The field is set at six candidates for the July 14 election for a successor to Austin Democrat Kirk Watson, in Central Texas’ 14th District seat in the Texas Senate.
Watson, 61, resigned April 30 to become the Founding Dean of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at The University of Houston.
The district includes about two-thirds of the northeastern part of Travis County, including most of Austin, and all of Bastrop County.
Watson was elected to the seat in 2006, following five years as Austin’s mayor (1997-2002).
The special election had been set for May 2. But because of the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Greg Abbott moved it to July 14 – along with party primary election runoffs.
Abbott later extended the time for early voting before the July 14 election by moving the start date from July 6 to June 29.
The best-known candidates for Watson’s seat are the two Democrats – former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, and 18-year Austin State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez.
There are two Republicans: former one-term Austin City Councilman Don Zimmerman, a conservative who won and then was beaten for re-election, and recently lost a race for the Republican nomination for an Austin seat in the Texas House, and retired lawyer Waller Thomas Burns II, who initially filed as an independent.
Pat Dixon, who served two terms on the Lago Vista City Council a decade ago, is running as a Libertarian. Jeff Ridgeway, an Austin physician, is running as an independent.
Several others had considered running, including Rodriguez’s Travis County Democratic House colleagues Donna Howard, Gina Hinojosa and Celia Israel. But they all passed and endorsed Rodriguez.
In a special election, there are no party primaries. Candidates are all listed on the same ballot. If no one gets a majority, the top two – regardless of party affiliation – meet in a runoff.
The winner, whether on July 14 or in a later runoff, will serve the remaining two years of Watson’s four-year term.
He or she will join a senate divided with 19 members Republican and 12 Democrats. The seat will be up for election again in 2022.
Given the district’s strong Democratic leanings – Watson beat his Republican opponent in 2018 by 47 percent – it would not be a surprise if veteran officeholders like Rodriguez and Eckhardt show up as the top two.
Eckhardt was elected to the Travis County Commissioner’s Court in 2006, and elected in 2014 as the commission’s leader, the county judge.
She won another four-year term in 2018. But run for a legislative seat, under survival guidelines decreed by self-protective legislators decades ago, she had to resign her local elective office.
Rodriguez, elected to the House in 2002, and popular among its members, will not be out of a job should he lose. He does not have to resign his seat to run in a special election.
And he is already the Democratic nominee for re-election in November in his heavily Democratic District 51 in Southeast Austin, having breezed through a minor challenge in the March 3 Democratic primary.
Another probable advantage for Democratic contenders is that party runoff elections from the spring primaries will also be held July 14.
Those include particularly the race for the Democratic nomination to oppose Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s re-election.
While the Democrats also have a statewide runoff for a Railroad Commission seat in addition to the U.S. Senate nomination contest, they have several other primary runoffs, particularly in Travis County.
By contrast, the Republicans have no statewide runoffs, and few local ones. So there will probably be less voter-turnout activity for Republicans than Democrats.
Another lingering question about voter turnout is the ongoing seesaw legal battle in state and federal courts over mail-in balloting, and whether Texans under 65 can request absentee ballots for fear of exposure to the coronavirus epidemic by voting in person.
Republican Texas Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton has been on a dogged mission to keep most Texans under 65 from voting by mail.
Democrats read it as a part of the Republicans’ continuing effort to make it more difficult to vote, presuming fewer Democrats will vote if there are enough hurdles.
This battle has taken on national status. Republican President Donald Trump has said Republicans can’t win elections if there is much mail-in voting, even though that’s how he voted in Florida’s election in 2018.
The argument has bounced back and forth in state and federal courts, and is probably headed for the United States Supreme Court to decide.
Whether, and how soon, that will happen is anybody’s guess.