Record Turnout in Run-Off Election Pushes Democratic Party Toward Change

State and local races show the blue getting bluer

MJ Hegar cast her ballot during early voting (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Surf's up for Texas Democrats, as the building blue wave of voter enthusiasm drove nearly 1 million people to take part in Tuesday's primary run-offs. Neither the heat of summer nor the fear of contagion deterred voters as they broke a turnout record set way back in 1994, when Democrats still controlled the state. "In the middle of a pandemic, Texas Democrats showed we are ready to win with nearly a million Texans doing whatever it takes to have their voice heard," said party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa in a statement. The ruling party had the opposite experience; without a statewide race, and with the Texas GOP in disarray as it rushes to launch its convention online, low turnout led to unpredictable results around the state.

For Dems, the big turnout numbers both statewide and in Travis County included a sizeable faction of left-leaning voters who put pressure on the establishment – and showing their strength in the closely (and nationally) watched district attorney and county attorney races. In Travis, more than 120,000 votes have been counted so far on the Democratic side; the drama of the Senate District 14 special election means that every last vote – late mail-ins (including military and overseas ballots) and provisionals – will be wrangled. County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that around 2,000 regular mail ballots arrived on Wednesday, the cut-off date in state law. The Travis GOP run-off, with just one big race on the ballot (the state HD 47 contest, where Austin police Officer Justin Berry earned the nod to challenge incumbent Vikki Goodwin) attracted just under 19,000 votes. – Mike Clark-Madison

U.S. Senate: Hegar Is Airborne

"I feel outstanding," MJ Hegar, now officially locked in at the top of the Democratic ticket, told the Chronicle on Wednesday. "Seeing record turnout, and seeing communities turn out that have been hard to turn out in the past, bodes very well for the general" – her November showdown against three-term incumbent Sen. John Cornyn.

Hegar led state Sen. Royce West of Dallas by a modest but consistent margin throughout the night, but with many votes still unreported in urban counties, the retired Air Force helicopter pilot and "working mom" demurred from declaring victory when she addressed reporters via Zoom around 10pm. In the end, West's decided advantage over Hegar in the Metroplex was offset by her equally big win along the I-35 corridor, including in Austin; the two fought to a draw in Harris County, and Hegar took the rest of the state.

“I think the whole nation knows that we’re in play. With the math in the Senate, we could turn the direction of the entire country from right here in Texas.” – MJ Hegar

West, the underfunded underdog in the race despite having a much longer political career than Hegar, put his performance in perspective. "When I was born, my mother did not have the right to vote. She reminded me of this bracing fact this week," West said in his concession statement. "It brought home to me both how far African Americans have come as a people, and how much more work is to be done. I'm proud my mother was able to vote for me in this race, and I am re-energized today to continue my work as a state senator, addressing the needs of my constituents. We will keep working for justice in Texas."

Hegar estimates that if the November election were held today, she'd finish about three points behind Cornyn – basically, starting where Beto O'Rourke ended up two years ago against Ted Cruz. "We haven't really even gotten started against Cornyn yet," she told us. "It's going to take a lot of work, don't get me wrong. But we're just really confident that the voters in Texas are going to vote for the person who shares their values more."

That's assuming they aren't convinced Hegar is a radical socialist by Cornyn and a panicky GOP who want to define her while she's still meeting a lot of Texas voters for the first time. How panicky? Cornyn spent $100,000 on ads in the Democratic primary to try to push West, his preferred opponent, over the top as the true progressive. "He's already said I'm too far right," Hegar said of Cornyn's meddling. "But people in Texas are used to him lying and saying what's most convenient for him at the time."

Despite having held statewide office for 30 years, Cornyn is also still largely a nonentity to a lot of Texas voters – especially new Texans who've moved here (or reached voting age) since he's been part of the furniture. "He's helping define himself as well," Hegar said. "Every time he opens his mouth or tweets something stupid, [like] that he thinks kids can't catch COVID, people are learning more and more about him."

That also applies to out-of-state supporters who now have Hegar and Texas on their watchlists as they pursue the once far-fetched but now quite attainable goal of a Democratic Senate. "I think the whole nation knows that we're in play. With the math in the Senate, we could turn the direction of the entire country from right here in Texas." – M.C.M.

