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A San Antonio Wake-Up Call for Democrats

"At the end of the day, we needed 3,000 Democrats to get off their asses and go vote, and they didn’t," observes one Democratic consultant, summing up why Ivy Taylor narrowly defeated Leticia Van de Putte in the San Antonio mayoral runoff.

San Antonio Mayor-elect Ivy Taylor

How did a Brooklyn-born city planner who has never run for partisan office beat a nearly lifelong San Antonio Democrat in the race for the top job in the liberal-leaning Alamo City?

On Sunday, the day after Ivy Taylor narrowly defeated former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte for a full term as mayor of San Antonio, answers to that question varied dramatically. But even Van de Putte's supporters, who played witness to her second high-profile loss in seven months, were sounding the alarm that the outcome spelled more doom for Texas' beleaguered minority party. 

"It ought to scare every Democrat in Bexar County," said Christian Archer, Van de Putte's campaign manager. "If you're a Democrat and in Bexar County, you better wake up." 

"We keep putting the blinders over our eyes and saying, 'Oh, no, no, no, it'll go away.' And it's not going away," added Archer, a veteran of San Antonio mayoral politics. "What's not happening is the kind of turnout that we need."

Taylor's side, meanwhile, was basking in the glow of a hard-fought victory it considers representative of a sea change in city politics. 

"It's a new day in San Antonio," Taylor strategist Josh Robinson declared Sunday, saying the election proved San Antonio is more of a "purple city" than most Democrats assume. The outcome, he added, showed that the "old way of doing things didn't work anymore." 

The outcome was also historic: Taylor became the first black person elected mayor in a city that is majority-Hispanic. Van de Putte would have been the first Hispanic woman to win the job. 

To be clear, Taylor — the interim mayor and former councilwoman — was never seen as a long shot. Van de Putte was never considered unbeatable either, though her homecoming was premised on the idea that the mayoral race would be less of a climb than the lieutenant governor’s contest she lost to Dan Patrick in a landslide last year.

Taylor's strength, meanwhile, was expected to come from a Republican-leaning coalition of voters looking to move the city further away from the era of her predecessor, Julián Castro, a period marked by an activist city government and bright national spotlight.

Van de Putte’s campaign worked hard to undermine that coalition. The candidate zeroed in on a report that Taylor and her husband were unwilling to pursue charges after a shooting at his bail bonds business, hoping to spook law-and-order voters backing Taylor. Van de Putte trotted out endorsements from elected officials representing Taylor’s native East Side, looking to cut into Taylor's most oft-cited base of Democratic support. And at one point, a mailer surfaced that cut straight to the chase, calling Van de Putte the most conservative candidate in the race.

But none of it was enough to counteract Taylor’s crossover appeal, anchored in the chorus that Van de Putte was a career politician simply on the hunt for her next job. Both women had initially denied interest in the race, but it was Van de Putte who did so while campaigning for lieutenant governor, just two years after running for re-election to the Senate — a sequence Taylor's campaign was happy to point out.

"She didn't know what she wanted to be when she grew up," Robinson said. 

Van de Putte's campaign saw a "baked-in" number of voters who largely agreed with that kind of message — that she was a partisan Democrat. To overcome that built-in disadvantage, the campaign figured it needed 40,000 to 45,000 votes to be cast on Election Day.

As results started coming in Saturday night, her campaign was confident it could reach that goal and erase a roughly 5-point lead held by Taylor in early voting. But as the night wore on, that possibility faded away, and with all precincts reporting by 11 p.m., the total number of ballots cast on Election Day stood at just over 33,000.

By the time Van de Putte took the stage at her campaign's West Side headquarters, it was clear the disappointing turnout was on her mind. She mentioned the need to "improve our voting rates here in San Antonio," drawing loud applause. Asked after her remarks how different the outcome would have been had more people shown up at the polls, Van de Putte told reporters San Antonio voters have to "do really, really, much, much better," particularly when it comes to turnout among young people. 

“At the end of the day, we needed 3,000 Democrats to get off their asses and go vote, and they didn’t," said Colin Strother, a Democratic consultant who had worked for the fourth-place finisher in the first round of the race, former Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson. "And that’s the story of our life in Texas politics, is that Democrats could elect anyone they wanted to any position — statewide, local, you name it — if they would get off the couch and go vote, and they don’t do it.”

But it was not just lower-than-expected turnout that hurt Van de Putte, according to her backers. She was up against a woman who had galvanized the city's social conservatives through her opposition to a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2013, and the city's fiscal conservatives through her decision to effectively kill a plan to build a streetcar system downtown.

Led by Justin Hollis — the GOP strategist who engineered Will Hurd's successful challenge last year to U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine — Taylor's team insists her coalition was broader than one ideology or party. But it was Republicans who were the most energized Sunday, claiming a renewed ally in the seventh-largest city in the country — and a key gateway to politically ascendant South Texas. 

"There's no doubt that Ivy has turned the era in San Antonio politics that we haven't seen in my lifetime," said Robert Stovall, chairman of the Bexar County Republican Party. "This is what Republicans are typically so happy to get, which is good leadership and good government. This is a nonpartisan race, and she was a nonpartisan candidate."

Weston Martinez, a conservative leader in San Antonio, said Taylor's win was "delivered by the social conservatives, evangelicals, Protestants and Catholics," groups encouraged to see she "doesn't leave her faith at the door when she goes into the mayor's office." More broadly, though, he said her victory chips away at the presumption that big cities are hotbeds of solidly Democratic leadership.  

"If you're not all-in liberal, you can't be elected" in a major city, Martinez said. "She just broke that mold." 

Van de Putte's campaign had expected Republicans to factor prominently in the race, though Archer said Sunday the campaign may have underestimated the extent of that support. The GOP, he added, "want San Antonio to be a battleground, and they're working hard at making that happen."

It was the type of possibility Van de Putte raised herself the same night state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer lost the runoff for her Senate seat, according to the latter lawmaker. Martinez Fischer, who was defeated in February by then-House colleague José Menéndez, had fallen in the crosshairs of Texans for Lawsuit Reform, a powerful tort reform group that attacked him in an effort to drive up GOP turnout.

"I remember her saying, 'This could very well happen to me,'" Martinez Fischer recalled.

Yet he is not ready to draw broad conclusions about the fate of his hometown's Democratic Party. While the mayoral race was "a little bit of deja vu all over again," he said it provides a moment for reflection, not alarm. 

"Of course voter engagement can be better, but this isn’t the end of the world for Bexar County Democratic politics," Martinez Fischer said. "I will measure the future of the political party during a partisan race, and this clearly wasn’t one of them, but it was a clear example of voters needing to be a little more informed about candidates who hold themselves out as Democrats but run with Republicans." 

Now social conservatives are looking to Taylor to see how her outreach to them translates into a full term at City Hall. Claiming victory late Saturday, Taylor thanked God and wasted no time reminding supporters her work begins Monday.

"The conservatives came together," Martinez said Sunday, "and now we get to see how she governs with a victory under her belt versus an appointee. It should be a very different mayor’s office."

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