Two progressives, the Austin lobby and the SD-6 special election

The candidates in the special election to replace Sylvia Garcia in Senate District 6 are, left to right, State Reps. Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez, both Houston Democrats; Democrat Mia Mundy and Republican Martha Fierro. Photo by Facebook and campaign pages

The two most viable candidates on the state’s December 11 Senate District 6 special election ballot, state representatives Carol Alvarado and Ana Hernandez of Houston, do not differ significantly in regard to their ideological orientation; each is a progressive and there is little daylight between their positions on a wide range of policy issues. They do, however, differ notably in terms of their financial support: Alvarado is the clear favorite of the Austin lobby.

Four candidates are competing in the SD-6 special election. But, as was the case in a special election held in the district in 2013, only two have a realistic prospect of victory. Alvarado is making her second bid for the seat after narrowly losing the 2013 special election to Sylvia Garcia, whose recent resignation (to assume office as the first Hispanic to represent Houston in the U.S. House) is the reason for the current contest.

Hernandez has been a state representative since 2005 and Alvarado since 2009. The other two candidates are Republican Martha Fierro and Democrat Mia Mundy, neither of whom has held public office. (Editor's post-election note: Alvarado won the race, narrowly avoiding a runoff.)

Two indistinguishable progressives

The chart provides the Liberal-Conservative (Lib-Con) Score of the 48 Democrats who served in the Texas House of Representatives between 2009 and 2017 (when Alvarado and Hernandez were both in office) and voted in at least half of the non-lopsided roll call votes held during that period. The Democrats range from Justin Rodriguez of San Antonio at the liberal end of the ideological spectrum to Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City at the centrist end.

Both Alvarado and Hernandez have Lib-Con Scores that are noticeably to the left of the Democratic median (the vertical dashed line). Hernandez’s Lib-Con Score (-1.21) is slightly more liberal than Alvarado’s (-1.16), but the two representatives’ credible intervals overlap substantially, meaning neither can be considered to be more liberal or more centrist than the other.

In contrast to their similar progressive ideological profiles, Alvarado and Hernandez differ notably in the sources of their financial support. Alvarado is the clear favorite of the Austin lobby: the lobbyists, political action committees (PACs) and others based in the state capital and in other areas of the state and country whose principal mission is to influence the public policy process to benefit their clients, companies and industries/interests.

Both Alvarado and Hernandez formally launched their campaigns on March 7, the day after Garcia won the Democratic primary for the CD-29 seat. Between then and December 7, Alvarado raised $368,180 and Hernandez $283,121, according to their campaign finance filings with the Texas Ethics Commission. In contrast, Fierro raised $6,626 and Mundy $0 (both launched their respective campaigns after Gov. Greg Abbott called the special election on November 9).

Alvarado received more than twice as much of her contributions from the Austin lobby and other in-state (non-Houston) and out-of-state PACs than did Hernandez, 54 to 26 percent. And, when considering the absolute number of dollars raised, Alvarado bested Hernandez among the Austin lobby and friends by a 2.7 to 1 margin ($199,388 to $73,644).

Combined, more than half (54 percent) of Alvarado’s funds came from Austin-based donors (40 percent), Texas-based (outside both the Austin and Houston metro areas) PACs (6 percent), and out-of-state PACs (8 percent). Houston-area donors (individuals and PACs) accounted for less than half (40 percent) of Alvarado’s donations, with individual Texans in regions other than Austin and Houston and out-of-state individual donors supplying 5 and 1 percent.

Hernandez raised almost three-quarters (72 percent) of her funds from Houston-area donors, and only a quarter (26 percent) from the Austin lobby and its ilk. Her non-Houston money came from Austin-based donors (17 percent), followed by Texas-based PACs located outside of Austin and Houston (5 percent) and out-of-state PACs (4 percent). Hernandez received a minute proportion of her contributions from Texans in regions other than Austin and Houston and out of state individuals.

The December 11 Election and Potential Runoff

Voter turnout in SD-6 consistently ranks among the lowest across Texas’s 31 state senate districts. Among special elections, the 2013 contest holds the modern record in Texas for lowest turnout, with only 16,511 voters participating in a district with over 850,000 residents. Turnout this time is not expected to be much higher.

It’s possible, even likely, that neither Alvarado nor Hernandez will be able to garner the absolute majority needed to avoid a runoff, particularly because of the admirable campaign Fierro has run with considerable enthusiasm and effort. This would set the stage for a January runoff.

Regardless of the runoff outcome, in February a progressive Democratic senator will be sworn in to represent SD-6, with the only question being the extent to which that senator will start with stronger or weaker ties to the Austin lobby.

Disclosure: Rice University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Mark P. Jones

Fellow in political science at Rice University’s Baker Institute