and victims' advocate Erin Martinson, at 15%.
On election night, Garza had been pulled away from celebrating at Mi Madres by a family emergency, but Wednesday morning issued a statement saying "the voters chose bold change," asking for volunteers and donations, and reiterating, "Our system doesn't have to be broken." That has been his refrain throughout the heated campaign, as he argued that the national movement for dramatic criminal justice reform had yet to reach Travis County.
Moore, although not surprised by the prospect of a run-off, responded to Garza's claims with skepticism that she reiterated to the Chronicle while monitoring the election-night returns. "We're not Boston or Philadelphia ... we are Travis County, Texas, and have been on a reform trajectory for literally decades, and I've been a part of that trajectory." She argued that the nationalized criminal justice reform campaign – on such matters as cash bail reform and racial disparities in justice – neither reflects local progress nor recognizes "how the system works here and what Texas law is." She said she looks forward to having more time to get that message out to voters. Their disagreement will persist for at least a couple more months. – M.K.
Other County Races
The county attorney race ended in a tight contest between longtime Assistant C.A. Laurie Eiserloh and Austin Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza; the two will face each other in the May run-off. Former CCL4 Judge Mike Denton finished in a disappointing third place, considering the massive fundraising his campaign did, with just 11% of the vote. Dominic Selvera, the longshot favorite of some criminal justice reformers and of the Democratic Socialists of America, finished last with 7.5% of votes.
Garza, who pulled in just about 39% of the vote, has a name-ID advantage going into the run-off, but Eiserloh has been able to raise more money up to this point (including through a personal loan exceeding $100,000). With the U.S. Senate and district attorney races also on the run-off ballot, turnout is likely to be higher in May than usual, but the makeup of that electorate will be very different than the Super Tuesday voters. The winner likely takes it all; there's no GOP candidate in the November general election.
Eiserloh told us she feels her 42% of the vote "affirms" her campaign, which has been focused on her detailed reform plans, including one that would transform how misdemeanors are processed in the C.A. office. Eiserloh said the principle difference between her and Garza is "how we perceive the office" of county attorney. "This is a judicial office," she said. "We are not a one-person Commissioners Court focused on policy. I see the C.A. as primarily a legal office, but she sees it primarily as a policy office."
Garza doesn't necessarily disagree with that framing – she has a "different conception" of what the C.A. can be in the community, becoming a more public-facing official focused on reform. "Right now the office is run in an administrative way, and I think [Eiserloh's] experience in the office would continue that trend," Garza said. "But I want to make it an office in which the leader is out there in the community making tough political decisions, making policy reforms, and changing outcomes."
In the race for the Precinct 3 seat on Commissioners Court, Ann Howard came just shy of winning the contest outright with 48% of the vote. In a distant second place, former state rep Valinda Bolton finished with just under 30% of ballots cast; Sheri Soltes took in 14% and Shiloh Newman 7%.
Howard, former director of Austin's Ending Community Homelessness Coalition, is feeling energized by her performance and told us she's ready for a run-off, but hopes Bolton will agree to avoid one so Democratic voters can begin rallying ahead of November, where they will face off against unopposed GOP nominee Becky Bray, who is likely to be well-funded in the race to replace the retiring Gerald Daugherty, the county's last remaining Republican officeholder.
"I crushed it," Howard told us, "and a run-off will be expensive. Our focus as Democrats needs to be just like the presidential primary: We need to get to focusing on winning in November." Howard's fundraising has been strong, which she expects to continue, and she gave a shout-out to her campaign team who she said helped her navigate through the election as a first-time candidate. But Bolton isn't ready to give up the fight – she told us Wednesday afternoon that she will not concede to Howard. "I'm not even considering it," she said. "It would be disrespectful and a disservice to all of the grassroots supporters, the Democratic organizations, the unions, and the progressive groups that have endorsed me in this race." – Austin Sanders
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