On February 17, 2015, then-Rep. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) completed a stunning comeback by defeating his longtime colleague, Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer (D-San Antonio), 59%-41%, in a special runoff election to claim the unexpired term of former Sen. Leticia Van de Putte (D-San Antonio). Menendez overcame a nearly 18-point deficit from the special election, the largest turnaround in any special runoff election in at least 20 years.
Remarkably, had Republican voters been united behind a single candidate in the special election, Menendez would not have made the runoff at all. Two candidates – State Republican Executive Committee member Alma Perez Jackson (20.5%) and former Bexar Co. court administrator Joan Pedrotti (7.5%) – collectively outpolled Menendez, 28%-25%, in the special election. Had a Republican reached the runoff, Martinez Fischer would almost certainly be a senator seeking re-election today.
No Republican had sought SD26 since 2004, when Jim Valdez, a former South San Antonio ISD trustee, received 40% of the vote against Van de Putte. In a 1999 special election, a pair of Republicans captured 26% of the vote, finishing third and fourth in a five-way contest. The district is 63% Democratic in general elections. Republican activists at first backed Jackson, but they appeared to support Menendez in the runoff. Texans for Lawsuit Reform reported making more than $175K in independent expenditures opposing Martinez Fischer, including $143K on television advertising. Data suggest that Republican support was indeed an important part of the coalition that elected Menendez.
Turnout for the runoff election increased 23% over the special election. One way to evaluate candidates’ runoff performances is their ability to attract new voters to the polls. An additional 9,067 more voters selected Menendez in the runoff than in the special election. Martinez Fischer drew only an additional 1,404 voters over his special election performance despite a string of key Democratic endorsements, staunch support of labor groups and his historically solid get-out-the-vote efforts.
Special elections – runoff elections in particular – sometimes resemble primaries because turnout is often quite low, and typically only the most motivated of voters tend to cast ballots. Turnout for the runoff election was around 6%, slightly higher than typical Democratic primary turnout in SD26. But the turnout in these special elections looked very different from primaries.
Democratic primary voters were the largest bloc in both the special election (44%) and the runoff election (39%), but they were not the majority in either election. In fact, influence from non-Democratic primary voters grew in the runoff, where overall turnout increased 23% over the special election.
The proportion of 2014 Republican primary voters increased to 29% from 25%, and the proportion of non-primary voters increased slightly in percentage terms. Nearly half of all voters who participated in both special elections voted in the 2014 Democratic primary. Only a quarter of runoff-only voters participated in the Democratic primary. In other words, three out of every four “new” voters in the runoff were not 2014 Democratic primary voters.
This influx of non-Democratic primary voters – particularly Republican primary voters – had a profound effect upon the race. In the runoff, Martinez Fischer received 53% of the vote from the 145 precincts where 2014 Democratic primary voters comprised at least 40% of all ballots cast. Menendez received 68% of the vote from the other 151 precincts, where non-Democratic primary voters comprised 60% or more of all ballots cast. More than 55% of votes were from precincts where fewer than 40% of voters participated in the 2014 Democratic primary. No votes were cast in the district’s remaining 26 precincts.
Candidates’ Runoff Advantage by Strength of Democratic Primary Voters
|% Democratic Primary Voters||No. of Precincts||Menendez||Martinez Fischer||Advantage|
|80%-100%||10||26||31||Martinez Fischer, 55%-45%|
|70%-79.99%||12||319||403||Martinez Fischer, 56%-44%|
|60%-69.99%||20||439||493||Martinez Fischer, 53%-47%|
|50%-59.99%||57||1,905||2,329||Martinez Fischer, 55%-45%|
|40%-49.99%||46||2,236||2,244||Martinez Fischer, 50.1%-49.9%|
|Less than 20%||21||1,120||336||Menendez, 77%-23%|
It’s impossible to know what share of Democratic primary voters was received by each candidate. It appears that the vote was fairly close, but Martinez Fischer appears to have had the edge. It is clear from the data that Menendez fared best in precincts with higher percentages of Republican primary voters. In 134 precincts, 2014 Republican primary voters comprised at least 30% of all votes cast, and Menendez carried those precincts, 69%-31%.
