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September 4th, 2019:

Checking in on the Mayor’s race

Remember the Mayor’s race? Yeah, that.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

“The candidates have been running for months but were focused on fundraising and defining their message,” said Nancy Sims, a Houston political analyst. “Labor Day is when people tune into the election.”

The stretch-run of the race follows months of campaigning from Buzbee, a businessman and trial lawyer who announced his candidacy last October. King, also a businessman and lawyer, joined the race in February, then the field expanded in June with the candidacy of District D Councilman Dwight Boykins and, weeks later, former At-Large Councilwoman Sue Lovell.

Seven other lesser-known candidates also are running.

Despite vigorous campaigning from Turner’s opponents, the race has yet to reach its loudest pitch, in part because Turner only has appeared at campaign events without other mayoral candidates. Earlier this week, Buzbee and King criticized the mayor for not yet attending any candidate forums.

A Turner campaign spokesperson said he was not invited to the Wednesday forum or to a prior forum held in June by the Lake Houston Pachyderm Club, which Buzbee and King attended.

Even as the race heats up, mayoral candidates are battling with a bloated field of Democratic presidential candidates for the attention of Houston voters, who typically do not tune into city elections en masse until September.

“I think the challenge for the city candidates this year is that they are greatly overshadowed by the 2020 race,” Sims said. “They are struggling to get the attention they need for people to focus in on the city elections.”

Even without distractions, such as the Sept. 12 Democratic presidential debate in Houston, municipal candidates often struggle to drag voters to the polls: Just 27 percent of registered Houston voters turned out in the 2015 race, the first time since 2003 that turnout was more than 20 percent.

Still, the candidates are entering the critical part of the race with ample resources to draw out voters. Buzbee is self-funding his campaign and as of June 30 had contributed $7.5 million of his personal wealth. He had spent more than $2.3 million at the same point, and recently made a six-figure TV ad buy through the end of September.

“Tony Buzbee is a very unique candidate because of his ability to self-fund, so the normal rules and strategies regarding TV don’t really apply to him, because he effectively has a bottomless wallet,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “For other candidates who have to keep their powder dry, we’re unlikely to see major media buys until the first or second week of October.”

We’ve discussed this before, but as a reminder what drives turnout in city elections is a high profile referendum on the ballot. Contested Mayoral races are a factor too, but the addition of a referendum is the difference between 2003 (381K votes, Metro light rail referendum) or 2015 (286K votes, HERO repeal) and 2009 (181K, no referendum). Even without a contested Mayor’s race, a sufficiently hot ballot item can bring a lot of voters out – see, for example, 2005 (332K, anti-gay marriage Constitutional amendment). The Metro referendum this year isn’t nearly as controversial as the 2003 one was, and there may not be any astroturf opposition effort to it, but Metro will be pushing voters to the polls as well as the candidates are, and that should boost turnout a bit.

I would also push back against the notion that no one pays much attention to the Mayoral races before Labor Day, and I’d point to the last three open Mayoral elections as evidence. Bill White was running those white-background ads in 2003 early on in the year. Annise Parker, Gene Locke, and Peter Brown were releasing position papers and talking about ideas for traffic, crime, neighborhoods, economic development, and a whole lot of other things well before September. The pension issue, HERO, and the Adrian Garcia will-he-or-won’t-he tease dominated 2015. Maybe it was just the more engaged voters tuning in, but speaking as one of those engaged voters, there was a lot more happening in those past elections than there has been in this one.

Why might that be? Well, let me summarize the campaigns of the main Turner opponents so far.

Bill King: I’m a rich old guy who was once the Mayor of a town with fewer people than most HISD high schools, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Tony Buzbee: I’m a rich guy who’s buddies with Rick Perry, and I’m not Sylvester Turner.

Dwight Boykins: I’m not Sylvester Turner, and I supported Prop B.

Sue Lovell: I’m not Sylvester Turner, I supported Prop B, and unlike these other guys I also supported HERO.

I mean, you tell me why the excitement level has been set to “Meh”. I don’t see a whole lot changing from here, and it will be turned up to 11 in the runoff. Welcome to election season, y’all.

Boosting student turnout at UT

Cool story.

Between 2013 and 2016, Texas eliminated more than 400 polling locations, the largest drop in any state during that time. In 2013, after years of litigation, it implemented a strict voter ID law. The law, which lists seven kinds of acceptable IDs, became infamous for its brazenly partisan implications—handgun licenses are okay, for example, while student IDs are not.

All of which makes the following statistic so surprising: at the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s flagship university, undergraduate turnout increased from almost 39 percent to 53 percent between 2012 and 2016. Over that same time period, national youth turnout stayed roughly constant. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University, which calculates campus voting rates, has not yet released numbers for last year’s midterms. But at UT Austin’s on-campus polling locations, the number of early ballots cast was more than three times higher than it was in 2014. (Travis County only provides polling site specific data for early voting.)

