If three days of early voting are any indication, the tense runoff fight for the state Senate 26 seat between Trey Martinez-Fischer and José Menéndez is attracting more voters than cast ballots in the first round election on Jan. 6, the result of record spending in the campaign that has pitted two Bexar County Democratic members of the House against one another in the fight to succeed departing Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who is running for mayor.
The Jan. 6 state Senate ballot included two Republicans, Alma Perez Jackson and Joan Pedrotti, and a third Democrat, Al Suarez. Voter turnout was a miserable 5%. The five candidates in the first round drew only 19,158 voters, including 8,215 early voters. Martinez-Fischer finished well ahead of Menéndez and the others with 8,231 votes, or 43.28%. Menéndez finished a distant second with 4,824 votes, or 25.37%.
Special elections seldom draw many voters, and in most cases, a runoff would draw even fewer voters with one party knocked off the ballot. This time it’s different. A total of 6,977 people voted in the first three days of early voting this week, which continues today and Friday. At the current pace, that would add up to more than 11,000 early votes, or a 35% increase in the early turnout. If the same increased turnout occurs on Election Day the race will draw more than 25,000 voters, still a low percentage of registered voters, but enough of an increase to suggest a tight race.
You know I can’t turn down an opportunity like that to do some number-crunching. I looked at all the special legislative elections that included runoffs since 2010. Here are their respective vote totals:
Election Total Runoff Pct ===================================== SD22 5/10 29,851 24,557 82.3 HD14 11/11 13,519 6,736 49.8 SD06 1/13 16,369 18,141 110.8 HD50 11/13 14,936 10,520 70.4 SD04 5/14 30,348 22,605 74.5
“Pct” is the ratio of runoff turnout to total Round One turnout. Note that two of these special elections coincided with regular November elections, so it’s not terribly surprising that those runoffs lagged the most. Note also that the special election in SD06 in 2013 to succeed the late Mario Gallegos had higher turnout in the runoff than it did in the first round. That’s also the only race among these that was between two prominent Democrats, and as is the case this year it featured a nasty, negative overtime period. Not enough data to draw a firm conclusion, but the parallels are easy enough to see.
Having said all that, I kind of buried the lede a bit.
The increased turnout appears to be driven by negative campaigning and the role of outside money that aims to rally Republicans to cross party lines and vote for Menéndez. What’s different about this race is the role the powerful Texans for Lawsuit Reform (TLR), an ultra-conservative lobby, is playing, contributing more than $550,000 to finance broadcast ads and direct mail pieces attacking Martinez Fischer and supporting Menéndez. The Express-News reported Tuesday that more than $2.3 million has been spent on the race, including the TLR money that actually exceeds the $513,000 that Menéndez has spent to date.
Martinez-Fischer is a plaintiff’s lawyer and a vocal, at times coarsely spoken Mexican-American. He looks and sounds like a boxer. Menéndez, also a lawyer, is softer spoken and less combative. People who watch Austin politics more closely than I say newly elected Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick would prefer to keep Martinez-Fischer out of the Senate, which is now a bastion of ultra-conservative Republicans, who now outnumber Democrats 20-11. Regardless of the runoff outcome, the winner will be the least senior of the minority party, but Martinez-Fischer would be a thorn in Patrick’s side, while Menéndez has said he would cross party lines to try to be effective.
I’ve said all along that TMF was my preferred candidate in this race. I had and continue to have nothing against Menendez, and I seriously doubt he’d be any more supportive of the evil trolls that make up TLR if he wins than he was in the House. But maybe he’ll be a little more supportive of them than TMF would be, and a couple hundred thousand bucks isn’t even pocket change to these guys, so all in they go. (They were a presence in the SD06 race as well, much as head lice is a presence in most elementary schools.) The point I’m making here is that even though this runoff is to them a choice between two candidates with whom they have little in common, they didn’t sit it out. They picked their lesser evil and did what they do to support him, in the hope that if it pays off, they’ll have an ever-so-slightly better Senate from their perspective. Say what you want about these guys – and believe me, I think they’re a greedy, rapacious, destructive force, too – it’s hard to argue that their approach had been anything but a big success. There may be a lesson in there for us somewhere, I dunno.
Anyway. It’s hard to know what effect this may have on the HD123 runoff, as HD123 is almost entirely within SD26. Like SD26, most Dems won HD123 by about ten points in 2010, the main exceptions being Bill White, who won it by more than 20 points, and Barbara Radnofsky, who lost it by a half point to Greg Abbott. I expect Diego Bernal to win easily enough, but one should never take anything for granted. Get out there and vote if you didn’t already do so. As for HDs 13 and 17, other than this report on campaign finances in HD17, there’s precious little news out there. I’ll have final results when they come in.