The Houston mayoral runoff race has been narrowed from 14 to two: Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) and Texas Democratic state Sen. John Whitmire. Hanging over Jackson Lee’s head are several controversies and obstacles that could have a significant effect on the race.
Jackson Lee has struggled in recent months as leaks about her staff management raised concerns and mistakes by her campaign left some voters confused about when they were supposed to vote. If the self-inflicted wounds weren’t enough, both Jackson Lee and Whitmire have the external problem of historically low turnout for Houston mayoral runoffs, making it more difficult for the pair to rely on their normally loyal voting bases.
Here are four problems Jackson Lee’s campaign needs to overcome to defeat Whitmire in the runoff election on Saturday.
Jackson Lee is losing and she’s missing a key voting bloc
A recent Houston Public Media/Houston Chronicle/UH Political Science and Population Health poll found that Whitmire leads Jackson Lee, 42% to 35%, with 22% undecided. Roughly two-thirds of white voters support Whitmire, and two-thirds of black voters support Jackson Lee.
Whitmire appears to have the advantage among Latino, Republican, and conservative voters after he received several important endorsements including Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Democratic state Sen. Carol Alvarado, and former Houston City Councilman Jack Christie. Jackson Lee, on the other hand, did not get as many key endorsements, University of Houston political scientist Jeronimo Cortina said.
Political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus said Whitmire’s support from Republicans in a runoff election could prove effective.
“Typically, those undecideds are distributed to the most Republican member of the candidates who are running,” Rottinghaus said. “Now, that’s not perfect here, because John Whitmire is obviously a Democrat, but he seemed to be much more conservative than she is in this poll. Sheila Jackson Lee is seen to be very liberal by many, and that’s something that can hurt her, especially among voters who are likely to turn out in a municipal race like this.”
Jackson Lee received more than 80% of the general election vote from most of the predominantly black precincts surrounding the voting center. However, Rottinghaus noted that black turnout in the first round of the mayor’s race in November was down 20% compared to eight years ago.
“For whatever reason, black voters are not as enamored with Sheila Jackson Lee as they were with [Mayor] Sylvester Turner,” Rottinghaus said. “You would need to see tremendous turnout in the African American community in order for Sheila Jackson Lee to overcome the support that John Whitmire gets among older Anglos, who are much more likely to vote in municipal elections.”
Runoff election turnout mirrors low participation on Election Day
Off-year runoff elections tend to experience low voter turnout. Only 19% of registered voters participated in the 2019 Houston mayoral runoff, the Associated Press reported.
The Houston Chronicle reported that nearly 132,000 people in Harris County, which makes up about 11% of eligible voters, participated in early voting in the runoff election, mirroring a lack of enthusiasm in the race among voters seen during the general election in November. Strategists say that Jackson Lee’s victory in the race rests heavily on high voter turnout, but the numbers are not pointing to a clean sweep from the Texas congresswoman.
Mark Jones, a professor of political science at Rice University, told the Houston Landing that Jackson Lee faces roadblocks from conservatives and white Democrats who dislike her.
“I think at this point, the only question is what Whitmire’s margin of victory is going to be on Dec. 9,” Jones said. “And that will depend on her ability to turn out voters.”
Rottinghaus told the Houston Chronicle that the low turnout numbers are troubling given the level of problems before the mayoral and city council candidates.
“Those numbers are flat over time, and it’s troubling because this is a transition moment in Houston politics,” Rottinghaus said. “The city will confront serious economic concerns in the future, and the new council and mayor will collectively be at the forefront of those decisions, so I’m surprised that it didn’t engender more interest from voters.”
Rottinghaus said it is possible the low turnout can be attributed to the fact that there are two Democrats in the runoff this year that appear to have similar policy stances. There were personality differences between the two, but that was not enough to inspire voters to get out, he said.
Whitmire takes the cake in campaign financing
Whitmire is outspending Jackson Lee 9 to 1, dominating the city’s airwaves and using the large war chest he has built up over decades spent in the state legislature, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Both candidates bought advertising on CBS affiliate KHOU ahead of the Nov. 7 general election. However, since then, Whitmire has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads while Jackson Lee has spent very little. The former reported spending $2 million on ads in November, compared to the latter’s $105,000.
The Democratic state senator’s campaign reported spending $3 million in the last month, with Jackson Lee spending $341,000 in the same time period. Whitmire has $3 million in cash on hand, while Jackson Lee has $235,000. The money that Whitmire spent last month, $2.7 million, is more than Jackson Lee has doled out during her entire mayoral campaign.
Whitmire has the support of several big-money donors, receiving $100,000 from the Friedkin Group, Silver Eagle Beverages CEO John Nau, and developer Richard Weekley, per campaign finance records. Kinder Foundation President Nancy Kinder contributed $50,000 to Whitmire’s campaign, with all of the money raised being compiled into the Protect & Serve PAC. The political action committee spent $531,000 in November.
On the other side, Jackson Lee has support from the Texas Organizing Project’s political action committee, which is running the congresswoman’s field campaign. It reported $303,000 in field spending within the last month. The Texas Democrat also received financial support from labor unions through a political action committee called Houstonians For Working Families. Spending $373,000 over the last month, most of the group’s money raised came from Communications Workers for America ($505,000) and SEIU Texas PAC ($359,000).
Recent controversies swirling around Jackson Lee
Jackson Lee’s mistakes on the trail and leaked recordings throwing her record as a boss into question could not only sway voters’ decisions at the polls — they might end up convincing constituents to stay home altogether.
The Texas congresswoman recently launched an ad on Houston’s television markets, telling voters to go to the polls “on or before Dec. 7,” despite the runoff election occurring Saturday. Jackson Lee touted her voting record in both Congress and the Houston City Council in the ad before the campaign video concluded with a graphic displaying the wrong date for the election.
In October, leaked audio captured her cursing at a staff member who promised to contact another staffer about a paper the congresswoman had given them. From there, the congresswoman accused the staffer of not “having a f***ing brain” and shouted several expletives at him.
After the leaked audio began circulating, Jackson Lee said she “expects excellence at all times” and that “everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect” without naming the staffer she allegedly berated in the audio.
“I recognize that in my zeal to do everything possible to deliver for my constituents, I have in the past fallen short of my own standards and there is no excuse for that,” Jackson Lee said.
Polls for the Houston runoffs close at 7 p.m. Central time.
The Washington Examiner reached out to Jackson Lee’s campaign for comment.