Muriel Bowser’s overwhelming victory in Tuesday’s Democratic mayoral primary sealed a yearlong effort to persuade undecided voters that she was the most viable alternative to scandal-tinged Mayor Vince Gray. But on Election Day itself, she had trouble finding any of those voters.
In keeping with her campaign mantra of “All Eight Wards,” Bowser traveled across the city on Tuesday to make a last-minute appeal. Her efforts took her deep into the home turf of her rivals, where she patrolled polling places in search of a few minds to change. Yet in an election whose turnout was among the lowest in D.C. mayoral primary history, they were hard to come by.
Instead, Bowser found herself in the uncomfortable position of working to win over the only people who were around outside the polls: the volunteers for other campaigns.
“I love Jack,” she pitched a volunteer for candidate Jack Evans outside Miner Elementary School on Capitol Hill, “but he can’t win.”
A minute later, she approached Craig Welkener, a 25-year-old Ward 6 resident who appeared to be the exact type of voter Bowser was targeting. Welkener thought Gray had done a “great job” as mayor but worried that re-electing him amid the investigation into his 2010 campaign would embarrass the city and drag it into “Marion Barry part two.” Bowser sought to convince him that he had three options: vote for her, vote for Gray, or waste his vote.
“We’re locked in a tight race with the incumbent,” she told him. “Make your vote count.”
He chose to throw his vote away, in Bowser’s framing, by casting it for Tommy Wells.
It was that kind of day for Bowser. Nearly five hours into the day’s campaigning, she reported that she’d met all of two uncommitted voters, at a Brookland elementary school. Other than that, she said, her best prospect was the Evans volunteer at Miner. “I have hope for her,” she said.
But even if Tuesday’s persuasion efforts didn’t bring many results, the overall argument appeared to work. Bowser swept to a 12-point victory just a few weeks after a wave of polls had her tied or narrowly ahead of Gray; as the election approached, it seemed many of the D.C. Democrats who didn’t want the mayor to win a second term decided she was their best bet at stopping him. In Bowser’s home Ward 4, there also wasn’t much persuading to be done, albeit for different reasons. The majority of voters arriving at the Takoma Education Campus at the end of the workday—when turnout picked up, if not to the levels of recent mayoral races—were already solidly in the Bowser camp. Several stuck around after voting to have their picture taken with the candidate.
But hardly any were undecided. Bowser’s secret weapon, former University of Maryland and NBA basketball player Steve Francis, who flew up from Texas the night before to campaign, was left with little to do outside the Takoma Education Campus. Finally, he found a potential target, whom he asked hopefully about the possibility of “voting green.” That target was me. No such luck.
Bowser’s margin of victory was large enough in a fractured field to portend a solid mandate going into November’s general election and her likely mayoralty. But with barely more than 20 percent of registered voters participating, it’s also possible to draw the opposite conclusion: that Bowser became just what she sought to be—a tolerable and viable alternative to Gray—in an election in which most D.C. residents didn’t feel that strongly about any of the candidates. (Except, that is, the large majority of Democrats who wanted to dump Gray.)
In her victory speech Tuesday night at Imagine Southeast Public Charter School in Congress Heights, Bowser sought to rally her Democratic rivals’ campaigns behind her in the general election against independent At-Large D.C. Councilmember David Catania—the same campaigns she’d dismissed as irrelevant earlier in the day. “A lot of our friends were with other candidates,” Bowser told her supporters. “And it’s my job to let them know that I’ll be their mayor, too.”
She may have some work to do to win over certain Democratic voters. In a recent Washington City Paper/Kojo Nnamdi Show poll, a majority of voters for Evans, Wells, and Andy Shallal said they’d be very or somewhat likely to support a non-Democrat in the general election if their preferred candidate lost the primary. But in all likelihood, she’ll cruise to an easy win in November; as she reminded the crowd on Tuesday, “The residents of the District of Columbia have always elected a Democratic mayor, a Democratic president, in big numbers.”
Bowser’s speech was conciliatory: She led the crowd in applauding nearly all of her rivals, one by one. “We’ve been competitors up to this point,” she said, “but tomorrow we’re all going to be friends.”
Yet in an election where apathy reigned; where many voters were swayed more by opposition to the incumbent than by excitement about the challenger; where undecided voters—and for most of the day, any voters at all—were hard to come by; and where the winning candidate still lost every single precinct east of the Anacostia River, Bowser’s talk of conciliation might be wishful thinking. Even a wide margin of victory is no guarantee that Bowser will ever truly be able to lead a united city, with the backing of all eight wards.
Just ask the guy she beat, who came into office on a similar margin of victory (and with majority support) behind the slogan, “One City.”