Election Ticker: Are We There Yet?

The latest – and last! – news from the campaign trail before Election Day

Austin Justice Coalition founder Chas Moore on Wednesday (Oct. 28) joined Mayor Steve Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, and state Rep. Donna Howard to pump up voter support for Prop A, the Project Connect transit plan. "Too many people have paid the ultimate price to fight for our right to vote," Moore told reporters at Carver Library. "And we owe it to them to exercise their right." He described Prop A as "a direct investment in the quality of life of Black people, brown people, everyone who's been marginalized because of their skin color or their bank account or what part of town they live in." More on Prop A in "Austin at Large ." (Photo by Mike Clark-Madison)

Big-Name Dems Push Texas Flip

Former San Antonio mayor/housing secretary/2020 candidate Julián Castro and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (founder of the national redistricting-focused campaign All On the Line) will phone-bank on behalf of Democratic Texas House candidates on Thursday, Oct. 29. Kamala Harris will traverse a large part of the state, visiting McAllen, Fort Worth, and Houston on Oct. 30. The Biden for President bus caravan, with plenty of surrogates and maybe a surprise appearance by the Delaware Destroyer himself, is on a three-day, 14-stop tour of the state, beginning in Amarillo on Wednesday, with several stops in the DFW and Houston area, and concluding with stops in San An­ton­io and Austin on Oct. 30. – Mike Clark-Madison

U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar talks to reporters before casting her own vote in Round Rock. (Photo by John Anderson)

MJ Votes for MJ (and JT)

U.S. Senate candidate MJ Hegar, who's been holding early-vote rallies all over the state, made a quick trip to her neighborhood Randalls in Round Rock to cast her own ballot Tuesday. While there, she gave a shout-out to her own state Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, one of the 12 vulnerable freshmen Dems who need to hold their seats for the Dems to flip the House. "He's a servant leader and a public school teacher and he does not want to defund the police," Hegar said, referring to nearby anti-Dem campaign signs making the latter claim. "I guess they're afraid of him, and they should be because he could be governor one day." (At 31, Talarico was the youngest member of the Lege last session.)

As for her own race, while Hegar projected her usual brio and applauded the state's bonkers turnout – though not "the broken state of our voting in Texas, the worst voter suppression" – she said she doesn't pay attention to polling because it's often inaccurate in the Great State. (She is correct.) "I am confident that I'm accomplishing what I set out to accomplish," Hegar said. "I think we're gonna win. But I also set out to try to help increase voter turnout and civic engagement and enthusiasm because our democracy is in danger."

On the issues, Hegar expressed disappointment "but not surprise" about Amy Coney Barrett's elevation to the Supreme Court without "thoughtfully, actually giving [her] a full vetting" and slapped her opponent, Sen. John Cornyn, for "all of the lies" he's been telling, particularly about the two's respective stances on the Affordable Care Act. "There's just no integrity left there." She got more specifically critical on energy and climate change, noting that Texas is actually losing jobs in the oil patch rapidly and risks losing its leadership on energy if we don't "get on the freakin' train and on board with the future of the industry, [which is] clearly trending toward global renewable energy, where China is leading us, and that's not okay with me." (She did say "freakin'" and not something more coarse, for which she's already taken flak from pearl-clutching Republicans.) – M.C.M.

Flip the House ... and Senate?

While the Democratic goal of reclaiming the Texas House of Representatives and the Speaker's chair for the first time since 2001 remains tantalizingly close, the upper chamber of the Legislature remains firmly (19R, 12D) in the GOP's grasp – or does it? The big prize for Dems would be Senate District 19, the big border district stretching west from San Antonio, where incumbent Pete Flores, R-Pleasanton, prevailed in a special election in 2018 over former state and U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. The Dems' nominee this time, who finished a close third in said special, is Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, who notes that his victory would deprive Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick of the supermajority he needs, by Senate tradition, to bring bills to the floor. Patrick has worked around the margins in past sessions, by tweaking the size of the majority required, by peeling off centrist Dems like Brownsville's Eddie Lucio, and by backing Flores in his upset, but after losing two GOP senators in the blue 2018 wave, his margin for error is narrow. Gutierrez has run more against Patrick than Flores, whom he and the San Antonio Dems view as a stooge: "Elections have consequences and my opponent stole a special election; we must take it back," he says. Sixteen Senate seats are up this cycle; other than SD-19, Dems have an outside chance to flip seats in East Texas and in Houston's southern suburbs. No currently Dem seat is at risk; new Sen. Sarah Eck­hardt, D-Austin, isn't up until 2022. – M.C.M.