[…]

On August 5, 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’s voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act. The state’s attorney general vowed to enforce it anyway.

Later that month, a friendly and fast-talking former journalist named Kassie Phebillo arrived in Austin to begin a PhD in political communications at the University of Texas. To support herself financially, she took a job overseeing TX Votes, the nonpartisan organization charged by the university with increasing turnout. At the time, the group barely existed. It had just one returning member, and both of Phebillo’s would-be supervisors had left the school before she even showed up.

Still, Phebillo was drawn to the opportunity to learn more about her field and to mentor students. “I’m a first-gen college student,” she said. “Having those relationships changed my life, and so I try to do that for others.” She sat down with the sole returning TX Votes member—then senior Zach Foust—and began discussing how to restructure the group. They studied how other schools worked to get out the vote and found themselves particularly interested in colleges where students partnered with diverse groups to boost registration and turnout. The two decided to establish a civic engagement alliance and began recruiting a host of student clubs, political and nonpolitical alike, to come on board. By the end of the 2015–16 school year, a small but eclectic group of campus organizations had joined—from the Longhorn League of United Latin American Citizens to the chess club.

Phebillo and Foust asked that clubs in the alliance have one member become a volunteer deputy registrar, part of a broader strategy to create a network of students who could register voters across campus. To accomplish that, Phebillo brought county officials to campus to hold registrar training sessions and asked TX Votes members to bring their friends. Like any good college event planner, they provided free pizza to attract a bigger audience. The events were popular. Between September 2015 and the 2016 election, TX Votes helped train well over 100 volunteer deputy registrars. Together, they registered more than 17,000 voters.

I met Phebillo at UT Austin in early July 2019, in the middle of one of the university’s many freshman orientation sessions. She gave me a partial tour of campus. Inside the offices of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, she showed me a shelf stocked with national turnout awards and trophies won by TX Votes. One award was for having the most improved undergraduate turnout rate of any college in the country.

Later, I joined Phebillo at the student activities fair, where representatives of TX Votes were trying to recruit new members. Rising sophomore Janae Steggall was especially busy, hustling for the attention of what seemed like every incoming freshman who passed by. “What’s your major?” she would shout. Whatever the reply, Steggall would motion the student closer and deliver her pitch: “Awesome! We’re TX Votes, a nonpartisan organization on campus focused on voter registration and education.”

As I chatted with Phebillo and her team, it became clear that TX Votes has developed a sizable footprint on campus. Phebillo told me that during the 2016–17 school year, TX Votes deepened its involvement in the network of national organizations that help universities bolster turnout. It participated in both the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and the Voter Friendly Campus program, drawing up a detailed plan that both created new initiatives and evaluated past work. After the 2016 election, the group further expanded its civic engagement alliance, which now has more than 100 organizational members. In March 2017, Phebillo became certified to train volunteer deputy registrars herself, allowing TX Votes to increase its training output.

One year later, in March 2018, several TX Votes members successfully campaigned to get the county to open a second polling place on campus. The group also devised a new strategy for registering students: visiting classrooms. Class, they reasoned, is where college students go (or, at least, are supposed to go), and students might be more tempted to register if everyone around them were registering as well. But to take advantage of this, TX Votes first needed permission from the university’s faculty.

“We emailed every single professor teaching a course at this university in fall 2018,” Anthony Zhang, the group’s incoming president, told me. “We had to manually compile that list, starting with accounting and going all the way down to Yiddish.”

I asked how long it took to get contact information for the school’s roughly 3,000 faculty. Zhang shook his head. “I honestly don’t even want to think about it,” he said.

There’s more, so go read the rest. As the story notes, TX Votes was helped by having a great working relationship with Travis County elected officials, in particular the two that are directly involved with elections, the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor. Thanks to the 2018 election, we now have a County Clerk in Harris County that is invested in helping people vote – the recent announcement about early voting centers coming to the UH and TSU campuses being a prime example of this – so now we also have an opportunity to follow TX Votes’ example. Let’s see if we can get those two added to the Best Colleges for Student Voting list next year. In the meantime, you can follow TX Votes on Facebook and Twitter.

McCaul’s hustle

Turns out, running for re-election is hard work.

Rep. Mike McCaul

Rep. Michael McCaul does not have to be here, at Carl’s BBQ on the side of a highway, in a wood-paneled backroom, seated at a bare table in front of a stuffed, life-size buck whose antlers hold a sign saying, “NEVER moon a werewolf.”

