January 20, 2006
What happened in HD48?

Quorum Report contributor Ed Sills sifts through the results in the HD48 special election and comes up with some reasons why the vote went as it did.

A Republican businessman who lost to state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, four years ago, Bentzin was the choice of Gov. Rick Perry and the Republican apparatus running Texas. Perry chose a quick election date after state Rep. Todd Baxter retired in November. This was meant to allow Bentzin the maximum chance to deploy his very substantial money advantage -- he's a"Dellionaire" with support from the big Republican power players -- in what looks like a swing district on paper.

But the quick date in the swing district galvanized Democrats. The contrast between the treatment of District 48, where Perry declared the district needs a representative in place for the upcoming special legislative sessions, and solidly Democratic District 143 in Houston, where Perry let seven months and two special sessions pass while voters there went unrepresented following the tragic death of state Rep. Joe Moreno, did not go unnoticed inside or outside Houston.

Conventional wisdom held that in the District 48 contest, two Democrats, Howard and Kathy Rider, would split the Democratic vote. But no one expected they would split nearly 60 percent of the vote, nor did anyone predict publicly that Howard would come within a half-percent of winning without a runoff or that Bentzin would be held to 37.8 percent.

The Bentzin campaign was predicated on an assumption of inevitable frontrunner status. The TV ads reflected this overconfidence, featuring a soft-glow biographical message trampled by the asinine and condescending image of a 6 foot, 6 inch politician deigning to bend down to listen to voters.


It was a low turnout, as Bentzin states. And it was a special election. But the evidence that the turnout was unrepresentative as of Jan. 17 beyond the usual margin of error is flimsy. In a district where Baxter put together majorities the last two elections, Democratic candidates had seized 60 percent. Translate even a piece of that improvement to other places in Texas and some Democrats will soon be kicking themselves for not running for office in 2006.

Now, the big question is what Howard tapped, why Bentzin faltered and whether some form of political alchemy can be performed on the pumpkin pieces from Bentzin’s first-round campaign. No doubt, the money will continue to flow disproportionately in the second round (though Howard may find fundraising somewhat easier) and no doubt Bentzin’s strategists are about to go negative in a big way. But Bentzin's big problem – and Howard’s big asset – is that in 2006, Bentzin may simply be on the wrong side.

After one nods to the structural rule that the sixth year of any presidential term is usually good for the party that is out of power, Howard showed a strong ability to exploit some elements specific to 2006.

In its literature, the Howard campaign successfully tied Bentzin to the swirl of ethics issues surrounding Republicans this year. This was easy enough to do, as Bentzin had used John Colyandro in his failed 2002 campaign against Barrientos. Colyandro is a political operative who is under indictment in connection with allegations related to the case pending against U.S. Rep. Tom DeLay. Bentzin has not been charged with wrongdoing, but his list of supporters reeks of the money that funded the takeover of the Texas House and the mid-decade congressional redistricting shoved down Texans' throats at the expense of schools, health care and other first-tier priorities.


[T]he evidence that 2006 is not a Republican year grows. The set-up for Bentzin could not have been better. If Tuesday's results are a reflection of a political shift in the district, it's a shift of seismic proportions. If the result portends a political shift in the state, more surprises are ahead. But in a state so Wyomingly Republican that Democrats are recycling 1970s-era politicians for runs at statewide office and hoping they’ll turn out like those astronauts in Space Cowboys, Howard’s supporters would do well to continue running against conventional wisdom.

Eye on Williamson has more. I'm here to tell you, it's a shift in the district, and it's not just a 2006 thing. Not only was this district distinctly less Republican in 2004 than it was in 2002, it was less Republican despite a fair amount of Democratic disinterest in most of the races on the ballot.

Here's how things looked in 2002 for the non-judicial races in HD48:

Republican Votes Pct Democrat Votes Pct
Rylander 32,044 69.8 Akins 13,874 30.2
Combs 30,425 67.6 Ramsay 14,603 32.4
Perry 27,830 60.3 Sanchez 18,300 39.7
Williams 26,836 59.3 Boyles 18,092 40.7
Patterson 25,004 57.1 Bernsen 18,772 42.9
Cornyn 25,827 54.0 Kirk 21,890 46.0
Baxter 25,309 53.6 Kitchen 21,929 46.4
Abbott 23,273 48.9 Watson 24,288 51.1
Dewhurst 21,494 45.8 Sharp 25,428 54.2

Total 264,596 57.3 Total 196,685 42.7

Kirk Watson and Carole Keeton StrayhornRylander were both once Mayor of Austin, which partly explains their higher than normal performances. Now let's compare to 2004. I'll save myself a little cutting and pasting and note that the high score for any Republican that covered the whole district was Patrick Keel's 56.8% in the 345th District Court race. Bush and the three statewide Rs ranged from 53.0 to 55.3, while Baxter as we know squeaked by Kelly White by a skinny 153 vote margin. Overall, counting up all contested races, the Republicans got 380,594 votes to the Democrats' 341,605, for a 52.7/47.8 partisan split.

But that's not all. Check out the turnout figures for all two-party contested races:

Office Turnout
President 69,252
HD48 68,663
Ct of Appeals D3 Pl4 66,801
345th District Judge 66,587
Supreme Court 66,457
Ct of Appeals D3 Pl6 66,408
CCA 65,811
353th District Judge 65,253
Sheriff 63,696
RR Commissioner 63,284*

There's an asterisk next to the RR Commish race because there was also a Libertarian candidate whose vote total is not captured in this data. I figure the real turnout is more in line with the Supreme Court and CCA races.

The point here is that with the exception of the two Democratic candidates that carried HD48, there's a much larger dropoff from Kelly White's vote total to those of the other Dems than there is from the other Republicans to Todd Baxter. On average in the four statewide races, Baxter got 1613 fewer votes, while White got 3940 more. How much more Democratic might this district have looked if the locals had cared enough to register an opinion in every race?

One last thing. If you add up my numbers from HD48 in 2002, you'll see that the totals are a bit off. That's because I omitted one race. Here it is:

Republican Votes Pct Democrat Votes Pct
Bentzin 27,004 58.0 Barrientos 19,565 42.0

So in four years' time, in an election that was the only game in town and with all the support the establishment could muster, Ben Bentzin dropped 20 points from his last time out. If this is a sign, it should be pretty clear where it's pointing.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 20, 2006 to Election 2006 | TrackBack