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‘Hardcore Republicans’ are voting in Travis County’s Democratic primary. Here’s why.

A split screen with a man in a suit and tie standing in front of law books and looking at the camera at left and a man in a suit and tie speaking into a microphone.
Renee Dominguez (left) and Gabriel C. Pérez
KUT News
Attorney Jeremy Sylestine (left) is running against incumbent José Garza for the Democratic nomination for Travis County district attorney.

One of the biggest races on the Travis County ballot this primary season will likely decide who is the next district attorney. On the Democratic side, incumbent José Garza faces challenger Jeremy Sylestine, an Austin-based attorney. 

The race has been fraught the last couple of weeks, with the challenger outraising the incumbent and GOP interference in Travis County's Democratic primary. It's been messy and it's all coming to a head on Election Day. Let's take a look back at how we got here and what's next.

What does the district attorney's office do?

The district attorney prosecutes major crimes for the county — everything from high-level drug possession charges to DWIs to capital murder. The office's caseload is massive. Tens of thousands of cases come through the office every year. Because of that, the county's chief prosecutor, and his deputies, use discretion in taking cases to trial. It requires a lot of resources to do that, and there are only so many prosecutors to try those cases.

Garza ran on a platform in 2020 to reduce the number of felony (and certain misdemeanor) cases taken to trial. His goal was to reduce the number of people staying in Travis County jails unnecessarily. That hasn't been the case. Bookings at the county's two jails have gone up on Garza's watch, according to Travis County data.

Sylestine worked in the district attorney's office but left after Garza took over in 2021. His campaign has pushed a narrative that Garza has failed to prosecute major crimes and that the district attorney's office has secured plea deals that put violent criminals out on the streets. That, Sylestine argues, has led to a public safety crisis. Despite Sylestine's campaign's insistence, crime in Austin has decreased since 2020, according to the Austin Police Department.

What's the deal with all this money?

Garza has secured the backing of mainstream Democratic office-holders in Travis County, while Sylestine's gotten support from the city's police union and Save Austin Now, a group that pushed Austin to reinstate its penalties for sitting or lying down in public. Sylestine is also backed by a dark-money campaign that sent out mailers claiming Garza was "cutting deals with ... monsters," in reference to his plea bargains, and that "the next victim could be your loved one." Sylestine has told KUT he doesn't know Saving Austin, the group behind the campaign, and doesn't support its messaging.

Garza filed a cease-and-desist letter against the Irving-based group that sent out those mailers last week.

Campaign messaging aside, the race has become more or less a proxy battle, with Republicans — including Republican candidate Daniel Betts — pushing for Sylestine to oust Garza.

Sylestine has raised a lot of money. Many donors — particularly those dropping high-dollar amounts — have historically been supporters of Republican campaigns. A filing late last month showed Sylestine raised a whopping $1.2 million in campaign donations, compared to incumbent Garza's $204,000, according to Travis County.

Garza's campaign has gone as far as calling Sylestine "our MAGA opponent" in its fundraising asks, though Sylestine argues he's been a lifelong Democrat. Still, the Republican support is there and doesn't stop at donations.

How important is this primary?

History would tell you that whoever wins this primary is effectively the next Travis County district attorney.

This is a famously blue county. That isn't likely to change ahead of November, and the winner of this race, as in previous election cycles, will likely sail on to victory. A small sliver of Travis County's electorate will decide this race.

Early voting turnout has been low, as it has been historically, with less than 9% of registered voters casting a ballot, according to the Travis County clerk. Less than 6% of those folks voted in the Democratic primary, but a sizable portion of those voters previously voted in Republican races in Travis County, as the Austin Chronicle points out.

You may be asking yourself why that is. Texas is one of a few states that doesn't require you to register as a Republican or Democrat, meaning anyone can cast a ballot in either primary. Now, Sylestine and his supporters are pushing voters who may lean right to vote in the Democratic primary to oust Garza.

Pollster Jim Wick analyzed Travis County's numbers and found that 2,100 voters in the Travis County Democratic primary previously only voted in Republican primaries.

Wick told KUT those voters are a "relatively small" portion of the electorate, but that there's been a "significant effort" that could change the outcome of the race. He added that many of the voters weren't typical independent-minded voters, but dyed-in-the-wool GOP voters who had never voted in a Democratic primary.

"These are hardcore Republicans ... some of [them] have voted in the last 10 Republican primaries in a row," he said. "These are very educated, informed voters who ... are making a choice to cross into the Democratic primary because they oppose the district attorney."

Some of Sylestine's own campaign messaging has leaned into that, urging voters of any stripe to support him in the primary, but he told KUT he's not "some schmuck off the street," and that he's run his campaign "on his own merits" as a former prosecutor.

"I think what you're seeing in my campaign is not any sort of Republican or GOP or right-leaning message," he said. "I'm really throwing right down the middle here. This is a campaign about criminal justice and what it means to people — and having someone in the office who's going to do the job."

Polls open across Travis County on Election Day at 7 a.m. and close at 7 p.m.

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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