Runoff for State Sen. District 6 race to replace late Mario Gallegos may see even lower voter turnout

February 1, 2013 6:28:05 AM PST
Last week I wrote about the Texas State Senate Six special election to fill the seat of the late Mario Gallegos, Jr.. From absentee and early voting, it was apparent that voter turnout would be extremely low.

I guessed only 15,000 - 16,000 out of more 292,000 registered voters would have cast ballots when the polled closed last Saturday at 7pm. The actual number was 16,489, so I missed by a few hundred.

I also noted that with eight people on the ballot, it was unlikely that either of the well-funded Democrats, former County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia and State Representative Carol Alvarado, could get the 50 percent plus majority needed to avoid a runoff. As the unofficial results below indicate, that was the outcome. Ms. Garcia led with a little over 45 percent of the total vote, closely followed by Carol Alvarado with a little less that 42 percent. So we move on to runoff, probably in early March.

    Candidate Absentee Early In-Person Election Day Total %

  • Sylvia Garcia 1,686 2,543 3,187 7,416 45.37
  • Carol Alvarado 1,420 2,163 3,220 6,803 41.62
  • R.W. Bray 74 253 687 1,014 6.20
  • Dorothy Olmos 25 127 309 461 2.82
  • Joaquin Martinez 13 180 210 403 2.47
  • Rodolfo Reyes 19 43 63 125 0.76
  • Maria Selva 7 22 44 73 0.45
  • Susan Delgado 16 9 27 52 0.32

Both the finalists have some good news from the first round. Sylvia Garcia's first place finish should help her raise money and maintain momentum over the next five weeks. But Carol Alvarado's strong second finish makes her very competitive in a runoff where voting is likely to be even lower than in January.

Why even lower turnout in March? Three reasons: First, turnout is usually lower in runoff elections in Texas and the nation. In the May 29, 2012 Republican Primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Kay Bailey Hutchison, 1,406,648 votes were counted. In the July 29th runoff between Lt. Governor David Dewhurst and Ted Cruz, 1,111,938 votes were cast -- a 21 percent drop, which is about average for the course.

Second, there were eight candidates in the January Special Election; now there are only two. Voters would supported the eliminated candidates, often do not come back in a runoff. That will very likely be the case for the 1,475 January voters who supported the Republicans R.W. Bray and Dorothy Olmos.

Third, the runoff will likely feature a higher degree of negative campaigning. The Garcia campaign launched a half dozen negative mail pieces on her major opponent in January and one can expect no letup in that barrage. My expectation is that Alvarado will respond more aggressively now that we have a one-on-one contest. (Disclosure: my son, Keir Murray, is working in the Alvarado campaign, but I have no involvement in either camp)

Runoffs often get very negative (witness the Cruz/Dewhurst ad war last year) when the partisan and policy differences between the finalists are often not significant. Cruz and Dewhurst were Republicans, conservatives, and strong critics of the Obama Administration, so they sought to separate themselves by personal attacks on the character and probity of their opponents. Now we have Sylvia Garcia and Carol Alvarado -- two Latina Democrats that agree on a broad range of policy issues. But, only one can win what is likely a lifetime state senate seat. So the gloves will come off, and that heightened negativity will turn off some of the first round voters and not pull in many new folks. Result: Expect 12,000 - 14,000 voters rather than 16,400.

In extremely low turnout elections, the winner needs to turn out their base voters. For Carol Alvarado that starts with her existing State Representative District 145, where she led Sylvia Garcia 1,783 votes (50.6 percent) to 1,203 (34.1 percent) in the first round. For Ms. Garcia, whose vote was more evenly distributed over the rest of the district, that means getting at least 90 percent of your January voters back in March.

One final point: order of finish in a first round is not very predictive of how runoffs turn out. David Dewhurst led Ted Cruz by more than 10 percent in May, but lost the runoff by 13 percent in July.

Click here to read more from Dr. Murray.

About Dr. Richard Murray

Richard Murray is a native of Louisiana with B.A. and M.A. degrees in Government from Louisiana State University (1962, 1963) and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Minnesota (1967). Dr. Murray has taught at the University of Houston since 1966 and is currently the Bob Lanier Professor of Public Policy in the UH Department of Political Science and Director of Surveying for the UH Center for Public Policy.

His academic interests are in Houston and Texas politics, focusing on campaigns and elections, political parties and interest groups, and public opinion. Professor Murray has written extensively in these areas, while teaching courses ranging from graduate seminars to introductory American Government.

In a previous life, Professor Murray consulted in more than 200 political campaigns before completing the 12-step recovery program in the late 1980s. He occasionally conducts polls for local media and governments and is a political analyst for Channel 13, KTRK Television.

Professor Murray is married to Deborah Hartman, and has three sons, Robert, Keir, and Dylan Murray.
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