Texas House candidates make final push in first election of 2014

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist DENNIS THOMAS

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on January 22, 2014 at 7:42 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 22 at 8:59 PM

AUSTIN -- In case you missed it, there's an election underway.
 
Candidates in a runoff to finish the unexpired term vacated by retired state Rep. Mark Strama (D-Austin) are staging a last-minute push to mobilize support. The lobster-shaped House District 50 covers parts of North Austin, Pflugerville and east Travis County. Voters have through the end of the week for early voting and once more on election day Jan. 28.
 
Democrats' choice to succeed Strama is small business owner and community leader Celia Israel, whose ties to the party include serving on the staff of Gov. Ann Richards. Israel came in second in the November special election with 32 percent of the vote, ahead of two other Democrats who combined for 29 percent.
 
"We just want to make sure that this stays as a good, progressive seat," Israel told KVUE Wednesday. Since then, Israel says her campaign has mounted a door-to-door effort to connect with voters, culminating in a January blitz heading into the runoff.
 
Hoping to win the district for Republicans is longtime Central Texas chiropractor Mike VanDeWalle. The only Republican candidate in the special election, VanDeWalle led the combined field with 39 percent of the total vote. Like Israel, VanDeWalle is working overtime to rally supporters.
 
"There is a contrast in this election," VanDeWalle told KVUE. "We have a far-left, liberal-leaning big government campaign, and then we have our campaign that's more conservative, less government, less tax."
 
The voting age population in HD 50 is roughly 124,000. A total of 847 ballots were cast in person on the first day of early voting, split between three static locations and two mobile voting locations. Combined with 526 ballots by mail, a total of 1,373 voters were tallied on Monday.
 
For a post-holiday January runoff following a special election, low voter turnout is expected. As a result, the makeup of voters who make it to the polls becomes more difficult to predict. Meanwhile in political circles, interest in the HD 50 race is high.
 
Israel has been endorsed by such big-name Democrats as state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, who's running for lieutenant governor, as well as U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro. VanDeWalle has been endorsed by the influential Texas Association of Business. Both candidates have support from local and state parties, yet both face the challenge of getting out the vote inside their district.
 
"This reminds me of when I was in college," said VanDeWalle. "I loved final week, because I did the preparation and it was easy. I won't say this is easy. We're working long hours. We made 1,000 calls last night. So, we're on the phones. We're here. People are giving us the thumbs up as they go in and vote. I think if the people vote for us that did before, we win."
 
Meeting with voters at their doorsteps, Israel says her focus has been on issues such as education. Israel says the support from Democratic luminaries stems in part from her decades of work for the party, as well as a desire to make a statement.
 
"They know that this is a big year, and this is the first matchup between a Democrat and a Republican," said Israel. "So they want to come out in 2014 with the big victory, and they recognize that Travis County is no place for a tea party Republican either."
 
Both candidates acknowledge the January runoff is a prelude to another head-to-head matchup in November for a full term. Though the runoff will provide a major indicator of candidate strength, each told KVUE they're committed to mounting another run should they fail to win on Tuesday.
 
Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) assigned the Jan. 28 runoff date after the November special election ended without a single candidate earning more than 50 percent of the vote. The runoff will cost the county $417,000.

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