Candidates’ Runoff Advantage by Strength of Republican Primary Voters
|% Democratic Primary Voters||No. of Precincts||Menendez||Martinez Fischer||Advantage|
|10%-19.99%||51||2,119||2,901||Martinez Fischer, 58%-42%|
|Less than 10%||63||1,253||1,385||Martinez Fischer, 53%-47%|
Martinez Fischer won outright or won a plurality in 153 precincts in the special election that flipped to Menendez in the runoff. In those precincts, Martinez Fischer received 10 more votes than the Republican candidates in the special election and 1,629 more votes than Menendez. In other words, excluding votes for Al Suarez, Martinez Fischer received 39% while the Republicans plus Menendez received 61%. In the runoff, Martinez Fischer fell to 33%. Martinez Fischer gained 530 votes compared to the special election, but Menendez gained 6,211. In those precincts, 46% of the voters did not participate in the special election. Only 363 of those “new” voters participated in the Democratic primary, a number that would represent about two-thirds of Martinez Fischer’s “new” voters.
Menendez also gained ground in the 87 precincts Martinez Fischer won in both elections. In the special election, Martinez Fischer won 62% of the vote against Menendez (24%) and the Republican candidates (15%), excluding Suarez’s votes. In the runoff, Martinez Fischer’s advantage fell slightly to 61%. He gained 614 more votes in the runoff than in the special election. Menendez gained 1,374. A little over half of the votes cast in these precincts were cast by Democratic primary voters.
This year, Martinez Fischer is challenging Menendez in the Democratic primary, a battlefield that should be friendlier to him than the special elections, where three out of every five voters did not participate in the last Democratic primary. We assume that the Republican primary voters will cast ballots in what figures to be their own competitive presidential primary. Thus, most of them will not be available to vote for Menendez, who they appear to have backed rather strongly in the runoff election.
Since 2002, an average of 21,650 people cast ballots in the Democratic primary in SD26, excluding 2008, when record numbers of people across the state weighed in on the up-in-the-air presidential nomination race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. If the average number of voters turn out on March 1, then at least 12,370 would not have participated in both the runoff election and the 2014 Democratic primary.
In 2014, 21,884 voters in SD26 cast ballots in the Democratic primary. Nearly 60% of them did not participate in the special runoff election. How those voters break will most likely determine the outcome of the primary race. The winning candidate will need at least 11,000 votes if turnout follows historic trends. Menendez received more than that in the runoff. However, if we (for the sake of argument) assumed all Republican primary voters supported Menendez and won’t participate in the 2016 Democratic primary election, then he will need to attract 3,200 additional voters to clear 11,000 votes. Martinez Fischer finished about 1,400 votes short of 11,000 in the runoff. We expect a greater proportion of Martinez Fischer’s overall voters would be inclined to return to the primary.
Both candidates have much work to do between now and March 1. Unlike their last race, there will be no runoff here. The winner will face Libertarian Fidel Castillo, who has previously run for office under the Green Party’s banner, and Green Scott Pusich await the winner of this primary. No Republican has filed for the race.
Bexar Co. was home to the last incumbent Democratic senator to lose a primary. Sen. Carlos Uresti ousted former Sen. Frank Madla, 57%-43%, in 2006, including winning Bexar Co., 63%-37%. In that race, Madla received campaign contributions from Senate and House Republicans, including Rep. Joe Straus (R-San Antonio), and more than $700K from Texans for Lawsuit Reform. Of course, those were different precincts, and it was 10 years ago, and Madla had been a senator for 14 years with some votes that were painted as supporting the chamber’s Republican leadership more than the families of the district.
Some elements of the Uresti-Madla race are present, and some are not, as an incumbent Democratic senator faces a primary challenge from a House member. We will have more on this race after the January semiannual campaign finance reports become available.