‘Hand-to-hand combat’: Campaigns battling in Austin City Council runoffs switch gears as December election nears

A voter enters a polling place Nov. 3. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
A voter enters a polling place Nov. 3. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

A voter enters a polling place Nov. 3. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

The results of the November general election proved the four Austin City Council incumbents up for re-election were more favorable than any of their challengers, topping their closest opponents in the popular vote by a range of 6.9 to 42.1 points. However, “most popular” in November does not always guarantee a ticket to re-election.

Sometimes, it goes to December. In Texas, if no candidate in a race receives more than 50% of the popular vote, the top two vote-getters move on to battle in a head-to-head runoff election. In Austin City Council’s crowded District 10 and District 6 elections, incumbents Alison Alter and Jimmy Flannigan earned a higher vote share than any other single candidate in their races. But at 34.2% and 40.3%, respectively, they will have to face the second-place finishers in a Dec. 15 runoff.

In District 10, Alter will face conservative challenger Jennifer Virden, who received 25.4% of the popular vote in the seven-candidate field. Up in District 6, Flannigan faces his own conservative challenger, Mackenzie Kelly, who drew 33.4% of the popular vote in the four-candidate race. Early voting runs from Dec. 3-11.

Local politicos describe December runoff elections with a range of terms: unpredictable, highly predictable, exciting, tricky, hard work, clean slate. Those who spoke with Community Impact Newspaper all agreed December runoffs, with their dramatic drop-offs in voter turnout, are almost a completely different beast than the November general elections.

“Runoffs are my favorite kind of campaign and my favorite kind of election,” said local pollster and campaign expert Mark Littlefield, who has been on the winning, and losing, side of runoff contests. “It’s less about money, less about expensive TV ads and glossy mailers. It’s all about hand-to-hand combat and who has the best organization and most passionate voters.”


An uncertain outlook

Since the City Council moved to its 10-1 geographic representation system of government for the 2014 elections, there have been 11 December runoffs, and this year’s will make 13.

In seven of those races, the November leader held on for victory in the runoff a month a later.

In the other four, the second-place finisher in November went on to win in December—two of which happened in District 10. In 2014, Sheri Gallo trailed Mandy Dealey 22.9% to 30.7% in the general election but defeated Dealey 54.7% to 45.3% in the runoff. In 2016, Gallo, the incumbent, just missed the 50% mark by 1.8 points, leading second place finisher Alter 48.2% to 35.5%. Alter went on to win decisively in December, 64% to 36%.

One thing can be guaranteed in a runoff: Voter turnout will significantly drop, leaving the fate of the City Council seats to the relative few who make it to the polls in December.

On average, across the 11 December runoff City Council elections since 2014, less than half of the voters who showed up in November have shown up to vote in the runoff election. According to city and Travis County voting statistics, turnout has dropped by an average of 55.7%.

The low turnout in runoff elections is one of the main drivers of strategy, said David Butts, a longtime local campaign operative who has worked on several City Council and referendum campaigns.

“In the general election, you get a lot of voters who are not strongly connected to the city issues; people who care about city issues are strong partisans and the campaigns have to get them out to vote [in December],” Butts said. “It’s really going to come down to ‘our base versus their base.'”

National dynamics on the local stage

Amy Everhart has also worked in several Austin campaigns and is currently running Flannigan’s operation in District 6. She called runoffs “more of a turnout game than persuasion game” but said getting people to the voting booth in December, especially after an exhausting general election cycle, can be difficult.

“The dynamics of the 2020 presidential race were obviously different from anything we’ve ever seen before, and people are exhausted,” Everhart said. “It was a historic level of voter engagement, and most people think that they’re finished. Now, it’s our job to convince people of the stakes in this [runoff] election and trying to reach as many people as possible.”

Austin City Council races are nonpartisan, which means no candidates come with an officially stamped “D” or “R” next to their names. However, partisan politics, including how major elections, such as the presidential race, turn out in November, can have an impact in December.

Several people Community Impact Newspaper spoke with pointed to the 2016 District 10 as an example, when Alter, the further-left candidate, handily defeated Gallo, who was seen as a more conservative candidate.

“If Hillary Clinton had won the White House in 2016, I’m not sure Alter would have been elected, or at least the runoff would have been closer,” Littlefield said. “[In November] Gallo only missed the 50% mark by [648] votes. But after Trump got elected, everyone in Travis County was angry about the result. They didn’t have the chance to act on their anger, except for voters in District 10, who got to take their anger out on Sheri Gallo.”

The two City Council runoffs this year can be looked at as an in-district referendum on some of City Council’s marquee progressive policies, namely, the efforts to decriminalize public camping for the homeless community and cut the Austin police budget in response to the growing national and local movement against police brutality and systemic racism. Flannigan supported both decisions. Alter supported the police cuts but stopped short of voting to lift the public camping ban. Both challengers in the races, Virden in District 10 and Kelly in District 6, are running as conservative-minded candidates vehemently against the police cuts and decriminalization of public camping.

President-elect Joe Biden handily won 28 of 29 precincts in District 10, his only loss coming in precinct 305 where 7 votes were cast: 4 for President Donald J. Trump, 3 for Biden. It was a similar story in the Travis County portion of District 6, where Biden won all but one of the 17 precincts.

Questions loom over how these results will impact December. Will Trump and conservative voters, possibly out for revenge, be the more passionate and active voting bloc? Or will Biden left-leaning voters be energized to keep conservative politics off of the City Council dais?

“It will really come down to whether some people who voted for Joe Biden decide they also want to vote for Jennifer Virden or Mackenzie Kelly because of their being unhappy with regard to City Council’s actions on homelessness and policing,” Butts said. “I think Trump supporters maybe have a higher motivation to turn out in December and that’s why it could be very close. If Trump had been re-elected, [Virden and Kelly] wouldn’t stand a chance.”

However, Butts said a runoff is often a bad sign for an incumbent, as it shows more people voted for their opponents in November.

A six-week campaign

Mykle Tomlinson, Alter’s campaign manager, believes Democrats and progressives will be more motivated come December to not give conservatives a foothold on City Council. He helped engineer Alter’s 2016 runoff victory and said the focus is now on turnout, which, for City Council races, requires a different approach in December than November.

“In a runoff, the electorate is totally different. You’re starting from new,” Tomlinson said. “How do you figure out where your supporters are, how to best motivate them to come back out to vote after they just finished voting? It takes a campaign where you’re actually out talking to people. It’s not a bunch of TV ads. It’s real communication with the voters. It’s way more one-on-one.”

In District 6, Kelly’s campaign manager, Andy Hogue, said their campaign has found a lot of people are unaware that there is a December runoff.

“What we’re going to do now, of course, is a whole different ballgame,” Hogue said. “We don’t have that default support from people just showing up to vote for Trump versus Biden. We have to actually go out and get the voters. Strategy is definitely going to be knocking doors, making calls, working our social networks, talking to our donors and making everybody aware that there is a runoff. I think the main thing is awareness.”

Jim Wick, an experienced local campaign manager who ran Mayor Steve Adler’s successful re-election campaign in 2018, considers runoff elections to be “much more predictable” than the sometimes-unwieldy general elections because the variable for who shows up to vote is much smaller. He said the campaigns need to target what he calls “votematrons”—the certain type of voters who will vote in just about any election.

“By their very nature, runoffs are a context of voters who vote in almost all elections,” Wick said. “I mean, with enough money, you can manipulate the turnout, but I don’t suspect any of these campaigns will have enough money to turn out an appreciable amount of unexpected voters. Ultimately, runoff elections come down to who organizes better. It’s not necessarily about resources.”
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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