Nov 10, 2022 - News

Dissecting the Austin mayor's race

Austin mayoral election results, by precinct
Data: Travis County Clerk; Map: Erin Davis and Simran Parwani/Axios Visuals

Voting patterns in the first round of Austin's mayoral race laid bare, once again, Austin's east-west divide.

Driving the news: Jolting the punditry class, state Rep. Celia Israel out-dueled her better-funded opponent, Kirk Watson, by about 15,000 votes, dominating precincts in East Austin.

  • Watson reigned in wealthier, whiter precincts to the west of I-35.
  • The top two vote-getters are headed for a December runoff since neither won more than 50% of the vote.

What they're saying: "There is a mandate in Austin now that affordability and displacement need to be addressed in a comprehensive way," Eric Tang, an expert on the history of Austin's racial segregation at the University of Texas, tells Axios. "The surprising success Israel has had is a reflection of that mandate."

  • "For those who are doing well in the current housing market, there's a general sense that what’s happening is not sustainable. The lack of sustainability is probably more evident in the east side than in whiter and wealthier west Austin."

Between the lines: A generational divide is at play, says Steven Pedigo, director of UT's LBJ Urban Lab.

  • Watson's support comes from areas like Northwest Austin, home to longtime residents who remember him as mayor — and Israel's from young voters in fast-growing and gentrifying South and East Austin, he says.

Both are Democrats, but in her Q&A last month with Axios, Israel said what distinguishes her from opponents is that she's a "chick with a record" — "As a woman, as a member of the LGBT community, as a Latina, I'll speak up."

  • Watson, who earned a reputation as a dealmaker as Austin mayor in the late 1990s and as a Travis County state senator, has argued that he's best suited to stitch together a city that has been divided by issues of homelessness and police funding.

By the numbers: Watson's campaign has raised more than $1.2 million — Israel's campaign raised less than half that.

As they see it: "We did it," Israel said at a campaign event Tuesday night, per KUT. "The good ole boys raised over a million dollars against us and we said, 'Not today.'"

  • "Being in a runoff gives us the opportunity to continue reaching out to more people," Watson wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.

What we're watching: How many of the 56,000 voters who opted for conservative-minded Jennifer Virden might turn out for Watson.

  • Plus: He may benefit from the absence of a governor's race, which brought young, progressive voters to the polls to support Beto O'Rourke.
  • "What we know about those young progressive voters is they have tendencies to not come out in an election where there is a to-be-continued piece," Pedigo says, noting that many UT students will have gone home by Dec. 13, the final day of the runoff.

The bottom line: Changing political appetites among the Austin electorate mean that Watson will have to claw for votes that he might have come by more easily two decades ago.

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