The Little County That Could

Hays County became the first county in the U.S. to surpass its total 2016 turnout on Sunday, more than a week before Election Day, according to Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report. Williamson and Comal counties quickly followed suit, and Travis County finally cleared the bar Tuesday night. Hays' status as one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation helps explain its huge turnout spike since 2016; the formerly 50/50 county tipped reliably red in the Tea Party wave of 2010, but it swung back just as hard in 2018, when Beto O'Rourke carried Hays by 15 points and Erin Zwiener flipped the HD 45 seat. Now Carrie Isaac, wife of Zwiener's predecessor Jason Isaac (who gave up the seat to run for Congress, losing to Chip Roy in the 2018 primary), is vying to snatch Hays back for the GOP. – Lina Fisher

... But the Isaacs Have Some Issues

Carrie Isaac helms the nonprofit Digital Education and Work Initiative (DEWIT) that claims to connect veterans with digital jobs; both Isaacs sit on its board. The Statesman reported in February (during the competitive GOP primary race that went to a run-off) that the nonprofit "has roughly $250,000 in revenue but spent less than 1% of it – $1,200 – on veterans." The only other expense the nonprofit reported was Carrie Isaac's salary as its executive director. DEWIT also partners with the company Alegion, whose CEO is a board member, and who said Alegion "has not done any work with [DEWIT] since 2018." Another board member is an investor in Alegion and has made campaign donations to both Isaacs. The nonprofit also shares a phone number with Isaac's campaign. In response to being called out on facts that could suggest at best a growing conflict of interest, Isaac made a "Fake News" tab on her website and called it a "political witch hunt." Remind you of anyone? – L.F.

"Project Connect ... it's no princess," warns TPPF's cringey anti-Prop A video released this week (Image via TPPF Facebook)

TPPF's Fractured Fairy Tales

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the powerful conservative lobby group with strong ties to the Koch network, is spending money on Facebook in opposition to Prop A, the mass transit ballot measure. It's not exactly clear how much, though. Facebook lets you see how much an organization has spent on sponsored content in a time frame, and it shows that TPPF has spent over $500,000 since May 2018 on advertisements; and as of Tuesday night, it had spent $15,779 just in the past week. But the platform does not break down how much of that spend is to denounce Prop A, compared to the many other positions TPPF promotes. It's also not clear how much anti-Prop A messaging is targeted to persuadable Austin voters, rather than to TPPF friends and supporters throughout the state (and nation). In one cringey video, TPPF's James Quintero pretends to read a fairy tale about a "magical place called Texas, where liberty, laughter, and the love of God filled the land." He adds, "Pros­perity was everywhere, except one place: a bad place, a weird place, almost like a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup. That place's name was Austin." Two questions: Is there actually anyone in town who believes that prosperity exists everywhere in Texas except Austin? And since when is being weird a bad thing? – Jack Craver

Right-Wing PACs Enter Council Fray

Progressive candidates for City Council, including the four incumbents, have mostly outraised their conservative opponents in the contest for $400 contributions, the limit for city races. But the "independent expenditures" of right-wing political action committees with no contribution limits have made up some of the difference. Four different PACs have raised about $186,000 primarily to benefit Mackenzie Kelly in District 6, Louis Herrin III in D4, and Jennifer Virden in D10. Both Kelly and Herrin are endorsed by the Travis County Republican Party; Virden is backed by Fight for Austin PAC, the latest front group launched by TCRP Chair Matt Mackowiak to campaign to re-criminalize homelessness.

Fight for Austin raised $78,765 in the reporting period that covers most of October, spending $37,917 of it (mostly on cut-and-paste TV ads criticizing incumbent CMs Jimmy Flannigan, Greg Casar, and Alison Alter for their votes on public safety funding and homelessness). Nearly one-third of those funds ($25,000) came from Phil and Mary Beth Canfield; he's the managing director of GTCR, a private equity firm in Chicago, and a seven-figure donor to UT's McCombs School of Business. (He also dropped $1,000 to help the anti-Prop A PAC Our Mobility Our Future.)

Although Had Enough Austin? only raised about $60,000 through Oct. 25, it spent $129,609 and still has $208,478 on hand. The group has only existed for three weeks but has several $10,000 donors; it opposes Alter without picking a D10 alternative, while backing Casey Ramos in D2 and Dr. Jenni­fer Mushtaler in D6, both fervent supporters of the land use status quo. The PAC's spending included $93,162 to Aro Group LLC, a consulting firm run by Michael Searle, an aide to former council member and current minor right-wing celebrity Ellen Troxclair who also ran the dark money campaign backing 2018's Prop K, the failed citizen initiative to subject Austin to an outside "efficiency audit." Ramos and Mushtaler also have the backing of the Positive Change PAC, another group supporting NIMBY candidates for Council.