He doesn’t have to drive east two and a half hours from his home in Austin to find brisket this good, but here is where his voters are. And after the last election, his worst in his 15-year political career, the Republican congressman decided he needs to campaign for them like never before.

McCaul could be forgiven for retiring. In the past four weeks, four of his fellow Texas Republican colleagues have done so — a political phenomenon nicknamed “Texodus” — including two members who represent suburban districts similar to McCaul’s. The Democrats flipped the House in 2018, suddenly making life miserable for GOP members now in the minority, and targeted half a dozen of the members of Congress in Texas, including him. To win, McCaul has to, for the first time, actually try; His once-safe district stretching from Austin to Houston is changing faster than he expected, threatening to throw him out.

But when faced with fight or flight, McCaul chose the former. He changed his campaign staff, including hiring Corry Bliss, who led the top Republican-affiliated super PAC for House races in 2018, as a general consultant. Last quarter, McCaul claimed a personal fundraising record. His team boasted the earliest field program of any incumbent Republican in America, one it says has already knocked on 10,000 doors. In the past week, McCaul met with local chamber of commerce officials, AARP constituents and local journalists. He toured car dealerships. He led a consortium on how to address human trafficking. And he hit three barbecue joints in three days.

“I decided if I’m going to do this again, I’m going to work it hard, maybe harder than I ever have,” McCaul told CNN.

In a 25-minute interview this week, McCaul blamed the Texas Republicans’ drubbing last cycle “in large part” to the top of the ticket. GOP Sen. Ted Cruz lost the big four metropolitan regions — “something no top-of-the-ticket Republican nominee had done since Barry Goldwater in 1964,” who faced native son and President Lyndon B. Johnson, according to a University of Houston study. McCaul noted that Cruz, who was “not as likeable” and unable to “fully” energize his party’s base voters, lost his district to then-Democratic Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who created a following McCaul called “Beto-mania.” (A source close to the Cruz operation responded that McCaul raised more than triple the amount of his Democratic opponent and still “almost lost.”)

[…]

In recent years, the populations of Latinos, African Americans and Asians in McCaul’s district have boomed. Between 2012 and 2017, Latinos grew from 26% to 29% of the population as over 60,000 moved there or were born, according to American Community Survey figures pointed out by Potter. The white population increased but more slowly than other races, and shrunk as a percentage of the district from 58% to 52%.

Rep. Marc Veasey, a Texas Democrat, said the population explosion could yield the state two or three more congressional seats after the next census. But he said that rapid demographic change was just one reason why these suburban seats have become competitive after so long, saying the voters “have really had enough of this President — and Republicans not pushing back against a lot of what they see as wrong for the country.”

Siegel, physician Dr. Pritesh Gandhi and Shannon Hutcheson, a lawyer whose clients include Planned Parenthood, are all vying to be the Democratic nominee to take on McCaul. Democrats are confident that the mix of Trump at the top of the ticket, fundamental demographic changes and a message centering on health care and protecting the Affordable Care Act will flip the seat.

The Democrats also don’t think McCaul is well-known even after winning eight terms in office and call his claims of a reinvigorated field campaign overblown. According to a copy of McCaul’s schedule of the past two weeks obtained by CNN, the congressman had one door-knocking event but canceled it. When CNN toured the block, which included a home hoisting a Trump flag out front, a couple potential voters said they didn’t recognize McCaul’s name, but they would vote for him so long that he was Republican.

I love both the faux-blockwalking story and the Ted Cruz shade. Who says politics is boring? The story is cool and all, but I’m going to boil this all down to a couple of tables:


County    McCaul   Cadien     Diff
==================================
Harris    68,540   22,459   46,081
Travis    37,493   51,400  -13,907
Others    53,750   21,851   31,899

Total    159,783   95,710   64,073

County    McCaul   Siegel     Diff
==================================
Harris    71,717   40,820   30,897
Travis    30,857   80,864  -50,007
Others    54,592   22,350   32,242

Total    157,166  144,034   13,132

Mike McCaul got slightly fewer votes in 2018 than he did in 2012, while Mike Siegel got nearly 50K more votes than Tawana Cadien did. All of the improvement in Siegel’s vote totals came from Harris and Travis counties. The small rural counties in between produced essentially the same totals and margins each year. If Dems can squeeze a bit more out of the two big counties (*), they can win this seat. As before, that’s going to be a combination of relentless voter registration and GOTV, which I can guarantee will involve actual blockwalking. The path forward is clear.

(*) For what it’s worth, Siegel improved slightly on Cadien’s performance in Bastrop County, reducing the margin there from 2,353 for McCaul in 2012 to 1,691. It’s worth expending some effort there, in part because every vote will matter and in part because I at least still have hope that Bastrop will start to go the way of Hays County, but the fat part of the target remains the two biggest counties.