Texas House Speaker Joe Straus brushed off a rash and ultimately anemic challenge by Jeff Judson, a former Tea Party activist and Olmos Park city councilman, to cruise to an easy and early evening primary victory amid a record voter turnout that drew Republicans to the polls for the first contested presidential primary in decades.
Election officials were stunned by Tuesday's wave of Election Day voters that vastly exceeded all estimates and kept many voting sites open hours after the official 7 p.m. close. Long lines of voters waited two hours or more late Tuesday evening, keeping some sites open to 10 p.m.
"This was an unbelievable night, with an unbelievable number of people who went to vote after work Tuesday night," said Jacquelyn Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator. "We wish no one had to stand in line, but it is heartening to see so many people vote."
The failure of registered voters to turn out in past elections, of course, helps define how many voting machines and poll workers are put in place to handle primary voters. When turnout suddenly spikes, there is inadequate infrastructure to efficiently process voters.
With 977,000 registered voters in Bexar County, final turnout exceeded 25%, a significant increase over the single digit voter turnouts seen in recent elections.
For the first time in memory, Election Day turnout exceeded early voting turnout. With all votes tallied, 129,462 people voted Tuesday compared to 117,459 early voters. Republicans turned out in greater numbers than Democrats in early voting and on Tuesday by a 53.37-46.63% margin. The turnout slowed the release of unofficial results by county election officials. Shortly after midnight, the official vote returns had only climbed from 60 to 78%.
Straus (R-121) led throughout the evening. With 100% of precincts reporting, Judson attracted less than 30%. Sheila Bean, another candidate with tea party connections, drew 10%. Even with all of her votes, Judson would not have been competitive to Straus' 60%.
Supporters filled Straus’ election watch party at the Barn Door restaurant. Several County and City leaders, including Sheriff Susan Pamerleau and Mayor Ivy Taylor, stopped by to congratulate Straus.
Shortly after 8 p.m. Pamerleau, who ran unopposed in the primary but will have a challenger in November, announced to the crowd that Straus had won. Before he took the stage, Straus stopped to kiss his mother Joci, and hold his wife Julie’s hand, smiling and waving to the crowd.
The Speaker was clearly elated as he thanked family and friends for their support.
“Thanks to you we have won,” Straus said, amid cheers from the audience. “This proves, that at least in this district, civility and optimism has a place in politics.” Supporters began to chant his name as he left the stage to speak with reporters.
Straus started the year with more than $8 million in the bank. He wasn’t sure how much he spent leading up to the primary vote, but it was more than in any previous campaign.
“We had two opponents, (who were) very wealthy (and) out of district, and I knew they were going to come at me,” Straus said, citing his reason for starting the campaign earlier than usual. “We weren’t quite expecting the ugliness that we saw, but because we were quite prepared we did very well.
“It was a good victory, the opponents were just puppets. I think it’s good to show other people throughout the state that they’d better not mess with District 121.”
The most anticipated race on the Democratic ballot was the rematch between Sen. José Menéndez and challenger Trey Martinez Fisher, who gave up his Texas House seat to try to do what he was unable to do in last year's special election: beat Menéndez. Voters backed the incumbent, giving Menéndez another big win, this time a 58-42%.
Finally, around 10:45 p.m., Menéndez and his crowd of supporters gathered at the front of the San Antonio Firefighters Banquet Hall to announce his victory, but not before former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte gave a few remarks.
"It was a hard fight, make no mistake that the senator's opponent, our (former) representative Trey Martinez Fischer is a leader, a very different type of leader," Van de Putte said. "That being said, José hit the ground running every single day in Austin, he and his team at the capital and here at the district, had nothing more in mind than to deliver results for you, the people of San Antonio, and that's the way it should be."
Menéndez, with his wife, Celia, at his side, thanked supporters.
"This victory does not belong to me, it belongs to you, the people," Menéndez said.
Martinez Fischer said the attack ads launched by both campaigns had less of an effect on voter turnout than the presidential race did. His campaign was far more aggressive in sending out attack ads mailers disparaging Menéndez and his public record, ultimately to no avail.
State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-19) had little trouble with challenger Helen Madla, a South San Independent School District board member and widow of former Sen. Frank Madla. Uresti posted a 74-26% lead.
Heading into this election, the two candidates had played down the notion of a grudge match, as Uresti unseated Helen Madla's husband, Frank Madla, in the 2006 Democratic primary. Uresti beat Madla by a 3-1 margin.
"I feel really encouraged, we worked really hard in this campaign. We took nothing for granted. We knew we were going to win," Uresti said.
The contested Texas House seats provided a couple of surprises.
In the contest to replace Martinez Fischer in District 116, Diana Arévalo won 52% of the vote, enough to win without a runoff. Martin Golando, the former chief of staff for Fischer Martinez, was mired at 31%. Ruby Resendez trailed with 17% of the vote.
In House District 118, a seat vacated by retiring state Rep. Jose Farias, his son Gabe Farias lost soundly for a second time to Tomas Uresti, this time by a 59-41% margin. Gabe also finished poorly in a special election held earlier this year. Tomas will face Republican candidate John Lujan in the November general election. Lujan trounced Robert Casias by a 75-25% margin in the Republican primary.
Tomas said his campaign spent about $30,000 to beat Gabe, president of the West San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.
"We had a larger turnout this time around and I think that's what made the difference," Tomas said. Mobilizing the Democratic vote in November will be vital, he said. "I see myself and Carlos (District 19 senator) playing a major role in bringing the Democratic Party together as one."
In the District 120 House race to replace longtime Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon, who retired for health reasons, none of the six candidates reached the 30% level. Barbara Gervin-Hawkins was atop the field with 27%, while former San Antonio City Councilman Mario Salas was in second with 22%. Byron Miller was third with less than 20%.
The District 120 race is headed to a certain runoff as well as a special election to fill the seat for the balance of the year, a scenario bound to confuse voters, suppress turnout and entangle candidates who lost in Tuesday's contest, yet try again in the special election.
Javier Salazar, former SAPD spokesman, was lead the Democratic ballot for Bexar County Sheriff with 43% of the vote, headed for a runoff with Andy Lopez, who finished with 31%. Salazar and Lopez, a former investigator for the District Attorney's Office and Sheriff's Department employee, hope to oust incumbent Sheriff Susan Pamerleau.
In the presidential primaries, there were no surprises nationally, in Texas or in Bexar County. On the Republican ballot, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won here and in two states, Texas and Oklahoma, but the rest of Super Tuesday belonged to improbable frontrunner Donald Trump. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, hoping for a breakthrough, won only Minnesota.
On the Democratic ballot, Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won big in Bexar County, in Texas and throughout the South, winning seven states in all. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, however, also had a good day, winning four states, including his home state, Minnesota, Colorado and Oklahoma.
*Top image: Texas House Speaker Joe Straus delivers his victory speech. Photo by Scott Ball.