U.S. Congress: A Time for Unity

Pritesh Gandhi wasted no time telling his supporters that it's time to bounce back. After falling short by just under 4,000 votes in the TX-10 run-off, he committed to keep running to unseat incumbent Michael McCaul, R-West Lake Hills, "even though my name won't be on the ballot." His race against 2018 nominee Mike Siegel became surprisingly tense near the end, mostly due to spending from the outside 3.14 Action PAC, who backed "pro-science" candidates, including Gandhi – a physician at Austin's People's Community Clinic – and threw some wild punches at Siegel, a former Austin assistant city attorney. Siegel, who enjoyed solid backing from the Bernie Sanders wing of the national party and was endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, said in his victory statement, "It is our relentless pursuit of justice across every aspect of society that will carry us to victory in November." Since first winning the gerrymandered Austin-to-Houston seat in 2004, McCaul had never faced a real threat until Siegel came within five points of knocking him out in 2018; TX-10 is a top target of both state and national Democratic campaigners.

Mike Siegel during his election night watch party (Image via Facebook)

Up north in Williamson and Bell counties, an even more complacent incumbent – John Carter, Round Rock – will face computer engineer Donna Imam in November. Christine Eady Mann, who came in second to MJ Hegar in the 2018 primary, was expected by many to finish what Hegar started with the support of the same coalition of emerging Wilco Dems. But Mann, also a physician, fell short in both Wilco and Bell to Imam, who ran an unconventional campaign with an unusual coalition of supporters – from immigrant techies to libertarians to left-of-Bernie socialists to Andrew Yang – that flew under the local establishment's radar.

Carter had looked like he might retire after his close call against Hegar; his congressional neighbor Bill Flores, R-Bryan, did retire, leaving TX-17 open for carpetbagging Pete Sessions, ousted from his Dallas seat in 2018, to move back to his hometown of Waco and win the GOP run-off against Flores' choice, Renee Swann. He'll face returning nominee Rick Kennedy, who prevailed in his run-off against David Jaramillo to wage a decidedly uphill battle against the swampy Sessions in this district that includes part of North Austin. In his victory statement, he issued a call to all residents of the district: "I want to hear from you so I can best represent you – not the establishment, not big money, not dark money, not a particular party, not the president."

And just for the sake of completeness, we will inform you that Jenny Garcia Sharon received the GOP nomination in TX-35 to lose to incumbent Lloyd Doggett in November. A whopping 7,745 votes were cast in the GOP run-off for that race – less than half of what Gandhi or Mann received on their own, in defeat. – M.C.M.

District Attorney/County Attorney: The Garza Moment

Run-off night sent a seismic shock through the Travis County courthouse establishment, as the outsider reform candidates in both the district attorney and county attorney races – the two Garzas – rolled over the courthouse favorites with double-digit victories.

In a stunningly lopsided defeat, incumbent D.A. Margaret Moore was unseated by Workers Defense Project Executive Director José Garza by more than 43,000 votes, a 36% margin. That Garza, who had bested Moore in the first round in March by about 6,000 votes, finished on top again Tuesday is not entirely surprising. Some political observers privately thought Moore was running a weak campaign, and Garza was buoyed by the national attention being paid to the D.A.'s race by criminal justice reform advocates. In the last filing period (ending July 6) Garza reported $548,000 in contributions – including both cash and in-kind support from the national Real Justice PAC, which Moore tried but failed to weaponize as a campaign issue – compared to Moore's $160,000.

José Garza (l) and Delia Garza with her family on election night (Images via Zoom)
“People all across this community, across this state, and across the country have made it resoundingly clear that they are ready for the kind of transformative change we’ve promised.” – José Garza

But for Garza to explode his March victory margin sevenfold – in a run-off election delayed two months due to an increasingly dangerous pandemic that brought conventional campaigning to a halt – sends a message that cannot be ignored: Austin is ready for a new approach to criminal justice. Moore apparently heard the message, too. By 8pm, she had conceded the race, before any election day vote totals had even posted.