SafeTX PAC has styled itself as a "nonpartisan" group concerned with public safety, but one of its largest donors is Gary Farmer, president of Heritage Title and a longtime leader of both chamber types and local GOP donors. He's also contributed plenty to Fight for Austin, Had Enough Austin?, and Our Mobility Our Future. The safety PAC raised about $28,500, spent $12,954, and still has $24,000 left to spend.

On the other side, Austinites for Equity, which is supporting Flannigan, Alter, CM Les­lie Pool, and D2 candidate David Chincan­chan, has raised just $27,140 (including $4,000 from Mayor Steve Adler), most of which it's spent. A bigger player is the Workers Defense Action Fund PAC, which aggregates contributions from labor unions as well as individual donors; it has more than $75,000 on hand to support Chincan­chan and Pooja Sethi, challenging Alter in D10. – Austin Sanders

The Masks of the Red Death Recall

Most responsible adults will spend Halloween indoors, neither partying nor trick-or-treating. For the less responsible ones seeking to recall the mayor, it's party time! A masquerade ball at Downtown watering hole Speakeasy will be hosted by Your Minute Is Up, the second attempt to organize angry Austinites to oust Steve Adler (the first one, in 2019, failed to gather enough signatures). Either because they saw this issue's cover in advance, or as a tribute to Poe, or just because they're inept, the hosts will be providing "face masks" – the kind that cover your eyes, not your nose or mouth. If you're eager to boost a super-spreader party hosted by local grifters, you too can pay $7,000 for a table for 10 and a spot in the recall Adler commercial! – A.S.

A Contest at Del Valle ISD

Four of the nine Del Valle ISD Board of Trustees seats are up for reelection this year, but only one incumbent, District 2 Trustee Damian Pantoja, has drawn a challenger, David Albert. Pantoja was appointed by the board in 2019 to replace high-profile leftist activist Debbie Russell when she stepped down; Albert was one of the other two applicants, and he told the Chronicle he thought "the right thing was to let the people decide" in this election. The ACC instructor, who leads the college's faculty union, is running on a pro-labor platform and has been endorsed by the Del Valle Education Associ­a­tion and Austin Central Labor Council (of which he is a member). Albert argues his political experience will prove essential for advocating during the 87th Texas Legislature, where the state's education budget will likely face deep cuts in the wake of the pandemic. If reelected, Pantoja, who grew up in the neighborhoods he represents, will continue to advocate for Del Valle ISD residents as the district responds to COVID-19, prioritizing remote technology access, food distribution, and free to low-cost immunizations. "If you go east of highways 71 and 183," he said, "there's no major food market, there's no access to any medical resources, there's no clinic, they don't have anything. So the community relies heavily on this school district." – Beth Sullivan

Lightning Round!

Capital Metro is offering free rides across the entire transit network to people voting on Election Day. MetroBike is also offering a free 24-hour pass during the remainder of the early vote period and on E-Day. Visit CapMetro.org for details... Gov. Greg Abbott raised about 10 million eyebrows this week by activating 1,000 Texas Army National Guard soldiers to deploy to the state's major cities before Election Day, without explaining why or telling those cities in advance; the Guard says the troops will not be stationed at polling places but are on standby to help in the event of unrest (over the election outcome, one presumes)... The Texas Democratic Party's Seinfeld fundraiser last week with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Larry David brought in about $650,000, well exceeding its goal... Just in time to screw up the election some more, Texas Attorney General and scandal magnet Ken Paxton announced an investigation into "voter fraud" shenanigans in San Antonio on the say-so of Project Veritas, the thoroughly shady and discredited sting operation founded by James O'Keefe... The nutso Texas turnout includes at least 860,000 voters age 18-29, the highest ever, although still plenty shy of the 3.1 million young adults who are registered to vote. Texas Rising, the youth offshoot of the Texas Freedom Network, said earlier this week it has made at least one contact (phone, email, text) with every young BIPOC registered voter in Texas and is still working to ID and turn out voters... Michael Bloom­berg's super PAC, Independence USA, will spend millions of dollars on anti-Trump ads in Texas in the sprint to Election Day... On Wednesday, Cook Political Report joined NBC News in moving Texas into the "Toss-Up" column in the presidential race. The Econo­mist and FiveThirtyEight still have Trump slightly favored to win the state.

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