Special (Election) Education

The District Beat

Anita Bonds can finally drop the “interim” from in front of her job title. With her victory over five other contenders in the April 23 Special Election, Bonds completes the rise to elected office that began last December when the D.C. Democratic State Committee—which she chairs—chose her to fill the seat vacated by D.C. Council Chair Phil Mendelson.

On April 23, she pulled in just over 16,000 of the close to 50,000 ballots cast—32 percent—leaving progressive challenger Elissa Silverman in second place (28 percent) and Republican Patrick Mara in a distant third (23 percent). Matthew Frumin claimed 11 percent, while Paul Zukerberg and Perry Redd could only muster two percent each. 

The Lessons From April 23

Bonds’ Pyrrhic Victory: Bonds may have won, but it wasn't a decisive victory. In fact, it's fair to say that close to 70 percent of D.C. voters cast ballots against her. When weighted for turnout—which was highest in Ward 3 and lowest in Ward 8—Bonds’ appeal across the city was generally quite weak. 

Vote-Splitting Matters: Despite her soft support, Bonds won because her main competitors—Mara, Silverman and Frumin—ate into each other’s vote totals where it mattered most. While it's hard to say exactly how things would have changed had Frumin dropped out, as Silverman asked him to do a week before the election, even a small number of his Ward 3 supporters switching over to Silverman's side would have brought her that much closer to victory. This vote-splitting certainly isn't anything new—it happened between Peter Shapiro and Sekou Biddle in the April 2012 At-Large Democratic primary for one, as well as in the April 26 At-Large Special Election. In that race, eventual victor Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At Large) wasn’t much stronger than Bonds, nor did his base of support extend much further outsides of wards 5, 7 and 8. But he did benefit from a field of like-minded contenders that divided the loyalties and votes of those in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. If progressive-minded candidates ever want to win, especially in low-turnout affairs like the special elections have come to be, they're going to have to think—and campaign—much more strategically.

Silverman’s Success: The big surprise of the campaign was certainly Silverman, the former reporter, current policy wonk and first-time council contender. Unlike many of her predecessors, she managed to cobble together a broad base of support—according to an after-the-fact analysis of the results, her campaign found that she won 20 percent of the vote in six different wards, something no other campaign could boast. And though Silverman campaigned on the theme of ethics and integrity, she also showed a pragmatic side by trying to knock competitors off the ballot—succeeding in one case, failing in another—and trying to negotiate Frumin off of the ballot. She failed in the latter attempt, but it showed that she understood the point we made above—vote-splitting matters.

Mara’s Mediocrity: Other than Silverman's strong performance, the big story of the Special Election may well have been Mara's mediocre showing. Compared to 2011, when he came less than 2,000 votes from defeating Orange, Mara did not increase his share of voters anywhere in the city. In fact, both Silverman and Frumin chipped away at his base of support where he tended to do best—wards 2 and 3—while he stagnated in wards 1 and 6, areas that he needed in order to emerge victorious. His inability to scrape together more votes is even more surprising when you consider the money he had at his disposal: he raised $140,000 and benefited from tens of thousands more in outside spending by PACs. All that money clearly didn’t translate to energy for his candidacy.

Party’s Over: With Mara's defeat—his third loss in a citywide race since 2011—the D.C. Republican Party is all but dead. If it couldn't win with an experienced and well-funded campaigner who consistently stressed a moderate message, it's unclear who it could run and where it would be most likely to win. This is all the more ironic once you consider that it was Mara that helped unseat the least Republican legislator to sit on the D.C. Council, defeating Carol Schwartz in a divisive 2008 primary. If the D.C. GOP ever wants to win a race, it has to rethink its message and, more importantly, its affiliation to the toxic national party that D.C. residents reject every chance they get.

Statehood Who?: Not to pick on the Republican Party alone, but does anyone take the Statehood Green Party seriously anymore? Perry Redd mustered only enough votes to get him above Michael Brown, who dropped out of the race in March. With yet another loss under its belt, the Statehood Green Party continues its streak of not having any representation on the council; its last councilmember was Julius Hobson, and that was in the 1970s. 

The Media’s Waning Influence: Everyone knows that the media is suffering from an existential and financial crisis, but the extent of its loss of influence couldn’t have been more apparent than it was in recent weeks. Like it did ahead of his 2008 and 2011 citywide runs, The Washington Post’s editorial board endorsed Mara. But this time, it re-endorsed him in four separate editorials. Despite the hundreds of words it wasted on singing his praises, voters weren’t convinced. The Post wasn’t alone, though—the Current endorsed twice, and the Examiner kicked in for an endorsement of its own. None of them affected the outcome.

What the Elections Means for the Mayoral Race

Looking towards next year's mayoral primary, the results of the Special Election don't change the dynamics of what it will take to win. The city’s electorate is divided largely along geographic and racial lines: wards 2, 3 and 6 vote one way, with wards 5, 7 and 8 going the other. 

That being said, that model could be shifting—albeit slowly, and in small ways. Various precincts in Ward 5 have gone for reform-minded candidates in recent years; both Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) and David Grosso (I-At Large) did well in Brookland and Bloomingdale, for instance. Additionally, Ward 4’s voters—which tend to show up in droves—have shown that they’re willing to buck expectations and play a decisive role in elections.

This, of course, could make for a very close contest between declared candidate Councilmember Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) and contender-in-waiting Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). While Bowser could emerge a frontrunner with her base of support in Ward 4, Wells could continue building upon the progressive coalition that ushered Grosso to victory and Silverman to a close second-place to become the city’s first white mayor.

Martin Austermuhle is a freelance writer living in Columbia Heights.


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