In the special runoff election for District 50 in the Texas House, Democrat Celia Israel took the lead after early voting.
Israel, a Realtor, earned 58.8 percent of the early vote, and Republican Mike VanDeWalle, a chiropractor, took 41.1 percent. The total number of ballots cast during the early voting period, which ran four days last week, was 4,541, or 4.67 percent of all register voters in the northern Travis County district.
Polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, and hour later than normal. Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir successfully petitioned a local district judge earlier in the day to grant a request for the additional hour of voting because of inclement weather and the closing of eight of 36 polling places that operated out of schools that were closed due to bad weather.
The special election in District 50 took place to replace former state Rep. Mark Strama, D-Austin, who resigned last year to lead Google Fiber in Austin.
Turnout during early voting was extraordinarily low. Just 4.5 percent of eligible voters cast early ballots in the election — about half as many as in the last special election runoff in Travis County, according to the county clerk’s office.
Supporters of both campaigns have acknowledged the awkward timing of both early voting and election day. Early voting began last Tuesday, one day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and ended Friday, when polls opened five hours late because of icy weather.
So there were only four days of early voting instead of the usual five – really, more like three and a half days of early voting. And this runoff occurred during the heat of the primaries, three weeks before early voting for that begins. I think people could be forgiven if they took their eye off the ball a bit on this one. Such downward pressure on turnout can sometimes cause bizarre results, which would have been greatly magnified given the subtext of this election.
[Jeremy] Bird is one of the founders of Battleground Texas, a group dedicated to making this Republican stronghold competitive for Democrats. Celia Israel’s race for an open seat in the state House of Representatives is not expected to be difficult considering the district has historically voted for Democrats.
“It’s nice to have a special election and a little bit of a test,” Bird said in an interview with The Associated Press. “Identifying, engaging and turning out voters will help the Israel campaign now and (gubernatorial candidate) Wendy Davis, (lieutenant governor candidate) Leticia Van de Putte and other Democrats in November. Not only are people more likely to turn out to vote again, but the results will give us a chance to check our voter model and fine tune it for the election.”
On Saturday, Israel’s volunteers each had a list of homes to visit where Battleground’s research showed a reliably Democratic voter could be found. The volunteers were given a recommended script to follow, including thanking the prospective voter, asking whether the person would be willing to volunteer, and taking down an email address.
The data collected by Battleground staff, combined with publicly available voter records, is critical to the group’s strategy to identify, register and recruit the 2 million Democrats they estimate are not voting in Texas elections.
“Data collected from personal conversations is much more effective for predicting who people will support and at what level they’ll participate,” Bird said.
Israel is running against tea party Republican Mike VanDeWalle, but few voters know about the election, so Battleground’s help in getting out the vote is critical. Battleground Texas volunteers have knocked on over 14,000 doors over two weeks, Bird said.
“Battleground Texas is not just a political slogan, it’s a political muscle, and we’re going to use it in 2014,” Israel said.
The final total in this election was far less than 14,000 votes, but the weather was a big factor in that. That cut both ways, however, and in the end Israel’s vote percentage was quite good. Here’s how she compared to the top scoring Democrat in HD50 going back to 2002:
Year High D High D% ========================== 2014SpR Israel 59.4% 2012 Obama 57.8% 2010 White 55.9% 2008 Obama 60.3% 2006 Moody 58.7% 2004 Molina 51.2% 2002 Sharp 54.3%
Note that Bill White and Bill Moody both outperformed the rest of the Dem ticket in their year by several points, and in all three off years several Republicans carried HD50. If 2008-level performance is the norm in other State Rep districts this fall, I’ll be plenty happy, and so I suspect will Jeremy Bird. For the record, I don’t think this special election runoff is a harbinger of any kind for November. It’s nice, but it’s one little data point. That said, if Israel had struggled to win, or even worse if she had lost, you could have wallpapered Reliant Stadium with the collected writings of every damn pundit, blogger, and assorted loudmouth in the state blathering on about how this portended doom for the Dems and proved Battleground Texas was a sham. I think I’m entitled to point out that Israel and BGTX easily met expectations, at the least. And now Rep.-elect Israel gets to do it again in November, against the same Republican opponent. I’ve made it this far without mentioning that Rep.-elect Israel becomes the second out gay member of the Legislature, joining Rep. Mary Gonzalez of El Paso, so I’ll rectify that here; see Lone Star Q and the Dallas Voice for more on that. Congratulations, Rep.-elect Celia Israel, and best of luck to you in November.
UPDATE: When I wrote this post last night, the Travis County results page had been updated at 9:13 PM, and the cumulative totals page showed 39 of 39 precincts completed, with Israel at 60.2% of the vote. It also showed that all of 700 votes had been cast on Tuesday, but who was I to argue with that? In any event, a 10:23 PM update shows 5807 votes cast on Tuesday, with Celia Israel now receiving 59.42% of the overall total. That’s down a bit from what she had as of the 9:13 update, but still a higher percentage than any other Democrat other than President Obama in 2008 (former Rep. Mark Strama was unopposed in 2012, the only year in which he ran under the new boundaries), so my point about how she and BGTX did in this race remains.