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In a stinging rebuke to a campaign led by local Republicans and the police union, Austin voters sided 68-32 against Prop A, the proposed ordinance that would have mandated a massive increase in the police budget.
It was a humiliating defeat for Save Austin Now, the political action committee led by GOP operative Matt Mackowiak, the chair of the Travis County Republican Party. It also underscored the political marginalization of the once-powerful Austin Police Association, SAN’s chief partner in the effort.
Those leading the Prop A campaign entered the race feeling emboldened by their success six months ago in passing Prop B, which reenacted the ban on homeless camping. They figured that after rebuking city government on one “public safety” issue, Austin’s “silent majority” was similarly eager to fight back against the “defunding” of APD last year.
That turned out to be a fatal misread of public opinion. People were actually just upset about the tents. Austinites do not feel particularly threatened by crime. Save Austin Now’s message –– that the city is overrun by crime ––would probably work in a lot of places. But not in a relatively safe one like Austin.
The ‘people’ didn’t defeat Prop A. But the electorate did
Politics in this country would look very different if every eligible voter voted in every election. Perhaps in many ways that would surprise us. Alas, that’s not how American democracy works. As both Prop B in May and Prop A last night show, in many key decisions, a great majority of citizens forgo their right to take part.
Indeed, it is the ultra-low turnout election that SAN sought. It’s only in such contests that the GOP or the GOP-adjacent have a chance in Austin.
The anti-camping indies no-show
There were a number of factors that led to SAN’s success in May, but one of the big ones was its ability to generate a surge in participation from people who typically don’t vote in odd-year elections or primaries. These voters were disproportionately from affluent western and central neighborhoods who were upset about homelessness encampments. But Prop A clearly failed to resonate to the same degree with those voters, many of whom did not return to the polls in November.
“There was five times as much passion against the tents,” commented one Dem insider a week ago.
This was reflected in consultant Mark Littlefield’s modeling of early voters that I shared yesterday, which showed that 57.6% of early voters had consistent Dem primary voting history, compared to 48.5% of early voters in May. Considering how badly election day went for Prop A, it’s likely that over 60% of the total electorate were D primary voters.
Mackowiak meets the machine
But it wasn’t just the absence of the anti-camping independents that doomed Prop A. Even if they had turned out, the pummeling Prop A took from Democratic voters was too great a wound to recover from.
Equity PAC, the opposition campaign led by Laura Hernandez, activated every part of the local Democratic coalition against Prop A. This aligned with what I anticipated when Prop A was certified in August:
In contrast to Prop B, which many elected liberals remained silent on, I expect this petition to be universally opposed by the local Democratic/liberal establishment.
This puts at risk the public services that liberals cherish: parks, libraries, social programs. And it’s accompanied by a hefty price tag that will put pressure on them to raise taxes — something that nobody wants.
Ultimately, the opposition to Prop A encompassed the full spectrum of local liberal/Dem politics: unions, civil rights groups, environmentalists and every Dem elected official.
And of course, Equity PAC got crucial outside support from major national liberal donors, notably George Soros and the Fairness Project. That money allowed the opposition to mount a field campaign that hit the doors of Dem voters most likely to turn out as well as a major direct mail, TV and digital campaign.
The campaign succeeded in polarizing the electorate along partisan lines. Simply put, hardly any Democrats voted for Prop A.
Granted, Prop A certainly outperformed Trump. I’m not actually sure what Trump got in the city of Austin because only the county results are reported in the presidential election, but a good guess is that he got about 20%. So Prop A’s 32% is significantly better.
But in the highest-turnout Dem precincts that Equity PAC targeted with aggressive canvassing, Prop A was relegated to near-Trump status.
- At Box 152 in Cherrywood, Trump got 5%. Prop A got 7%.
- At Box 135 in Mueller, Trump got 10% and Prop A got 15%.
- At Box 460 (my precinct!), just south of Ben White and east of Menchaca, Trump got 19% and Prop A got 21%.
- At Box 124 in Central East Austin, Trump got 9.5% and Prop A got 15%
- At Box 275 in Hyde Park, Trump got 9.3% and Prop A got 10%
- At 242 in Crestview, Trump got 12% and Prop A got 15%
- At Box 332 in Zilker, Trump got 12.5% and Prop A got 17%
You get the idea. The swing from Prop B was enormous, if you can even call it a “swing.” My guess is that most voters who voted for Prop B and against Prop A did not see a relationship between the two, despite SAN’s best efforts to frame this campaign as a logical sequel.
While Prop B offended dedicated progressives on ideological grounds, the Democratic big tent was divided on the issue, offering SAN an easy opening to exploit.
That was not the case with Prop A, which key Democratic constituencies recognized as an existential threat to cherished public services. SAN tried to frame its campaign as correcting a radical “defund the police” social experiment, but its proposal was really a dagger aimed at the “meat and potatoes” that Democrats exist to defend. It’s no surprise that the army rose up to defend it (even before the firefighters and EMS unions showed up).
Mackowiak learned an old lesson: Just because you can take Poland doesn’t mean you should invade Russia.
SAN’s joke of a campaign
While Equity PAC certainly deserves credit for running an effective campaign, we should not discount the comical incompetence of Save Austin Now.
It will take much longer to truly dig into Matt Mackowiaks’s many questionable decisions, including the theory, which he has barely made an effort to rebut, that he was funneling money from the campaign into his own pockets. But at the very least there were some obvious signs of a clueless campaign. In particular, the group’s phone/texting operation sparked much joy among liberal politicos.
Hilarity aside, what this suggests is that SAN was pouring money into targeting the wrong voters. Was that just a big mistake, or did someone on the campaign have an interest in pumping money into an inefficient texting campaign?
Austin doesn’t hate the police
Now that this divisive campaign is behind us, hopefully we can have a fact-based conversation about how to respond to the rise in violence that is affecting Austin, just like most other major cities.
The state law passed earlier this summer will not allow Council to try to cut the APD budget again and frankly, I think most City Council members have signaled that they don’t want to disrupt future cadet classes and would like to address staff shortages in patrol and other units.
What is unfortunate is that many cops were likely led to believe that Prop A was simply a referendum on “returning to normal,” when in fact it was a radical reorganization of city government that put other key services at risk. And some officers may interpret the result as evidence that their community hates the police. That’s not true. Austinites don’t want to defund the police but they don’t want to defund EMS, fire, parks or libraries either.
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