DemDaily: High Stakes in Houston

November 3, 2023

Among the remaining mayoral contests of 2023, Houston, where two longtime political figures lead the battle to succeed term-limited Mayor Sylvester Turner (D), is the most closely watched.

In the open general election, 14-term Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D) and "Dean" of the State Senate John Whitmire (D) -- now in a statistical dead heat -- are the undisputed frontrunners among a field of 18 hoping to govern the country's fourth most populous city.

A September 30-October 6 poll of likely voters, conducted by the University of Houston/Hobby School of Public Affairs, showed Whitmire leading Jackson Lee 34% to 31%. All other candidates combined got 12%, and a considerable number of voters, 22%, were undecided (MOE +/- 3.5%).

If no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote, then the top two finishers advance to a runoff December 9.

Although Houston's mayoral election is run on a nonpartisan ballot, the city's politics have been dominated by Democrats since 1982. The country's most racially and ethnically diverse major metropolitan city, Houston's constituency is 44% Hispanic, 23.7% White, 22.1% Black, and 7.1% Asian and Pacific Islander.

Jackson Lee, who served as an at-large Houston City Council member before being elected to Congress, has been reelected each term by no less than 70% of the vote. Her 18th congressional district encompasses inner-city Houston and the surrounding area, accounting for nearly a third of the mayoral electorate.

Whitmire, the longest-serving member of Texas' upper chamber, was first elected to the north Houston-based seat in 1983 after serving for ten years in the State House.

Jackson Lee has secured high-profile national endorsements, including House Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and 2020 presidential candidate and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke. Her labor union endorsements include the local affiliates of AFSCME, American Federation of Teachers, Carpenters, Firefighters (IAFF), Painters (IUPAT), Service Employees (SEIU) and Transport Workers, as well as progressive organizations including EMILY's List.

Whitmire, who, like Jackson Lee, has a lengthy list of support from local elected officials, also is supported by labor -- including the Texas Gulf Coast Area AFL-CIO and local affiliates of AFSCME, Firefighters (IAFF), the Longshoremen (ILA) and the Fraternal Order of Police. The Houston Chronicle has endorsed Whitmire.

Whitmire has positioned himself as a politician above the fray of negative campaigning, while touting his record of working across the political aisle. Jackson Lee has attempted to tie him to Donald Trump and Texas GOP Governor Greg Abbott.

Jackson Lee has been on the defensive in the last two weeks after a recording of her berating a member of her staff was posted on social media, for which she apologized -- blaming the leak on the Whitmire campaign.

Whitmire has dominated fundraising, raising nearly twice as much as Jackson Lee from July to late September. As of October 29, he had $4.3 million in the bank compared to Jackson Lee’s $108,000. Whitmire also outspent her, $3.3 million to $1.1 million, in the month of October.

If the race goes to what is expected to be a highly contentious runoff, Whitmire will start with more than a huge cash advantage.

According to the UH/Hobby School survey, when respondents were asked to choose between the candidates in a runoff scenario, 50% of likely voters said they would cast a ballot for Whitmire to 36% for Jackson Lee. 9% were undecided and 5% indicated that they would not vote if the two candidates were on the ballot.

DemList will keep you informed.

DemDaily: Eyes on Kentucky 11/2/23
DemDaily: The Hope of Mississippi 10/30/23
DemDaily: Countdown to Virginia. Your Guide to the Elections 10/24/23
DemDaily: The Last Elections of 2023 10/17/23

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Sources: HoustonPublicMedia, Texas Tribune, New York Times, Ballotpedia, Houston Landing, ABC13

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