I figured a story like this was inevitable after Round One of the HD125 special election, in which Republican Fred Rangel got 38% of the vote and four Democrats combined to take the rest, with three of them being close to each other and thus farther behind Rangel. Ray Lopez will face Rangel in the runoff, for which a date has not yet been set.
Democratic Party officials and Lopez’s campaign remain adamant that they are in position to win the runoff and keep the seat. The four Democrats, combined, received more than 60 percent of the vote, they point out. And District 125 hasn’t elected a Republican since it was redrawn in 1992 to include more West Side voters.
But to others, the result immediately recalled San Antonio Democrats’ not-so-sterling track record in recent special elections. Electoral history and district demographics have not protected Democrats in those runoffs over the last few years: They have lost the last three off-cycle races in San Antonio, each of which occurred in traditional party strongholds.
In early 2016, Republican John Lujan scored an upset in a South Side legislative seat over Democrats Tomás Uresti and Gabe Farias. Uresti would defeat him nine months later in the general election.
Later that year, Independent Laura Thompson won election to an East Side legislative seat after Bexar County Dean Ruth McClendon’s death, also overcoming multiple Democrats. Rep. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins put the seat back in Democratic hands in the next general election.
And in perhaps the most painful loss for Democrats, Republican Pete Flores won a state Senate seat last year that includes much of San Antonio. Flores flipped a seat that hadn’t gone to the GOP since Reconstruction, and his victory sealed a two-thirds Republican supermajority in the Texas Senate.
That race has some conspicuous similarities to Tuesday’s election in District 125. For one, the man who engineered Flores’ upset, Matt Mackowiak, is now running Rangel’s campaign. For another, multiple Democrats split the party’s vote, allowing the Republican to plunge ahead.
“It’s a very simple game of math in a special election,” [Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer] said. “When you’re running a race in a Democratic district you’re going to have multiple Democrats running for that position, and it’s always going to be that one Republican that has a universe of voters to himself.”
The Democrats believe that will change in a mano-a-mano, Democrat vs. Republican, runoff, and Democratic members of the Legislature are now rallying around Lopez. But they had a similar conviction — ultimately to no avail — that Flores wouldn’t prevail in what had been a Democratic district for more than a century.
Their logic isn’t reflective of the political reality of special elections, according to Mackowiak. The voters who chose Democrats Rayo-Garza or Art Reyna won’t necessarily show up again for Lopez in the runoff election.
“It’s just not transferable,” Mackowiak said. “Special elections are about motivation and enthusiasm.”
That sentiment was echoed by Larry Hufford, a professor of political science at St. Mary’s University.
“These small groups are so committed to their candidates,” Hufford said. “They say, ‘Well, my candidate didn’t win, forget it.’”
Those factors give Rangel an edge, Hufford said, especially if turnout drops in the runoff. If Rangel brings out the same number of voters, it puts him in a good position to win the majority while Lopez tries to inspire voters who backed Democrats no longer in the race, the professor added.
See here for the background. There are two claims being made here, that Bexar County Dems have had a spotty recent record in legislative special elections, and that the key to winning special election runoffs is to hold onto more of your own voters from round one than the other guy (if you’re the leader, that is) because getting new voters is too hard. Let’s take these one at a time.
First, the two special elections from 2016 are basically meaningless for these purposes. The reason why is because they were basically meaningless as special elections. They were for the purpose of serving the remainder of the 2015-2016 term, at a time when the Lege was not in session and not going to be in session. Neither John Lujan nor Laura Thompson ever filed a bill or cast a vote as State Rep, because there were no opportunities for them to do so. Tomas Uresti, who lost in that January 2016 special election runoff to John Lujan, went on to win the Democratic primary in March and the November general election, ousting Lujan before he ever did anything of note. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, the November nominee in HD120, didn’t bother running in the summer special election for it. Those special elections didn’t matter.
As for the turnout question, I would remind everyone that there were three legislative special elections plus runoffs from 2015. Here’s what they looked like:
Melissa Aguillon DEM 1,257 17.69%
Diego Bernal DEM 3,372 47.46%
Roger V. Gary LIB 103 1.45%
Paul Ingmundson GRN 81 1.14%
Walter Martinez DEM 780 10.98%
Nunzio Previtera REP 1,512 21.28%
Total = 7,105
Diego Bernal DEM 5,170 63.67%
Nunzio Previtera REP 2,950 36.33%
Total = 8,120
Diego Bernal got 1,798 more votes in the runoff – there had been 2,037 votes that went to other Dems in the initial election. Nunzio Previtera got 1,438 more votes in the runoff even though he’d been the only Republican initially.
Trey Martinez Fischer DEM 8,232 43.28%
Alma Perez Jackson REP 3,892 20.46%
Jose Menendez DEM 4,824 25.36%
Joan Pedrotti REP 1,427 7.50%
Al Suarez DEM 644 3.39%
Total = 19,019
Trey Martinez Fischer DEM 9,635 40.95%
Jose Menendez DEM 13,891 59.05%
Total = 23,526
Remember how some idiot bloggers called for Sen. Menendez to concede rather than bother going through with the runoff, so the next special election could take place more quickly? Good times. After smoking TMF in said runoff, some other people claimed he won on the strength of Republican turnout in round two. For what it’s worth, there were 5,319 Republican votes in round one, and Menendez gained 9,067 votes overall. Make of that what you will. Also, for what it’s worth, TMF boosted his total by 1,403.
Nathan Alonzo DEM 467 23.81%
Delicia Herrera DEM 555 28.30%
Ina Minjarez DEM 828 42.22%
David L. Rosa DEM 111 5.66%
Total = 1,961
Delicia Herrera DEM 1,090 45.02%
Ina Minjarez DEM 1,331 54.98%
Total = 2,421
The two runoff candidates combined for 1,383 votes in round one, while the two also rans got 578. Assuming all 578 voted again in the runoff, there were still another 460 people participating.
My point, in case I haven’t beaten you over the head with it enough, is that in all of these elections, there were more votes in the runoff than in the first round. That means – stay with me here, I know this is tricky – it’s possible for a candidate to win the runoff with extra votes from people who didn’t vote initially. It’s even possible for the second place finisher to win, in part by bringing in new voters. See, when not that many people vote the first time, there are actually quite a few habitual voters out there to round up. Who even knew this was a thing?
Yes, the SD19 still stands out like a turd on the sidewalk. SD19 encompasses more than just Bexar County, and there was some genuine resentment from third place candidate Roland Gutierrez, which likely hindered Pete Gallego in the runoff. (There were also many questions raised about the effectiveness of Gallego’s campaign.) Here, as it happens, third place finisher Coda Rayo-Garza has conceded after the remaining mail ballots arrived and endorsed Ray Lopez, so at least that bit of history won’t repeat itself. HD125 is more Democratic than SD19, so there’s a larger pool of dependable voters that Lopez can call on. He’s got work to do and ground to make up, and he certainly could lose if he doesn’t do a good job of it. But if we look at the history of Bexar County special legislative elections going all the way back to 2015 instead of just to 2016, we can see that the picture is a bit more nuanced than Matt Mackowiak and Larry Hufford make it out to be.