A lot of progressives across the country as well as in Buffalo were enthused by what a few months ago had seemed like the near certainty that India Walton, a self-described democratic socialist who won the Democratic primary against longtime Mayor Byron Brown, would be the next Mayor of Buffalo. But it appears that Mayor Byron Brown has managed a comeback victory as a write-in candidate.
(Neither Republicans nor New York’s various minor parties fielded candidates. So Walton was literally the only name on the ballot. Brown’s campaign spent about $100,000 on rubber stamps with his name to hand out to voters.)
Adding to the intra-party drama most of the biggest names in the state Democratic party resisted endorsing Walton’s candidacy. It was basically the Schumer liberal Democrat wing of the state party vs Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the rising progressive/democratic socialist wing. Refusing to endorse Walton was playing with fire of a sort since it’s usually establishment Democrats lecturing dissident progressives that there is no possible center-left politics if people don’t unite behind the winners of party primaries. And pretty much all of the big players in the Schumer wing did eventually endorse Walton. But they did so only in the last few weeks.
To me though the big lesson here is that it is unbelievably hard to win an election as a write-in candidate. We don’t know the margin of Brown’s apparent victory yet. At the moment it’s about 40% of the votes for Walton and roughly 60% are write-ins. Presumably virtually all of those write-ins are for Brown. But given the nature of write-ins those ballots all have to be visually inspected. There are already a lot of claims that the fix was somehow in for Brown, the establishment candidate. That’s the wrong lesson. When you manage to lose that decisively to a write-in candidate the only reasonable interpretation is that the city’s voters didn’t want you to be mayor. Period.
Jerry Zremski, writing in the Buffalo News, traces Walton’s defeat to her decision to remain in a defiant insurgent mode rather than try to broaden her electoral coalition in the weeks and months after her victory. Whether that was a bad decision or just in the nature of an insurgent campaign, I’ll leave to people who know Buffalo politics better. But from the start I’ve seen this race as an example of a familiar pattern in which insurgent candidates manage to win a low turnout primary in a city or state in which their party is dominant and then assume the electorate is basically locked in to electing them. Obviously that’s not the case. Walton and her supporters were entitled to the support of state party leaders like Schumer and Gillibrand. But that obligation doesn’t apply to voters.
When you lose decisively to a write-in candidate that means the voters rejected you and pretty soundly. There’s no shame in losing. Insurgents are by definition underdogs. But don’t portray it as anything but a clean and decisive defeat.