"I want to thank the voters of Travis County for giving me the opportunity to serve our community over the last three years," she said in a statement. "The District Attorney's Office has made significant improvements to ensure police officers are being held accountable, to prioritize the prosecution of sexual assault cases, and establish new diversion programs for first-time offenders. I'm very proud of the progress we have made thus far."

For Garza, his resounding victory reflected the frustration expressed in the streets, driving millions of Americans to protest after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and propelled locally by the fatal shooting of Michael Ramos here in Austin. "More than anything," Garza told the Chronicle late into his election night celebration in isolation, "our victory means that the change people have been seeking for the last year and beyond is due [to] them. We've been very clear from the beginning about what change we think needs to be made to criminal justice in Travis County."

The county attorney race tells a similar, if less dramatic, story. Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza was dogged by the courthouse establishment – routinely in the guise of former County Judge Bill Aleshire – since some of her City Hall pals began a campaign to "draft" her into the C.A. race in August 2019. Her lack of courtroom experience was ostensibly the target of the criticism leveled by her detractors, but some lines of attack veered into other territory (like her City Council votes on land use) that suggested the opposition was steamed about more than just legal experience.

But Garza's victory adhered more closely to her underdog narrative. In the last filing period, Garza's $65,000 in contributions were dwarfed by Laurie Eiserloh's $190,000. In the March primary, Garza came in second to Eiserloh, currently a high-ranking assistant in the C.A.'s Office, in a four-way primary by about 6,000 votes. In the run-off, though, Garza led by nearly 10,000 votes, or about 10%, once early vote totals posted, a gap that only grew once election day results began trickling in.

Despite her double-digit lead, Garza was initially reluctant to declare victory. "I'm still in shock," the mayor pro tem told us a couple of hours after the early votes were posted. "I don't have wealth to be able to fund my own campaign, so I knew the race would be a challenge. But I knew, even if I lost, I could at least shift the conversation on justice."

At 11:30pm, Eiserloh conceded, issuing congratulations to her opponent. "It has been a great honor to work with so many amazing people and create a shared vision for Travis County," Eiserloh, who's been with the C.A.'s Office for a decade, said in a statement. "Although these may be difficult times for so many in our community, I have great faith that we will get through these times and emerge even stronger."

Now, both Garzas are tasked with delivering on their promises to transform a courthouse that has historically resisted radical change. (First, José will face off against token Republican opponent Martin Harry in November; Delia will cruise into office unopposed.) For Delia, her promise was to be a C.A. who is more engaged and active on policy and politics than her predecessors, without diminishing the office's performance as Travis County's in-house law firm and misdemeanor prosecutor. For José, the goal is to take the enormous power and influence of the District Attorney's Office and direct it toward structural change of the system that's given it that power. Can he achieve such reform goals as creating a public no-call list for police officers who engage in misconduct, ending cash bail entirely (a policy even the D.A. cannot unilaterally change), and expediting grand jury review of police misconduct cases – making in 30 days decisions that, in Moore's hands, have taken a year or more?

Both Garzas have set a high bar for the work they will be held accountable for once in office, and they both see their commanding victories Tuesday night as a sign that the community is ready to help them clear that bar. "This is a huge shift in Travis County politics," Delia told us.

José cast an even wider net. "Times have changed. People all across this community, across this state, and across the country have made it resoundingly clear that they are ready for the kind of transformative change we've promised." – Austin Sanders

Other County Races

Judge Dimple Malhotra will continue her tenure on the County Court at Law No. 4 bench, after Malhotra's challenger, criminal defense attorney Margaret Chen Kercher, finished the run-off with an approximate 45% of votes to Malhotra's 55%. This will be the first full CCL4 term for Malhotra, who was appointed last October after former CCL4 Judge Mike Denton resigned to run (unsuccessfully) in the county attorney race.

The battle to preside over Austin's family ­violence court wasn't without its fiery moments, however, which spoke to existing tensions among some members of Austin's defense bar over how the court handles its docket of misdemeanor domestic violence cases. In an emailed statement to the Chronicle on her win, Malhotra said, "I will continue my fight to make sure that we have a safer community, that we have a fair and just system for all parties involved, and that we provide services and rehabilitation for those in need."

