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Buffalo mayor's election: India Walton appears to be losing to Byron Brown

Buffalo's election results aren't final yet, but India Walton's bid to become a socialist mayor in New York is looking grim.

India Walton's once-promising bid to become the first socialist mayor of Buffalo, New York — and the first in a major American city in over half a century — looks like it may be over after a remarkably effective write-in campaign by the longtime incumbent she had toppled in the primary.

As of 12:30 a.m. Eastern, about 59 percent of votes submitted in her contest were for write-in candidates, and 41 percent were cast for Walton, CNN reported. Walton has not conceded, and her opponent Byron Brown has declared victory despite the fact that votes will not be tabulated until Nov. 17.

According to The Buffalo News, the accumulation of the write-in ballots “point to a significant lead for Brown.” While the race is not officially over, it’s at least safe to say this was a weak showing for Walton’s upstart campaign — especially given the inherent difficulties of convincing voters to write down the name of a candidate not on the ballot and the advantages of running in a blue city. (There are multiple write-in candidates, but Brown is by far the most prominent one.)

It’s too early for thorough post-mortems of the race, but there are some initial takeaways worth reflecting on based on what we know.

Walton’s “defund the police”-influenced police reform platform was a hugely polarizing issue.

First, Brown’s performance highlights a path for establishment Democrats who lose primaries to progressive challengers to try to stay in power. Brown, who has been in office for four terms, didn’t take Walton seriously as a challenger, declining to debate her or mention her in the run-up to the nominating contest. After Walton decisively beat him in the primary, he tried (and failed) to get on the ballot as an independent and then decided to run an aggressive, costly write-in campaign. Among other things, he spent around $100,000 on tens of thousands of ink stamps bearing his name and had them distributed by political allies leading up to Election Day to boost his name and minimize the likelihood of spelling errors.

Brown’s behavior was in defiance of party norms. Typically if a candidate loses in their party’s primary, that candidate is supposed to back the winner to ensure party unity and discipline. Brown’s decision to seek a rematch in the general election was poor form in that respect, but it wasn’t unprecedented. In 2010, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska won as a write-in candidate after losing in her state’s Republican primary to a Sarah Palin-backed tea party challenger. In a testament to how unusual this dynamic is, Walton, an outsider and firebrand lefty activist, repeatedly emphasized her backing from the Democratic Party establishment in her closing arguments to voters as she tried to best Brown. Even if Brown doesn't win, it's clear he has laid out a potential playbook for other Democratic incumbents in the way he's sought to win over support from Republicans and build a substantial centrist coalition to thwart the challenge from his left.

Another takeaway from the race: Walton’s “defund the police”-influenced police reform platform was a hugely polarizing issue and constituted Walton’s most vulnerable flank during the general election race.

Walton, a nurse and activist who gained some prominence in the city during the post-George Floyd racial justice protests, initially fully embraced the “defund the police” slogan when announcing her intention to run for mayor of the city, and she cited Brown’s incrementalism on police reform as a reason for launching her campaign. But she later distanced herself from the term.

When I spoke to her on the phone last week about her relationship with the “defund the police” movement, she spoke about how she believed the slogan didn't translate well for the nonactivist class. “You cannot encapsulate [proposals for reallocating police budgets] in one word and expect people in the general electorate to understand what that means,” she said.

Notably, Walton didn’t back off her policy commitments to reduce the police budget and divert some of those funds to alternative safety programs, like deploying a nonviolent first responder corps made up of social workers and other mental health professionals. Rather, she tried to change her rhetoric and convince Buffalo that defunding the police is “not a thing” for her.

That pivot didn’t seem to work, insofar as Brown made spooking voters about Walton's progressive positions on policing and being, in his words, an “apologist for criminals” a centerpiece of his attacks on her in public debates and advertisements. Pollsters hypothesized that Brown’s widening lead over Walton in the final stage of the race might be attributable in part to his negative campaigning about her left-wing views, and her police reform platform was at the heart of that. Regardless of the final outcome of the race, it's evident that both Walton and Brown perceived this as a point of potential vulnerability and a wedge issue.

Walton may have alienated the local political class right out of the gate with her pointed victory speech after the primary, when she issued a blunt threat.

The final matter to keep in mind, however, is that the race can’t be reduced to a pure referendum on criminal justice reform. It’s likely that Brown tagging Walton as a “defund the police” candidate did damage to her — perhaps quite a lot — but there are a number of other factors at play. Brown possessed unbeatable name recognition, having been in office for the better part of two decades; had a great deal more money to spend, having raised roughly twice as much as Walton during the summer; and was able to maintain the loyalty of and mobilize key constituencies in a low-turnout race, including many trade unions who may have stuck with Brown because they wagered he had a better chance of winning and considered him a more predictably reliable partner for advancing short-term economic goals. There's also the question of how much Walton may have alienated the local political class right out of the gate with her pointed victory speech after the June primary, when she issued a blunt threat: "If you are in an elected office right now, you are being put on notice. We are coming.”

While the final outcome remains uncertain, Walton’s performance is disappointing. She has real political talent and has an outstanding policy platform that would injected fresh energy and ideas into a city that has seen a stale moderate Democrat govern for too long. But she may have just been bested by an effective write-in campaign — and it's important for left-wing candidates across the country to think about why.