Tuesday, November 02, 2021

A Local Test

Let us assume that the local elections in Wichita today represent a test of basic Political Science 101. Probably a bad assumption, and one that would therefore lead me to make some bad predictions, but then my record for accurate electoral predictions is mostly abysmal anyway.

So today there three seats on the Wichita City Council and four seats on the Wichita School Board up for grabs. All seven seats are currently occupied by incumbents running for re-election. While there have been positive signs for turn-out, both nation-wide and locally, over the past three elections (2018, 2019, and 2020--very positive for that last one), I don't see any evidence which convinces me that this off-year, non-mayoral, municipal election will see anything better than an extreme small voter turn-out. That means the advantages of incumbency, primarily name recognition, will be paramount. Thus Political Science 101 says that, all things being equal, all seven incumbents will be re-elected.

What are the variables which might challenge that conclusion? When it comes to the school board races in the state of Kansas, as Sharon Iorio has observed, we have seen national PACs, supported by the state and county Republican parties, providing organizational and financial assistance to slates of nominally (but not actually) non-partisan candidates, mostly campaigning on the mostly fictitious threat of critical race theory being taught in the public schools. Has that political and monetary support made a difference--that is, has it activated enough less-engaged Republican voters to boost turn-out in favor of those challenging the incumbents? Especially given that at least one Democratic-leaning PAC in Kansas became alarmed and jumped into the advertising game in support of the incumbents fairly late in the cycle? 

In the absence of polling, it's impossible to give a strict Political Science 101 prediction. But going solely off visible advertising, social media presence, and traditional media coverage, my bet is that, with one exception, it wasn't enough. That one exception would be Mia Turner, who doesn't enjoy the full benefits of incumbency; she was appointed to her position last March to fill the vacancy left after Mike Roadee resigned (partly due to his frustration with USD 259's support of a non-discrimination policy focused on LGBTQ students). Without the name recognition which comes from having won an election, as well as being based in District 5, a fairly conservative part of Wichita with a small non-Caucasian population (Turner is African-American), all means that she may not have the intense local networks which can informally activate voters. Is she likely to benefit from the aforementioned Democratic advertising? Of course. But will it be enough? Another impossible question. I would bet, though, that if any of the incumbent school board members running for re-election lose out to their challengers (Turner's is Kathy Bond), it might be her.

How about the Wichita City Council races? In the case of District 1's Brandon Johnson, given his strong name recognition, his ten-to-one fundraising advantage over his opponent, and the intense networks he has built throughout northeast Wichita since his years as a community activist, I'd say that there is a greater likelihood of Johnson being incinerated by a space laser today than him losing. In the case of District 6's Cindy Claycomb, her challenger, Maggie Ballard, has a genuinely meaningful (at least in the sense of being capable of actually activating voters and changing votes) electoral argument against her, especially in the progressive--and highly motivated--Riverside neighborhood in her district. But with Claycomb's eventual support of the city-wide non-discrimination ordinance (thus undermining one part of the argument against her), with her tremendous fundraising and advertising advantage (see here), and with her long-time connections to established moderates and liberals throughout her district, Political Science 101 says that, however impressive Ballard's door-knocking ground-game may be, Claycomb will still emerge on top.

Will District 3's Jared Cerullo fare any different? Like Mia Turner in the school board races, Cerullo wasn't elected to his position; he was appointed to fill the vacancy left by James Clendenin when he resigned in disgrace, and that appointment came after a long, divisive, party-line process. For that reason, and also due to the fact that Cerullo found himself attacked by both Republicans and Democrats in his district for different reasons during the contentious debate over the non-discrimination ordinance, it's possible that Cerullo has lost potential votes of support from out of his district, and the ensuing party networks and social infrastructure those voters might have brought along with them. Enough to give his challenger, Mike Hoheisel, a shot of ousting the incumbent? Especially given the fact that District 3 has by far the lowest regular voter turnout of any district, meaning that the winner of this race may well do so by dozens of votes, Political Science 101 says that if anyone were to bet on any of the city council challengers, Hoheisel would be the one.

Results will start coming in at 7pm; guess I'll log on to see how wrong I am then. [Crow-eating addendum here.]

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