Ann Howard in an election night Facebook Live video (Image via Facebook)
“We’re going to work our buns off to flip Western Travis County blue.” – Ann Howard

And in the race to fill the Precinct 3 seat on the Travis County Commissioners Court, Ann Howard – who nearly won the March primary – surged well beyond former state Rep. Valinda Bolton in Tuesday's Democratic run-off, ultimately walking away with 65% of the vote.

Howard, former director of End Com­munity Homelessness Coalition, will now face Republican Becky Bray come fall. With Precinct 3 incumbent Gerald Daugherty serving out his final term this year, Nov­em­ber's election is a chance for Howard to flip the Com­mis­sioners Court's (and all of county government's) lone GOP-held seat.

In a Facebook Live video Tuesday night, Howard called herself "humbled" to be representing the Travis County Democratic Party in the months ahead. "We're going to work our buns off to flip Western Travis County blue and Texas blue and to keep the parts that are already blue and our Democrats in office, but I look forward to the hard work and the teamwork that it's going to take." – Beth Sullivan

SD 14: Missed It by That Much

A few more months of fun!

That's apparently the anticlimax of the special election to succeed retired state Sen. Kirk Watson in District 14, where front-runner Sarah Eckhardt finished just shy of an outright majority (49.7%) while Eddie Rodriguez finished a distant second (33.9%) – at least in unofficial results. Barring any late-breaking adjustments in the tallies from the more than 2,000 ballots (mostly mail-ins) left to count before the election is canvassed on July 28, the two will meet in a run-off to take place (pending scheduling from Gov. Greg Abbott) in late September or October. The winner will serve out the remainder of Watson's unexpired term, through 2022.

Although the first-round margin is daunting, on Wednesday morning Rodriguez celebrated his success in "forcing" a run-off, declaring in a release that his campaign now has the "momentum": "Today is a day for us to celebrate," said Rodriguez, "and then the hard work begins anew tomorrow." Early on election night, he had told his supporters (via Zoom) to expect a run-off.

Late Tuesday night, the Eckhardt campaign remained noncommittal, as the candidate posted to Facebook: "We didn't get all the answers tonight but look forward to finding out what the voters decided over the next day or two." Wednesday, she posted that her campaign had "exceeded our own expectations. ... We are almost there."

Eckhardt's total is close enough to 50% that (in theory) an official adjustment to the count could put her over the top. Abbott has until July 28 for an official canvass, with the run-off to come (under state law) 70 to 77 days later, which could push it into October, just weeks before the Nov. 3 general election.

Increasing the uncertainty was the open entry, six-candidate race – Republican Don Zimmerman won Bastrop County with 39% (Eckhardt had 31%, Rodriguez 23%), giving the former Austin City Council Member about 3,000 of his 15,565 total votes. In Travis County, more than 110,000 people voted in this race, of whom 51.1% voted for Eckhardt.

Earlier in the day, Rod­riguez and Eckhardt agreed on at least one thing: Neither would venture a prediction of the outcome. "I'm just in purgatory," said Eckhardt. "I don't know, I don't know."

"I'm leaning on our fieldwork and the volunteers," said Rodriguez. "We've got a lot of positive feedback, but in such a strange election, it's impossible to tell."

In brief conversations, the two candidates offered general but cautious optimism. The campaigns had been more than usually aggressive for an intraparty contest, with the two longtime Democratic officials exchanging charges of misplaced priorities and untrustworthy donors.

In the final days, the Rodriguez campaign demanded that Eckhardt reject the support of the Charter Schools Now PAC (which had received funds from another PAC associated with Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos), although the Charter PAC's primary advocacy is for generally uncontroversial public school charters. An Eckhardt campaign email, signed by Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, sharply questioned Rodriguez campaign donations from "fossil fuel industry" sources – although under the Dome, fossil fuel lobbyists writing checks are more common than bolo ties.

Asked about the ongoing campaign tension, Eckhardt said this is a time for an "all hands on deck focus on community needs" and that she simply hoped the political issues would be "resolved soon." Similarly, Rodriguez said his primary focus was on the election day outcome, while still recalling his anger over an early attack mailer by the Eckhardt campaign.

Now, the campaigns will resume licking those wounds – or picking those scabs – and the voters will wait for a reprise in two to three months. – Michael King

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